The death Wednesday of veteran CBS-TV White House correspondent Bill Plante at 84 was a harsh blow to those of us who were proud to call him a colleague.
Plante, as the torrent of tributes that followed his death made clear, had just about seen it all — and reported it. After several years as a radio newscaster in Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, the young Plante moved into television in the 1960s.
He interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. as King marched for civil rights, covered the Vietnam War in the elephant grass of Southeast Asia, as well as the protests in the streets at home, and reported on presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama.
“Bill was fearless, and unapologetic about being so,” recalled Robert Gibbs, Obama’s first press secretary, “One day he'd lob a cutting question your way and the next he'd send you a not-so-subtle message that he wasn't impressed by our answers by sitting in the front row doing the crossword puzzle barely looking up at what was happening around him.
Above all, Bill was a smart reporter who went to any place and asked any question to get the truth.”
Thinking about Bill Plante, I found it hard to believe that it was more than 13 years ago — May 13, 2009, to be precise — that Plante, Gibbs, and I made news together that spread worldwide and lasted for days. On the internet and in traditional forms of media, it became known as “the White House cellphone incident.”
It was the day the Obama administration suddenly reversed itself on releasing photographs of alleged torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. With the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) enraged, reporters were kept waiting in the White House Briefing Room for more than an hour before Gibbs finally emerged for the session televised nationwide nearly every afternoon. The questions began on a tense note, to say the least.
That’s when my editor — irked that he had not heard from me and had no copy — called me on my cellphone. As Bill Plante later wrote on the CBS blog, “the cellphone began chiming one of those vaguely familiar ring tones which have become this era's elevator music.”
“Just put it on vibrate man,” Gibbs admonished me. “We did this before ... it happened twice one day."
Ten seconds later, my phone went off again. Gibbs had enough, came down off the podium, and said, “Give me the phone!” I surrendered the phone without disagreement.
“I tossed it to a staffer in an outer office, so we could finish the briefing,” Gibbs said. “The next thing I know, Bill's cellphone rings and, of course, in the middle of the briefing, he takes the call. He tells the person who called him that I wanted to take his phone, which, in fairness to you, I did want to do, so we could finish the questions the press had that day.”
But Plante had other ideas. Amid more howls of laughter from the White House press, he theatrically exclaimed to his caller, “Gibbs is trying to take my phone!” Then he walked outside to finish his call.
“I assume it's your banker, with a suit like that?" Gibbs quipped as Plante dashed out, in reference to the veteran correspondent’s pin-striped suit. "There's cotton candy down the street. It's a circus."
When Plante returned five minutes later, he asked Gibbs if he missed anything. President Obama’s top spokesman remonstrated: “Will someone please brief Bill on the Supreme Court appointment?”
He finally brought the memorable briefing to an end — but not before a third cellphone went off, from a colleague who, clearly wary of what Plante and I had been through on national TV, would not own up to it. Gibbs concluded by saying the briefing was our version of “the bar scene in 'Star Wars.'”
“Do press secretaries always do this to reporters?" a visiting executive from the Japanese news service Sankei Shimbun asked me on the way out of the White House.
Arriving at my office, I learned that a camera crew from “Access Hollywood” was on its way to interview me. The following morning, the “Cellphone Incident” was featured on Page 1 of the New York Times and on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America.’ A BBC reporter informed me it was the second-most watched item on YouTube that week (after Scottish singer Susan Boyle’s electrifying rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" on “Britain’s Got Talent”).
A bit worried that this would leave scars on my career, I found myself in demand to appear on radio and TV talk shows over the weekend.
And, yes, in reply to scores of questions from friends and strangers, I did get my cellphone back after the session.
“If you search for stories on this now, the headlines say I ‘confiscated’ your phone,” Gibbs recalled on Thursday. “I can only imagine what would be written if all that happened today. I think that moment showed that Bill could laugh and have fun all while being serious about the job of covering the White House. His call, he wrote later, was from a source he wanted to talk to, so he took it. Bill was relentless in always working the story.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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