Small town reporter gets big-time opportunity

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Small town newspapers don’t go to Presidential Press Conferences. But we didn’t know that at the Skamania County Pioneer newspaper when it was announced that President Jimmy Carter was coming to the area to view Mount St. Helens after the eruption of May 1980 and talk about government aid.

I suggested to my boss, owner and Editor Ed McLarney, that we should try to go. After all, Mount St. Helens is in Skamania County.

“OK, he replied. “But you will probably have to get a pass from the Secret Service.”

Hopefully, I dialed Washington, D.C. Answering the phone, the secretary, obviously a Southern gal, told me: “You’all will hafta get permission from Clarence.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Can you put me through to him?”

“No, No, No,” came her response. “Y’all hafta talk to Clarence.”

“OK, can you give me his number, please?"

Exasperated with my ignorance, she finally said: “The Clarence Department will hafta clear you, Ma'am.”

“Oh,” I finally got it. I had to go through Clearance.

Many hours later, it was apparent that Clearance was not going to Clear me for attendance.

Ed decided I should try anyway. He would ask Pearl Neely, Jimmy Carter’s representative for the 17th District, to go with me, and hopefully she could get me in. She had pull and connections. So off Pearl and I went to the scheduled meeting at the Marriott Hotel in Portland.

Planning carefully, all I had in my small purse was my driver’s license, money for parking and lunch, and my press pass. Pearl had a whole satchel full of important things, including a tape recorder. Passing tall serious Secret Service men in black suits in the lobby, we arrived at the checkpoint. I showed my press pass and nearly empty purse and, after some serious consultation and mumbling and shaking of heads, a Secret Service agent gave me permission to enter the press room.

Pearl came next. When asked to play the tape recorder, (to make sure it wasn’t a bomb, I speculated) she pushed button after button after button, but could not get it to play.

“Oh, darn,” she said. “My husband, Al, always works this thing.”

She forget that her satchel contained pictures of her with Jimmy Carter, presenting him with a memorial Skamania County plaque, a document proving she was his representative to the 17th District, other papers proving who she was. Looked like I might have to leave Pearl in the lobby.

Finally, obviously a little exasperated at these two bumpkins from the hinterlands, the agent said to Pearl, “OK. As long a you’re with her (pointing to me), you can go in.”

And that is how this small town weekly newspaper reporter gained entrance to a Presidential Press Conference.

I was actually more excited and wide-eyed to find myself there with Sam Donaldson, Susan Spencer, Roger Pierpoint, and other famous media personalities than I was with the speech of the president. I could take notes and study that later.

That evening, I was surprised to see myself on Portland's Channel 8, standing against the wall (I was too uneasy to take a seat at one of the long press tables with important press people), outstanding in the bright orange dress I had chosen to wear for the occasion.

Later,a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner called me at home and interviewed me about how a small town weekly newspaper gained entrance to a Presidential Press Conference.

"Now I’ve really made the Big Time!" I thought.

It was only the next day, when I emptied the purse I had taken with me, that I discovered my press pass had expired a year ago.