Newspapaer editors and broadcast news directors with any gray hair at all, often chastise reporters who get tangled up with people’s celebrity and other issues while covering a story. Beginners are often influenced by titles or celebrity and less with transcribing facts.

Imagined or even real importance of someone connected to the facts can easily become the focus. Facts can be lost to celebrity. So can the reporter. Likely because of my contrarian personality, I’ve not often had that problem with someone’s fame or status. But there is one exception: the presidency.

I had a lot of problems with some of the doings of Lyndon Johnson and no use at all for Richard Nixon. Others in public life … cabinet officers … governors … titans of business … entertainment stars … all interviewed directly or covered in my traveling career and the story usually came before the recognition factor. But the presidency is … different.

In 1966, Rep. Ralph Harding (D-ID) was running for re-election and swooped down into Pocatello, Idaho, with LBJ in tow. The national press flew on to Boise so the only reporters at the Pocatello airport were local. Because of that, and because we few reporters were familiar to the advance Secret Service people after a couple of hours of waiting, we got great access.

Idaho office seekers used to hand out small plastic potatoes about the size of half dollars. Harding put a handful in one of Johnson’s pockets. While shaking outstretched hands of the crowd pressing against a four-foot steel fence, the two men handed them out.

As I said, reporter access was better than usual. I got inside the fence and was shooting film of Johnson working the crowd as I backed along ahead of him at the same speed. Suddenly, my lens was blocked. I lowered the camera to find Johnson’s big right hand stretched out to me while he held the little potato pin in his left.

“Bet you’ve got a lot of these, Son,” he said. “Here’s one from me.”

I put the camera down, took the pin and received a very firm handshake. He winked, turned around and the two of them headed for the plane. Then they were airborne. I stood there.

Now, add a few other items to the picture. A half dozen black clad Secret Service guys … looking like clones … who occasionally let their sidearms show. An Air Force Colonel carrying a small box called “the football” in which were military codes the president would use to send this nation to nuclear war. A physician and two nurses. Several well-dressed staff members. Local and state cops. Presidential and American flag standards near the plane.

It’s most commonly referred to as “aura.” It exists with presidents just as much today. For nearly any other occupation, there are other people who do the same job. But the President is the President; just one of him and he’s the most powerful person you’ll ever meet. How you may feel about the individual is one thing; respect for the office … regardless of occupant … is quite another.

Richard Nixon is a case in point. Again, I didn’t like or trust Nixon. For many reasons. But when covering him in the White House or in appearances around Washington, D.C., it was the same as with Johnson. The trappings of the office … power represented by the occupant … deference paid by all in his presence … these things take awhile to get used to for even a good reporter. You have to consciously work past them if you want to stay focused on the story at hand. Many young reporters today don’t seem to be able to do that.

I’ve been in the presence of Kennedy, Carter, Ford, Reagan and Bush the elder. Never a direct interview. Sometimes a few other reporters in a small room; sometimes thousands in the crowd. But it’s always the same. You can feel a different attitude in others nearby, too.

I spent several years in the national media in Washington. Famous and infamous people were a daily commodity. Soon after taking the job, I sort of just assumed the day would bring an interaction with someone you might see on TV that night. Embassy cocktail parties and other social events could result in personal conversations with all sorts of dignitaries and celebrities. It got pretty routine.

Covering of and dealing with famous or important people never presented problems for me. Most of the time it was just someone who’s really a lot like you. Or me. Except for … well, you know. Love ‘em or hate ‘em. The presidency is a different animal.

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