The Reporter Gets to Play Reporter

RICHARD REEVES

September 18, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- Among the great curses, they say, are living in interesting times and seeing yourself as others see you. I did both the other day when I was with the president and first lady, wandering through the White House and chatting on the Truman Balcony overlooking the long greensward of the Mall down to the reflecting ponds toward the Lincoln Memorial.

''This must be like slumming for you,'' said the first lady. In person and relaxed, Ellen Mitchell looks a lot like Sigourney Weaver.

Ellen who? Doesn't matter. It's a movie, $30 million of make-believe. President William Harrison Mitchell's wife is played Sigourney Weaver. Kevin Kline is the president. I'm the White House correspondent of the New York Times, or something like that.

Mr. Kline also plays a guy named ''Dave,'' which is the title of the film, a kind of modern ''Prince and the Pauper'' scheduled to come out sometime next year. Dave is an impersonator -- like Rich Little doing Nixon or Vaughan Meader doing Kennedy -- picked by charlatans in the White House to cover up the fact that the real (movie) president has been incapacitated by a stroke.

''Dave'' is a comedy, which is why, I presume, so many real reporters have been recruited to, more or less, play themselves: Andrea Mitchell, Michael Kinsley, Robert Novak, Bernard Kalb, Ted Koppel, Sander Vanocur, John McLaughlin, Mort Kondracke, Eleanor Clift, Chris Matthews, Nina Totenberg, Mark Shields, Fred Barnes, Larry King -- and Howard Stern and Oliver Stone. Hey! Who's counting?

John Yang of the Washington Post, who is a real White House correspondent, and I worked together. ''What is this? A joke?'' the wardrobe guy, John, said when we arrived. They told us to wear what we usually wore around the White House. We looked like twins in blue blazers, gray flannel slacks, loafers, blue shirts and rep ties.

''It's the uniform,'' said Mr. Yang.

So there we were in front of the Truman Balcony -- put up in the middle of the Los Angeles County Arboretum. There was, of course, nothing inside. They wanted the movie to be as authentic as possible. (The White House interiors, including a perfect Oval Office and Cabinet Room, are miles away on the Warner Brothers lot.)

Mr. Yang and I were looking up, shouting questions at the ''president'' and his wife high above us on the balcony. We were, by nature, much more hostile to the president than the movie-makers expected us to be, but the Mitchells, just like George and Bar, mainly just waved -- or perhaps they were bothered by bugs up there.

It was a fair representation, I thought, of the relationship between the covered and the covering at the White House. The Hollywood media elite apparently understands that John McLaughlin, or whoever, is not exactly running the country -- in fact, a few of the folks in that list of journalists are actually in show business themselves, just at a lower level.

''Boy, it was obvious you guys weren't professionals,'' said Gary Ross, the screenwriter, after we finished a couple of dozen takes.

''How could you tell?'' We were crushed. Obviously this was the end of our movie careers.

''Real actors don't talk to the extras,'' he said. We did, passing the time pulling their life stories, while directors and technicians did what they had to do. We enjoyed their game, which is trying to get their face or voice into the final cut, then hoping casting lightning would strike when the bosses saw them on screen. An assistant director named Kate, my choice to succeed Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, came over a few times telling make-believe cameramen and women to hold the Nikons up, even if they covered their faces.

The director, Ivan Reitman, treated with the casual respect a real president would envy, came over to us at one point and apologized for keeping us standing in the sun for so long while cameras were being moved for our close-ups.

''Don't be silly,'' Mr. Yang said. ''This is what we do for a living.''

Presidents and their people like to make reporters stand in the sun. That's their way of getting even for real and imagined slights. The only difference this time was that we were being paid better.

Or so I thought, until the Screen Actors Guild called the next day and said I owed them $904.50. It turned out you can be Taft-Hartleyed only once -- it's a verb meaning to waive guild dues -- and I had appeared four years ago in a television commercial for the New York Daily News.

So my take-home pay was $95.50 for the day. But, of course, now I'm a real certified pro. As I was saying to Kev and Sigourney . . .

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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