Bill Sammon on Querying the “Delegator-in-Chief,” Being a “Must-Call,” and Fielding His All-Reporter Dream Team

Bill Sammon has been the White House correspondent for The Washington Times since 1998 and a political analyst for Fox News Channel since 1999. Today, he discusses querying the “Delegator-in-Chief,” being a “must-call,” and fielding his all-reporter Dream Team.

Liz Cox Barrett: How are your roles as White House correspondent for The Washington Times and a political analyst for Fox News Channel different? Are there things you would say on Fox that you wouldn’t write in the Times?

Bill Sammon: Political analysis on TV tends to be less formal than daily newspaper journalism. Also, by definition, political analysts have more leeway to, well, analyze politics.

LCB: During the Q&A portion of Tuesday’s press conference, President Bush called on you, adding, “I’ve got some must-calls, I’m sorry.” How does one get on this White House’s “must-call” list, and what kind of access do you have to top administration officials?

BS: At formal press conferences, the president generally makes a point of calling on the major wire services, TV networks and newspapers, including The Washington Times. As for access, I have conducted at least five solo interviews of President Bush, including two in February for my forthcoming book on him. I also was granted extensive, one-on-one interviews with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, White House political strategist Karl Rove and Chief of Staff Andrew Card, among others.

LCB: Also during Tuesday’s press conference, Mike Allen of the Washington Post asked two pointed, focused questions — why the president and vice-president are testifying together before the 9/11 commission, and who will the president hand the Iraqi government over to on June 30. Following Allen, you asked a broader question — about a “general criticism” that Bush has “been accused of letting the 9/11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature far enough.” How did you choose that question? And, in general do you think you get more from this president when you ask focused questions or broader ones?

BS: I chose that question because it tied together the two seminal events of the Bush presidency, 9/11 and the liberation of Iraq, both of which also happened to be dominating the news. Allen’s questions were excellent, but sometimes the Delegator-in-Chief responds better to big-picture queries. He’s acutely aware of the historic nature of his presidency.

LCB: The Washington Times is often dismissed by critics because they think it slants conservative. How does that perception affect the way you do your job?

BS: Most people understand that while the Times has a conservative editorial page, its news pages are scrupulously objective. No disrespect to CJR, but I noticed that when you interviewed a Washington Post reporter for this feature, you did not assert that the paper is often dismissed by critics because they think it slants liberal.

LCB: Your Fox colleagues, among others, joke about you being the tallest member of the White House press corps (word has it the president calls you “Super Stretch”). Imagine that you captain and play center for a White House press corps basketball team. Which reporters would you choose to fill out your starting lineup and why? Who’d be picked last?

BS: Obviously, the team would include all three White House correspondents who have received some variation of the presidential nickname, “Stretch.” In addition to me (6-foot-7, “Super Stretch”), there is Bloomberg’s Dick Keil (6-foot-6, “Stretch”) and NBC’s David Gregory (6-foot-5, “Little Stretch”). I would also acquire Newsday columnist Jim Pinkerton, who is not a White House correspondent but is 6-foot-10 (Bush would no doubt dub him “Super Duper Stretch”). Finally, to confuse our opponents, I would deploy the diminutive but tenacious Helen Thomas, doyenne of the White House press corps, as our shooting guard. Alas, I am much too fond of my colleagues to hurt anyone’s feelings by picking them last. But nice try.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.