The Riggs Report: Plush press duty in Hawaii
As presidential vacation spots go, this one is especially popular
Pity the hardy White House correspondents who are spending the holidays in Honolulu.
President Obama isn’t making much news this week, by design, unless you count his sinking of a 40 foot chip from the edge of the green. But the press goes where he goes. Christmas in Hawaii? You won’t hear any complaints.
For reporters who covered the George W. Bush administration and remember their travels to Crawford, Texas, where Bush owned a ranch, there is no comparison. Instead of dusty plains and Lone Star beer, there’s the promise of tropical breezes and Mai Tais.
It reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s frequent vacation stops during his presidency at Rancho del Cielo, his mountaintop ranch 35 miles north of Santa Barbara. It was coveted duty for the White House press corps, especially for reporters who had spent time in tiny Plains, Georgia during the Carter years. I was working as a reporter in Santa Barbara at the time, and well remember how delighted the White House reporters were to trade the cold winter of Washington for a few weeks in a beachside hotel.
To be fair, it wasn’t exactly a vacation. News stories still had to be created and filed. But it was not tough duty.
It worked like this. Each morning at the Sheraton on Cabrillo Boulevard, facing the Pacific, Press Secretary Larry Speakes would conduct an on-the-record briefing. He’d go over foreign and domestic policy updates, then (to the groan of the assembled reporters) he’d move to what was known as “The Ranch Report.”
“The Ranch Report” consisted of a recitation of President Reagan’s scheduled day at his mountaintop retreat. It rarely varied. Reagan occasionally hosted guests, but it was primarily a getaway spot. Most days consisted of a combination of horseback riding and clearing brush around the 688 acre property.
There was no news, in other words. But try telling that to the producers in New York and Washington. The network crews resorted to setting up cameras with enormous telescopic lenses on a hilltop several miles away from the ranch. CBS nicknamed their lens the “Devastator”. These were then used to capture grainy, wavy images of the Reagans on horseback, which became elements of whatever story was broadcast that evening.
Some of these White House reporters would shoot their on-camera stand-ups on the hotel balcony, wearing business attire from the waist up, with shorts and sandals below the camera’s view. White House duty is both a grueling grind and a coveted career-maker. It’s been described as the world’s largest police beat. But when a president travels to a sandy, scenic spot, whether Honolulu or Santa Barbara, a slow news day doesn’t seem bad at all.
Just don’t tell that to the network producers.