The need for speed when something happens to the president

March 19, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton took that fall in Florida and was taken to a nearby hospital, more than two hours passed before reporters covering him were awakened and told about it, immediately triggering press-corps complaints.

To the general public, their laments probably seemed to be very small potatoes. No harm was done, after all, and the reporters in the White House pool -- a small group tasked with reporting to all the others -- got to the hospital without missing anything substantial in the way of news about the president.

But the health of any president is never a trivial matter in terms of public concern and governance. In this case, Mr. Clinton was in no life-threatening peril that would have dictated the invoking of the law transferring executive power to the vice president. And the country was able to catch a full night's sleep before learning through the press corps that the president would be physically immobilized for a few days.

Mike McCurry, the presidential press secretary, brushed off the gripes, saying: ''The president blew his knee out. Big deal.''

True enough. But the purpose of having a pool on presidential trips is to assure quick transmission of news about the president when whatever may happen to him is a big deal, such as a life-threatening or life-taking episode requiring a swift and legal transfer of power.

The country has been very fortunate in having smooth transfers in times of emergency or tragedy, but not always without some confusion and potential for error. As far back as 1841, when President William Henry Harrison made the mistake of making a two-hour inaugural speech bareheaded on a raw March day and a month later paid the supreme sacrifice, Vice President John Tyler was not informed until the next day and not sworn in as president until two days later.

In the process, he brushed aside whether the Constitution stipulated he was actually to become president or just ''act as president,'' settling the question by taking the oath. Had a tenacious press pool been in place then, the issue probably would have faced considerable scrutiny.

With the death of presidents in office -- eight in all -- the travel pool has generally been seen as a ''death watch,'' making sure the nation is not caught short when such an event strikes.

The biggest news

Former Reagan and Bush presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater suggests that this ''death watch'' made most sense during the Cold War when ''America was vulnerable within 20 minutes to nuclear attack.'' But it continues because the death of a sitting American president always is the biggest news in the country, and perhaps the world.

The importance of having the press on the spot, reporting on the president's health and its ramifications, was perhaps best illustrated at the time of the assassination attempt against President Reagan in early 1981. Secretary of State Alexander Haig sowed temporary confusion when he incorrectly declared, as Vice President George Bush was in Texas for a speech, that ''I am in control'' and second in line of succession behind Bush.

The error was quickly straightened out by reporters noting that Bush, although out of Washington, had the president's duties devolve upon himself the minute Reagan was incapacitated, and that House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill was next in line to become president if anything happened to both Reagan and Bush.

For most news organizations, having a staffer traveling constantly with the president is extremely expensive, and it seldom yields much news about the president not attainable soon afterward in Washington. So editors who assign their reporters to the ''death watch'' at least are entitled to swift candor and detail when something happens to the president that, even short of tragedy, can send ripples through the country.

Like a fire drill that's held to prepare for the real thing, the travel pool on ''death watch'' should be notified at once without fail whenever anything happens to the president, against the time when the real thing may occur.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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