Though several days late there was no way I could not pay tribute on this blog to a solid reporter that most of my readers watched countless times from the White House on CBS News. Bill Plante, who died last week at the age of 84, was one of those voices and faces that our nation turned to in times of turmoil and high drama that would play out at the White House regardless of the person sitting in the Oval Office, or the political party in power. As I will demonstrate Plante’s professional moves as a journalist underscore some basic truths about reporting and politics in our nation.
The New York Times wrote of his boyhood in Chicago, attending Loyola, and being hired as the assistant news director of WISN-TV in Milwaukee. He joined CBS News in 1964 and was quickly sent to Vietnam; it was one of four times, through the fall of Saigon in 1975, that he reported from there.
Shouting questions was a necessary part of the press corps’s job, even if that behavior appeared rude, Mr. Plante told the streaming service CBSN; if reporters did not, he said, “we’d be walking away from our First Amendment role — and then we really would be the shills we’re so often accused of being.”
One of Mr. Plante’s most disquieting moments as a White House correspondent occurred in late October 1983, when he learned that the United States was about to invade the Caribbean island of Grenada. Before going on the air with his exclusive, he asked Larry Speakes, President Reagan’s acting press secretary at the time, to confirm his information.
Mr. Speakes denied it, and CBS killed the story.
“Larry said something like, ‘Preposterous — where did you get that?’” Lesley Stahl, then a fellow White House correspondent for CBS News, said in a phone interview for this obituary last year. “And the next morning there was an invasion. At the briefing the next day, Bill was furious, and justifiably so, and, in that big booming voice of his, accused Larry Speakes of misleading him.”
The reason Plante knew the story should be reported, and why he was furious with the White House Press Secretary (acting or not and one who should never outright lie to a reporter), was because the military adventure in Grenada was a “look over there’ move by the Reagan Administration to deflect from the massive loss of American lives two days earlier in Beirut.
Fundamentalist militants attacked the US Marine barracks in Beirut with a truck bomb on October 23, 1983, which killed 241 American servicemen. History recorded that as the deadliest single attack on Americans overseas since World War II. Reagan did not, however, send additional troops to Lebanon, which was the theatre of obvious attention, but rather 7,000 troops to invade Grenada, the smallest independent country in the Western Hemisphere. Reagan would claim in a national television address about “fighting communism” but Plante was well aware this was nothing more than a political face-saving moment after the loss of hundreds of American soldiers. Plante also understood the absurdity of needlessly “rescuing” around 800 American medical students on the island for the most dubious of reasons. The matter was far more about expedient politics than foreign policy.
Our national government allows for reporters to be very close to the seat of power. Closer than any other leader provides for reporters in any other country around the globe. The White House Press room is located just steps from the office of the press secretary. The relationship between White House reporters and the leader of our nation, regardless of political party or decade, is often tense and difficult. As it should be. As it needs to be.
To provide our democracy with the information, insight, and analysis needed for citizens to be able to evaluate the direction of the nation a robust press corps needs to probe and question all our leaders. That often makes every White House uncomfortable. That is one price of attaining power that each president must deal with. The fact that reporters unearth and report on issues that otherwise would never come to light such as the famed example of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s underscores the need for an energized press as they report and help secure the foundations of our nation. Too often the public forgets that the press in our nation is as much a part of why we are free today as the soldiers in uniform.
Bill Plante was most aware that when the flare-ups between the people who wield power, and those who report on them seem most tense, we are actually witnessing the strength of our nation. Think of the many nations where a free working press cannot exist within their boundaries, let alone in the same building or close proximity to where the leader works and lives. To pepper any president with tough questions, or demand accountability from the government, is the very task that these reporters should do on a daily basis. And Plante did that job with a single focus under Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. At times these actions can royally irritate some in the seats of power and others while watching in their living rooms, but history shows we are better served by being truly informed citizens. That can only happen with many intrepid reporters on the beat. Especially at the White House.
Bill Plante showed America how it was done.