HISTORY OF THE WHCA
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Legend has it that reporters first took up a daily beat inside the White House one frigid day in the early 1900s, after President Theodore Roosevelt noticed a band of correspondents staking out sources in the rain. The president "looked out and took pity," as one chronicle of the period reports it.
But historians have since debunked that simple version of events, offering instead a richer tale about how reporters worked their way into the White House and then slowly expanded their presence over the years.
In fact, the rise of the White House beat is "an evolutionary portrait," says Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political scientist on the presidency and the press. She has charted the way the White House press worked its way up from huddling over one small table in the mansion to occupying a full press room in the West Wing.
A press corps of some 250 people now keeps a daily watch on the administration, relying heavily on their proximity to the president and his staff inside the walls of the historic building.
In 2014 the White House Correspondents' Association marked the 100th anniversary of its founding to advocate for reporters on that historic assignment. The group has grown and expanded its activities, in 1920 launching a spring dinner that now merits news coverage along with a yearly appearance by the sitting president.
The journalists of today's WHCA share the spirit of those early forerunners, pushing for access to the president and members of the administration amid the challenges of a modern media landscape.
As the association marks its anniversary this year, veteran White House reporters, political journalists and scholars will chart the story of that evolving group of professionals in a series of blog posts on this website. The year-long series is being produced in cooperation with the White House Historical Association.
Today, the WHCA represents each sector of the media filling the press room each day. All trace their roots back to the newspaper reporters who, in the 1890s, stood outside the White House fence to seek meetings with the president and to question visitors as they left the grounds.
Contrary to the discredited legend, a hardy corps of reporters had actually been working the beat from inside the White House for years before Roosevelt even took office.
In fact, two administrations prior to Roosevelt, a group of correspondents already had their own table inside the building. A Washington Star reporter by the name of William W. Price –- who became the first president of the WHCA -- referred to it in a letter to the staff of President Grover Cleveland.
Administration officials under President William McKinley further expanded the area where reporters could roam. By the time of the Spanish-American War, journalists had pushed their way in so far that they could be found sitting about on the porch, in the front lobby and on the landings, according to accounts of the time.
"With their own observed territory," Kumar writes in a paper on the history of the beat, "reporters established a property claim in the White House."
Every generation of reporters since has pushed to build on that right, pressing for briefings, interviews and regular coverage of the president's public activities by a rotating group of representatives called "the pool."
We'll bring you their stories, here, as the centennial year unfolds.
--Christi Parsons, Tribune newspapers
The Kansas City Sun, 16 May 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress
The EARLY YEARS (1914 - 1921)
In 1913, President Wilson threatened to do away with presidential news conferences after complaining that “certain evening newspapers” quoted remarks he considered off the record.
A band of White House correspondents got together, agreed on a code of professional conduct and convinced the president to relent – for the time being, anyway.
Six months later, in January 1914, there was another flap over coverage of a Wilson press conference. This time, the regulars in the press corps responded by forming a group they called the White House Correspondents’ Association. The original mission was to keep Wilson from ending his press conferences. In the 100 years since that founding in February of 1914, the group has expanded its mission to pushing for broader access to the White House and supporting vigorous reporting on the presidency.
Today, the association enters its second century fighting for openness and transparency in every operation of the presidency, from the Oval Office and the federal agencies to the traveling White House aboard Air Force One.
But in those early days, the group of reporters led by William W. Price, a reporter for the Washington Evening Star and the first WHCA president, concentrated on the basics.
Their first order of business was making sure the press conferences included accredited reporters, according to Stephen Ponder, author of “Managing the Press: Origins of the Media Presidency.”
By the Wilson administration, White House press conferences had turned into Washington free-for-alls, including hangers-on who competed with one another for “attention and for ‘scoops’ or tips that might influence the stock market,” he wrote in his account of the presidency and the media from 1897 to 1933.
Wilson was generally irritable about the press fascination with his three teenaged daughters – independent young women with active political and social lives, according to Ponder. He once harangued reporters at length following a spate of newspaper stories reported Eleanor Wilson’s engagement to William G. McAdoo, Wilson’s secretary of the treasury.
