She's West Winging it

Insider: The tidbits a Towson professor gets from White House press secretaries aren't for headlines - for her, it's all academic.

January 17, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Martha Joynt Kumar moves confidently through the White House press office and toward the West Wing, a press pass swinging from a chain around her neck. She looks like a reporter, in her wrinkle-resistant knits and smart, black flats. She kibitzes like the reporters. To some extent, she acts like a reporter, buttonholing White House officials for interviews. Even former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater assumed she was a reporter, although he had never seen a member of the Fourth Estate arrive in a Jaguar.

But Kumar, a Towson University political science professor for the past two decades, is a presidential scholar in press clothing. Through sheer determination and well-timed baked goods - she's famous for her rum cake and walnut brownies - she has earned a kind of access that other scholars can only envy. That work has led to a pivotal role in the White House 2001 Project, which under Kumar's direction has provided reams of information to the incoming administration.

Unlike some students of the press, who limit themselves to content analysis, Kumar tries to delineate how the White House and the media interact. While the reporters write about the speeches, she tracks down the speechwriters. While the front page carries the message, she ponders the way that message was shaped by the seating arrangements in the briefing room.

She stops in the briefing room to demonstrate her point. Like most things familiar through television, it is smaller and shabbier in real life, a middle school auditorium in a district that has fallen on hard times. Although the room seems like an institution as old as the presidency, it dates back only to the Nixon administration, when it was slapped on top of the old swimming pool. The theater-type seating was added under President Ronald Reagan, replacing the more casual leather chairs and sofa.

Still, it's just a room, right? Not to Kumar, who believes media coverage is shaped, in part, by the mere fact that the major networks are assigned front-row seats here. She offers the Monica Lewinsky scandal as an example.

"They would be directly in front of [then-press secretary] Mike McCurry, and they would be in a position - particularly Scott Pelley of CBS - to ask a very strong, loaded kind of question. It's very confrontational; it's a real us-and-them," she recalls. "So what McCurry did, ever so cleverly, he'd say, `Scott, let me get back to you. I have to take this other question first.' He would not allow Pelley to be seen asking an accusatory question, and him answering."

Kumar has been more or less squatting in the White House press office since 1995. Being there has given her a unique perspective on her favorite subject, the daily Apache dance between the president and the press. She is writing a book on the topic for Johns Hopkins University Press and parlayed her knowledge into the White House 2001 Project, a 600-plus- page briefing book for the incoming administration.

"She's a great bribe artist - her rum cake is what breaks every press secretary down and gets every press secretary to tell secrets," McCurry says. "She is one of the undisputed champions of trivia about the White House press office and a fine academic, too, who has really thought about how presidents communicate. She's really tops in my department."

"Her access is her great asset," says friend George C. Edwards III, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. "You gotta be there - and for the last few years, she's virtually lived there. There's simply no one else like her who has the access she does."

Kumar first went to the White House in 1975 to research a book, "Portraying the President: The President and the News Media," co-authored with Towson colleague Michael Grossman. Fascinated with presidential politics since her childhood in Alexandria, Va., she had decided to go the academic route after a less-than-inspiring job in NBC's election unit in 1965 and 1966.

After receiving her doctoral degree from Columbia University, she taught briefly in Tennessee. Her husband, Vijay Kumar, then took a job in Delaware, which meant Kumar had to find a job within a reasonable commuting distance. She decided 75 miles was reasonable, teaching one year at University of Maryland, Baltimore County before landing at Towson.

Towson has been good to Kumar, she says, granting her liberal leaves to work on her projects. She has been on leave for almost three years now and plans to resume teaching this fall. But her nameplate remains on her office door, even as she spends most of her time trying to find a place to sit in the press office basement. She has taken an apartment in Washington, resigning herself to a commuter marriage for the duration of her research.

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