See correction / clarification below.
“You’ll get three questions.” This was the no-nonsense ground rule delivered by Deanna Congileo, Jimmy Carter’s press secretary last week. We were at the Carter Library / Museum, which was re-opening following a $10 million facelift. The museum’s namesake, and his wife Rosalyn, would do a round-robin Q&A with assembled local media.
I learned about the assignment that morning. I began formulating questions. This was easy. Carter had been making news lately.
My strategy was this: Ask a puffball question about the museum, then zero in with a question about Carter’s recent observation that racism was fueling opposition to POTUS’s agenda. The question would be somewhat challenging, along the lines of “does it cheapen the charge of racism” when used in this context. My third question, I figured, would be a follow-up to the racism question.
WAGA’s Paul Yates was there with photog Chris Rosenthal. WSB’s John Pruitt was there with what seemed like a cast of thousands. WTVM, Columbus GA was in attendance. WGCL sent photographer Everett Bevelle solo.
My photog Steve Flood had positioned us by the doorway where Mr. and Mrs. Carter would enter. Because of our location, we were told we’d be first in line to chat with them.
The Carters entered the room. The former president, who can be guarded with the media sometimes, was lively and engaging. “Take your time,” he said as I fitted a mic onto his lapel.
I asked about the museum. He talked about its display of his life story and his emergence in politics during segregation.
“I need to ask a newsy question,” I began question number two.
Immediately, Congileo stepped in. “We’re only doing museum questions.” She explained that this was part of the deal, arranged days in advance.
This was news to me. Congileo is an experienced and respected pro. Earlier, she’d spent a few minutes giving me a personal tour of the museum. She hadn’t mentioned this particular restriction. She apparently thought I already knew.
Carter stood there smiling, awaiting another museum question.
I tried to rephrase the racism question. “You came of age during segregation…” I began. You lived with racism, I went on. At this point, Rosalyn Carter rolled her eyes, muttered something and started to shift around awkwardly. Then the press secretary piped up again, firmly: “A museum question, please.”
I hadn’t prepared another museum question. I could feel my face reddening. Carter stood there, still beaming.
I stammered a question about the attention spans of young people, and whether they’d find a display about the Carter years relevant. Carter liked that question. He said they’d updated the museum with cool stuff for youngsters.
Then I asked him if I could follow him on Twitter. Not yet, he said.
Interview over. Thanks. Nice talking to you.
Sensing my discomfort, Carter then said: “You can ask me a question about Iran.” Rosalyn rolled her eyes again, shifted again, and began removing her lapel mic. She wanted none of it, and was now irritated with me and the ex-President. It was a minor, lovely, very human marital-tension moment between an extraordinarily famous couple. But I was having my own issues with tension.
I groped for a thoughtful question about Iran’s nukes. Carter answered, more or less, that the museum shows that some issues never really go away. (Carter’s 1980 re-election was undone by Iran’s 1979 seizure of the US Embassy. And by Teddy Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.)
I produced the story about the museum. I used the “twitter” question. I didn’t use the Iran comment.
This could launch into a discussion of the propriety and circumstances of interviews with pre-existing “no questions about…” conditions. It happens. The Carters probably wouldn’t have agreed to chat with the local media without the condition. I find such conditions regrettable, especially with a guy like Jimmy Carter. Even at age 85, he’s way sharp. He’s a big boy. He could have handled the POTUS / racism question.
But it was Carter’s show. We were guests in his museum. And his wife wasn’t having it.
This post had originally asserted that WGCL was absent from the Carter event. It has been changed to reflect the fact that WGCL sent a photographer solo.