But Ponder reports that the consensus among the correspondents was that Wilson simply found press conferences tiresome, with a tendency toward irrelevant questions. The first question at Wilson’s Feb. 2, 1914 press conference queried the president’s thoughts on Groundhog Day.
Wilson eventually quit doing regularly scheduled press conferences in June of 1915, and after that held only one more in his first term, late in the reelection campaign of 1916.
The WHCA picked up its advocacy again in 1921, when Warren G. Harding revived the presidential news conference.
In the meantime, the journalists forged their bonds as a social organization that would last a century.
--Christi Parsons, Tribune newspapers, and George Condon, National Journal
White House Correspondent's banquet , glass negative, National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)
Gift; Herbert A. French; 1947. This glass negative might show streaks and other blemishes resulting from a natural deterioration in the original coatings.
WHCA DINNERS (1921 - 1925)
The 50 men who gathered in the Arlington Hotel at Vermont Avenue and L Street on the north side of McPherson Square that evening could not have known that they were initiating a Washington tradition, one that would annually draw 2,600 people and a national audience a century later. It was Saturday, May 7, 1921 and this was the first White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
It was no accident that the dinner followed quickly after the arrival in town of a new president. It was only 64 days after the inauguration of Warren G. Harding and his renewal of the regular White House press conferences that had been abandoned by President Woodrow Wilson. The revival of the press conferences meant the revival of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which had gone into dormancy several years earlier. The link between press conferences and the WHCA was strong. Editor & Publisher reported that the association was “recently revived to protect the presidential conferences from tipsters and press agents” by controlling who would be allowed to attend the sessions in the Oval Office.
On a social level, the correspondents saw Harding, a newspaper publisher, as one of their own. One of his first acts as president had been throwing a dinner for the correspondents who had covered his campaign in Marion, Ohio. Now, it was time to reciprocate.
Unfortunately, the president did not attend either in 1921 or in any of the years he was in office. The first president to attend the WHCA dinner would be Calvin Coolidge in 1924. But all of Harding’s top White House aides – particularly those who dealt with reporters on a daily basis, including the stenographers – were guests at the Arlington this night. The guest of honor was George B. Christian, the president’s personal secretary and the man who dealt most directly with the press corps every day. Others attending included Republican Senators Harry S. New of Indiana and Joseph S. Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Also there was the first Cabinet officer ever to attend a WHCA dinner – James J. Davis, the secretary of Labor, who later would be elected to the Senate.
There had been a dinner in 1915 that brought together the regular White House correspondents and White House staffers. But that had been hosted by a White House official, not by the WHCA. There was a similarity, though, between that dinner in 1915 and this one in 1921. The business purpose of each dinner was the same – to let the WHCA introduce and inaugurate its new officers for the coming year. But, according to one attendee in 1921, there was also “such fun as the Prohibition Era afforded.” So there was a piano and there were songs modeled after those popularized at the more established Gridiron Dinner, full of satire and poking fun at the White House and Congress. That set the tone for the dinners to come, with the 1922 dinner described by one newspaper as “an occasion of much gayety and enthusiasm.”
--George Condon, National Journal
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, Unidentified members of the White House press corps on the south lawn, c. 1950s
President Obama and Michelle Obama dancing at the 2013 inaugural ball. Photo/Doug Mills, New York Times
Photos/WHCA℠ and the National Archives
White House Correspondents, 1924. Digitized glass negative, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at the WHCA℠ dinner
Chief of Staff, Andy Card, informs the President that a second aircraft has hit the World Trade Center. Photo/Doug Mills, AP
Members of the press travel pool, including ABC's Ann Compton, watch in horror as images of the World Trade Center are seen on live TV aboard
Air Force One when it was unable to return to Washington on September 11, 2001. Photo/Doug Mills, AP
President Lyndon B. Johnson takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One, Love Field, Dallas, Texas, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. LBJ Library, Photo/Cecil Stoughton, 11/22/1963
President Clinton receives an enthusiastic welcome from thousands of Nigerian children. He is wearing a garment reserved for royalty, given to him by the local chief. Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, AP
Ronald Reagan at a 1982 political rally. Photo/ National Archives
Richard Nixon press conference. Photo/ National Archives
Jimmy Carter press conference. Photo/ National Archives