The 'Gentleman of the Press Room' Moves On

Friday, December 8, 2006: The afternoon briefing for White House reporters was droning on and I had still not been called on by Press Secretary Tony Snow. Boy, I thought, are my editors going to be disappointed — and mad! Here it is that they let me out of an editorial meeting on the grounds that I am going to get a quote from Snow on whether the Administration would rule out a tax increase in upcoming budget negotiations with the just-elected Democratic Congress. But Snow let my colleagues go on and on, and his answers seemed verbose as well. He had been up at the podium and signs were strong he was going to close down the briefing soon.

But Tony never closed the briefing without “the word” from the two senior wire service reporters in the front row, Terry Hunt of the Associated Press and Steve Holland from Reuters. Suddenly, Steve turned to me, no doubt sensing my agitation and said calmly: “You got a question, John.” When I said yes, Steve looked at Terry down the front row, then at Tony. Finally, the President’s top spokesman called on me, I got in my question, and Steve closed the session with the standard: “Thank you, Tony.” Mission accomplished.

That was but one day when the good-natured, never-angry man with the soothing Tennessee accent used both his insider skills and gentlemanly demeanor to do something nice for a colleague. I thought of this two weeks ago when, after sixteen years, Steve Holland bid farewell to the White House press room. As Holland prepared to take up his new assignment as political reporter-at-large in the presidential campaign, those who knew him in the White House press corps toasted him, munched on cookies bearing the legend “Steve,” heard poetry in his honor, and saluted that rare breed — a member of the Fourth Estate with no enemies.

“I’ve spent many years covering the President with him, and I can’t tell you what his political views are,” recalled Mark Knoller, the veteran CBS reporter whose diaries of presidential appointments and appearances are even more detailed than those of the White House itself. Knoller was right on about Holland: in covering presidents from the elder Bush to the younger, in dealing with eight White House press secretaries from Marlin Fitzwater to Tony Snow, the man from Reuters has never let either those he covers or those he sits with in the press room know whether he’s Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal. He’s a journalist — er, newsaperman (Steve, like most of my colleagues and me, abjures the rarified job description), and one whose love of biking and fine wines almost always takes the place of hard-nose political talk.

By way of disclosure, I am not a full-time White House correspondent. Covering the President and Tony Snow is something I sandwich in between covering Capitol Hill and politics nationwide. Steve, the past president of the White House Correspondents Association, never treated me in any way differently from those in the wire services or TV networks who are regular fixtures in the White House press room, and with whom he travels to Crawford, Texas or abroad. At the White House Christmas Party in December of ’05, as I waited in line with my mother to meet and take a photograph with the President and Mrs. Bush, Steve suddenly stepped out of line and introduced us to his young son Carter. My mother was delighted. He later explained that “Carter told me he thought it was very nice of someone to take his mother to the White House.”

The TV watching public may recognize Steve Holland as one of the first two people the President calls on during his press conferences and the one who closes the question-and-answer session with the phrase: “Thank You, Mr. President,” originated by the late UPI White House correspondent Merriam Smith in FDR’s day and continued to this day by the senior White House correspondent.

In his career at the White House, Steve has gone biking with the President and dined with the Queen of England. (When I asked him the day after the state dinner what she said when he and his wife were introduced, he replied: “Gosh, it all happened so fast, I don’t remember!”

On his final day at the press room, Steve told me he would be in Manchester, New Hampshire to cover the Republican debates this week, I asked him about a hotel and he volunteered the name of one near the airport — later e-mailing me the name after I forgot. This morning I thanked him and asked if he was free for lunch on the day of the debate: “Heck, yeah, I’m free for lunch. Not familiar with the area here, but I’ll conduct a search.”
The gentleman of the press room was taking to his new beat quite well.