When former ABC White House correspondent Ann Compton arrived at the Worthington Hotel in Fort Worth a few weeks back, she looked for the pay phones.
No surprise. They weren’t there.
She was looking for them because it was there, in 1987, that she was covering then-vice presidential candidate Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. While there, word spread that Republican candidate George H.W. Bush had chosen Sen. Dan Quale as his vice presidential candidate. It was about 5 p.m., just enough time to get a comment from Bentsen and call in a report for the evening news. Compton rushed to find the pay phones. They all had “out of order” signs. Then a Bentsen aide rushed up and started ripping the signs off. Compton realized what had happened, the Bentsen aide had put the signs up originally so all the reporters would have a clear phone line from which to file their stories.
“I always thought that was brilliant piece of advance work,” she said, “so that was the first thing I looked for yesterday when I got here – those pay phones.”
The world – and certainly pay phones – have changed in the years since Ann Compton was plucked from a CBS affiliate in Roanoke to join ABC News. When Gerald Ford became president, she was assigned to the White House, where she stayed until she retired on Sept. 10, 2014, 41 years to the day after she joined the network.
I got a chance to talk to Compton a bit before she delivered her speech at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s 133rd Annual Meeting on June 5. How does one survive covering seven presidents? Well, one way is to be charming as hell. That helps a lot, apparently.
Here are a few of the many subjects we touched on in our short, charming, talk.
On how she handled being named to cover the White House at 27 and relatively new to ABC News. She decided to meet with all the senior White House aides and introduce herself and, you know, be charming.
“I figured the Chief of Staff would be too busy and I went to meet the Deputy Chief of Staff. I walked in, said ‘I’m Ann Compton and I’ll be on the phone to you. I just want to meet you and let you know I’ve arrived and I’ll be covering the White House and wanted to let you know who it is when I’m calling you on stories.’ To this day he remembers that and tells this story of me coming in. He is Dick Cheney.”
Sept. 11, 2001
“[I]t happened to be the day that it was my turn in the rotation to be with [the president] all day and fly in Air Force One. My fear was because of the attacks – we’d be left in Florida. … I went to Andy Card, chief of staff, and Ari Fleischer, the press secretary, and said ‘You can’t do that. You need the independent voice of the press with you.’ And Andy Card allowed me to be the only broadcaster to stay on the plane for 10 hours until we got to Washington that night.
“That was a day that drew on what at that point had been 25 years of experience covering presidents and crises.”
Another memorable day, on call Christmas day 1991
“I said, ‘Oh what could happen?’ I spent the whole day live on the air at the White House. Mikhail Gorbachev lowered the hammer and sickle red flag of the Soviet Union and announced the Soviet Union was disbanding.
“That was a day the world the free world and the communist east and our geopolitical map changed. That was the most significant day I ever covered, and if I’m going to work Christmas, that’s a day to do it.”
Most overlooked story? The Great Recession
“Where were all the smart dudes at the Fed? Where were the economic voices saying ‘Hold everything?’
“When President George W. Bush with a Yale degree and an MBA from Harvard – the first MBA in the Oval Office – is president of the United States and his advisors come in in the last hours of his administration and say this isn’t a recession, this could be a depression. How did we miss that coming?”