Archive for May, 2009

Western boots and a sharp eye

Author: Barrett Rainey

I was born with narrow feet.  Throw in high arches and you know why it was hard to find comfortable shoes.  Until I tried my first pair of western boots.
 About the time I reached 30, I decided I would wear nothing else.  No low quarters; no loafers; nothing else but boots.  Mostly Tony Lama.  Gradually I built up quite a closet full.  Then I moved to Washington DC and a job in the national media.     
 As I mingled professionally and socially with other print and broadcast reporters at that time, I noticed how well most of them dressed.  Not all.  Most.  For some of us that was because, as general reporters not assigned a beat, we carried several credentials that would allow us to be assigned on a moment’s notice to any story location in the DC area from city hall to Congress to the White House.  Doesn’t work that way anymore.
 But I also noticed none of my fellow journalists … not one … wore western boots.   At first, I felt self-conscious.  I took a lot of ribbing about my footwear; narrow boots with pointed toes and riding heels.  Then I learned a few comeback lines about what I would do with my pointy boots to those who razzed me about ’em.
 Here I’m going to interject a professional tip about one of Washington’s most honored news traditions: the “backgrounder.” 
 Every so often you read a story wherein the information is attributed to a “high administration source” or “someone speaking on condition of anonymity.” I don’t know about today, but 30+ years ago that almost always meant a member of the cabinet or chief deputy, a top White House staff member or, on occasion, the President himself.  
 A reporter would be invited to one of these “backgrounders” with certain rules: no cameras, no microphones, and, above all, no attribution!  What was said was usually candid, usually detailed and usually true.  It was how the source established his or her trustworthiness with the media and how the media kept up on stories that might never have become public otherwise.  
 On one such occasion, I was dispatched on short notice to a “backgrounder” at the State Department.   We gathered in a small, plush room near the Secretary’s inner office.  Obviously it was a place where, over the years, many a high level deal had been made and more than a few heads of state had gathered.  And it was furnished as only the taxpayer could afford.
 We listened intently to what the speaker was telling us.  We had permission to take notes and were told that, while some of the facts could be used in stories, they would have to be credited to a “high administration source.”
 Somehow, I wound up sitting right in front of the Secretary of State who was lounging in a terribly expensive wing chair as he fiddled with a pencil. We made eye contact a number of times and occasionally it seemed only he and I were talking.
 I went back to the radio station, wrote the story, recorded it for use by the overnight news crew on the 24-hour all news station.  On that particular night, I also had the graveyard duty.
 Just before two in the morning, the unlisted news phone rang.  The editor listened a moment, then put it on “hold” and told me I was wanted. 

 I answered.  It was the Secretary of State on a car phone.  He’d heard my recorded story and wanted to clarify a piece of information.  
 Later, my ego got the best of me and I asked the editor if the Secretary had asked for me by name.  
 “No” he said.  “He asked for ‘Za Vun Wiz Zee Boots’.”
 At that moment, I knew my place in the national news media was secure.  I mean, after all, if Henry Kissinger could remember the boots, I was in!

Barrett Rainey is a semi-retired journalist.  He can be reached at 444 NE Winchester, PMB 6-C, Roseburg 97470

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