Washington -- As President Clinton toured the USS Eisenhower recently, he passed through a hallway lined with the photographs of dignitaries and hotshots who had previously prowled the decks of the aircraft carrier.
Occupying a place of honor, in the middle of this row of famous souls, was a framed picture of a smiling face known to every Navy officer sitting desk-bound at the Pentagon, dreaming of a command.
The face of Wolf Blitzer.
It became famous during the Persian Gulf War as that of the newly hired Pentagon correspondent for Cable News Network. Those were the days when CNN was on top of the world, and Wolf's reports were being watched in 11 million American living rooms -- and every foreign ministry in the world.
Pretty heady stuff for the former Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.
These days, Wolf covers the White House for CNN, and "covers" is a mild word for what he does. CNN is a 24-hour-a-day network, and the Clinton administration is a 24-hour-a-day kind of White House. So let's just say Wolf is on the air a lot.
You notice this if you travel with the president, because after the first family, and maybe the Gores, the one who gets more squeals of recognition in crowds than any of Mr. Clinton's top aides -- and more than all the other White House correspondents put together -- is Wolf Blitzer.
Looking at the network ratings, it doesn't entirely figure. In peacetime, CNN is not such a hot commodity. At any given moment, only around 30,000 television sets in the country are tuned in to CNN. But, then Wolf has a few things going for him.
First, there's that face, a face that seems to fill the TV screen: the big head, the blond hair flowing back like a mane, the beard, and that toothy grin that makes him look, well, wolfish.
He's friendly and conversational on screen, too, making it easy for him to connect with viewers. He also breaks stories constantly, big stories. And even when he isn't actually breaking story, he tends to sound like he is.
Then, there's Wolf's tireless energy. At 46, he charges around the White House with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter. After four years of being on CNN five or six times a day, he still gets a kick out of being on the air.
"I love this business," he says, while striding out to the front lawn of the White House to report on troop movements in southern Iraq. "It's exhilarating -- especially when you have news, as I now do."
Finally, there's his name. Wolf Blitzer. Just say it a few times. Wolf Blitzer. CNN White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer. White House Press Secretary Wolf Blitzer.
This last moniker is tossed around behind Wolf's back in the White House press room, where feelings about Wolf are conflicted. Affable and even-tempered, he is held in almost universal affection personally. Yet Wolf is also the living symbol of a network that Mark Knoller, CBS' respected radio correspondent, dismisses as "the semiofficial government daily."
Others refer to CNN derisively as "Clinton News Network."
Needless to say, these are not compliments.
Pressure to produce
CNN's constant appetite for news leaves Wolf in a position where he is constantly looking for new stuff to announce, however incremental. And going live as he does, with almost no time to analyze the information he's been given, Wolf often risks being seen as the voice of the Clinton administration.
"CNN is an insatiable furnace," says ABC White House correspondent Brit Hume, explaining the delicate balancing act Wolf faces each day. "If Wolf Blitzer has something, even if it's just the Clinton administration version of something, he's called upon to deliver. White House officials know that. There's not much Wolf can do about it.
"The truth is that Wolf gets stuff and gets it ahead of the rest of us," he concludes. "So, you have this cheerful, upbeat guy, with a style of broadcasting that's easy to take -- and he's on the air constantly. He serves the needs of CNN perfectly. But he and CNN can be made to serve other interests."
Once in a while, Wolf himself unwittingly illustrates this point:
Last month, as a U.S. armada was on its way to Haiti, Wolf referred to "the multi-national" invasion force off-shore.
There was no "multi-national" invasion force except in the imaginations of administration spin doctors, who wanted to remind the public that this distinctly American force had the blessing of the U.N.
You heard it here first
Still, Wolf delivers the goods, breaking stories day after day.
It was Wolf Blitzer, after all, who first reported that Mr. Clinton was sending Jimmy Carter to Haiti. It was also Wolf Blitzer who first reported that a deal had been struck -- and that Mr. Clinton would shortly be addressing the American people. Wolf even got Richard Nixon's death first.
Those are scoops any journalist would be proud of, and Wolf is as proud as the next guy.