What It’s Like
What It’s Like … to Be a White House Correspondent
Julie Mason tells us what the president and first lady get up to in that big white house of theirs
Julie Mason has been a journalist for close to twenty years and has spent the last four covering the Bush White House first for the Houston Chronicle, and more recently, the Washington Examiner. She’s traveled with the president extensively – from brush-clearing in Crawford, TX to surveying the Katrina damage in New Orleans, to a nerve-wracking trip to Islamabad, Pakistan. (The hotel that held the press corps during this trip was later reduced to rubble by a bombing. We recently caught up with Ms. Mason for a quick phone call in between deadlines.
What’s it like to be a White House correspondent?
It’s very fun and it’s also hard. You never know what they’re going to throw at you. One day you’re writing about Social Security, the next day you could be writing about the president’s relationship with Germany.
What’s your favorite aspect of the job?
I love the other reporters. They’re really smart and funny. Every day is a learning experience with the president. White House staffers also are bright and entertaining . . . The whole atmospherics of the place are the best thing.
What is an average day for you?
Every day is so different . . .
Okay, describe your dream day –
A 10 a.m. press conference by the president, where he commits news. Followed by a visit by the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in the East Room. Followed by a fun event in the Rose Garden – for example, we recently had the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon. That’s fun. If it’s Hispanic Heritage Month, we might have some cool music out there. This would be followed by a state dinner honoring Afghan president Hamid Karzai, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. That’s my perfect dream day!
Is your office glam?
We have small cubicles and we are crammed in there like sardines. I sit in the White House basement, where everyone’s bumping into everyone all day long.
How close are you and the president?
He doesn’t have a great relationship with women journalists. He’s slightly afraid of us. Partly because we are mostly terrifying feminists, but also because – as it was explained to me – he fears committing a shocking faux pas that could end up in the pages of the Washington Examiner. As such, we ladies don’t get the joshing or the nicknames.
What are you looking forward to about the Barack Obama administration?
Getting to know them on a level that you can only get to know them on as a journalist. Thinking about how he makes his decisions and what they are. And what makes him tick. His family . . . it’s a whole new system to find out about.
I’ve heard that the Bush White House is a much more private place than the Clinton White House had been – any truth to that?
The Clinton White House was notorious for its leaks; the Bush White House is known for its discipline and its punctuality. We don’t know what Obama is going to be like. Hopefully, punctual. I believe he’ll also be disciplined.
Can you briefly compare and contrast the incoming first lady with the current first lady?
They have a lot in common because they’re both intensely private and neither sought this role. You don’t get the sense that they’re very ambitious for public life. Being the center of attention was definitely not on either of their agenda. Having their clothes dissected, their hair – definitely not their thing.
Being first lady is the worst job in DC. You have all of the scrutiny and none of the power. You have to conform to a certain model – a certain expectation. You must be accomplished – but not too ambitious. You must at all times be gracious and lovely, with perfect hair. You can’t have any visible flaws, like smoking. . .
I never saw her smoke. They have some differences as well.
Laura Bush is from a slightly older generation and had a moderate career. She was a school librarian and raised her kids. Michelle Obama is much more modern and of this moment. The first lady has to walk a fine line between being modern and old fashioned, but more towards the old fashioned, because that’s what people want. It’s really anachronistic, the first lady role.
Look at Hilary Clinton. She tried to break the mold and it took her years to get back to a place where people liked her again, in large part because she challenged how we think of first ladies.
Rapid Fire Questions:
1. When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An actress. And I wanted to be named “Cynthia.”
2. What type of kids did you hang out with in high school?
I went to a pretty small boarding school, so I hung out with all of the kids. My faves, though, were and remain the hot preppy guys – not the effete preppy guys with their collars popped – but the hot preppy LaCrosse players.
3. What’s your workout?
My job is five blocks from my house, and it’s too short a distance to take a cab with any dignity – so I walk it, vigorously. Excellent workout!
4. Cat or dog?
I had to give my cat away because my boyfriend claims an “allergy.” We are negotiating a dog but my favorite breed, the Australian cow dog (Owen Wilson has one, check it out) is not apartment-appropriate. Now I just want a dog that looks like a bat.
5. What do you do when you want to completely tune out?
Lately I am getting into blended red wines and old Cinemascope movies on Netflix. I have A Summer Place waiting at home for me. Also, for Christmas I asked for one of those blankets with arms, which should help me merge physically into the couch, at last. I also shop online.
6. What book is sitting on your shelf waiting to be read?
Scott McClellan’s memoirs gaze back at me nightly with a silent, unblinking reproach that would do Scott proud, if he ever bothered to return my very pleasant e-mail remarking on his sideburns. Come to think of it, his silence on the matter must be a reproach.
7. If you could have dinner with any two people, who would you choose?
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Clive Owen, but not on the same night.
8. What is the one thing you want or do not want the next generation of girls to encounter?
Girl-on-girl hate crime and self-loathing. That’s really two things, but they’re strongly linked.
9. If there were one thing you could change in your life, what would it be?
I would have spent less time sweating it and more time enjoying it.
Caption 1: Julie Mason with Karl Rove.
Caption 2: Julie Mason freshening her lipstick aboard a Marine helicopter while traveling with the President. Photo by Khue Bui, Newsweek.
Caption 3: President Bush passing behind Julie at a parade.