by Nick Clooney
portrait by Zaid Hamid | May 1, 2010 | People
As the oldest Capitol reporter on Earth, and a certified curmudgeon to boot, I have pared down to a short list the news colleagues who get my attention on television. Among them is Wolf Blitzer, who shows admirable respect for the unadorned declarative sentence. This May, he celebrates 20 years at CNN. On a recent Washington evening, we sat down for dinner and a conversation at Lafayette Restaurant inside The Hay-Adams Hotel.
NICK CLOONEY: When did you decide that journalism was something you wanted to do?
WOLF BLITZER: I majored in history at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, although I liked political science and current events. I came to Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Dupont Circle, and fell in love with Washington. Someone asked if I’d ever thought about becoming a foreign correspondent; he said I could travel all over the world and have a good time. He told me Reuters had a program to train young, talented journalists. So my first job in journalism was working for Reuters in the Tel Aviv bureau.
NC: What year was this?
WB: This was in 1972. Vietnam was beginning to wind down, but the Middle East was beginning to wind up. We had a lot of great senior British journalists coming into the bureau. They took me under their wing and trained me.
NC: You were there when Willy Brandt became the first German chancellor to visit Israel after the Holocaust.
WB: That was 1973. It was a big deal—all the big reporters were covering Brandt’s visit to the Knesset and his meeting with Golda Meir. Reuters asked me to do a nice little color story of his visit to Masada, an archaeological site on a mountaintop in the desert where Hebrew Zealots fought the Romans 2,000 years earlier.
At the top of the mountain, there were 100 or so journalists waiting for Brandt’s helicopter to land. Then out of the blue a gust of wind develops and moves right toward his helicopter, which is hovering about three feet over the ground. People started screaming as his helicopter touched down and began to roll toward a 2,000-foot precipice. This was an Israeli military helicopter carrying the chancellor of Germany, who was visiting Israel for the first time since the Holocaust, and he was about to die. But it was the Holy Land, and there was a miracle. There was a three-foot ledge the Zealots had built and the archeologists had uncovered. The wheel got stuck on the rocks, and the helicopter stopped right at the precipice. Somebody pushed Willy Brandt out of the back of the helicopter to safety.
Now, I had been trained by these old British reporters. They said, “You don’t work for a daily newspaper, you work for a wire service—it’s a big deal if we break the story by 10 seconds.” So when I got to Masada that morning, I had found a pay phone at the bottom of the mountain, just in case. As soon as I knew Brandt was OK, I begged an Israeli captain to let me take the cable car back to the bottom. AP, AFP, the German news agency—they all stayed at the top. But I went to the bottom and got to the pay phone first. It was a terrible connection, my pay phone tokens were running out and the phone went dead just as Colin Bickler, the senior news guy at the bureau, was repeating the number to call me back. I said to myself, “I’m fired. My career is over.” After what seemed like forever, the phone rang, and it was Bickler. Between the two of us, we crafted the lead. I still remember it: “A helicopter carrying West German Chancellor Willy Brandt nearly fell off the mountaintop fortress of Masada in a gust of wind. The chancellor was shaken but unhurt.” All hell broke loose around the world. And the German media were all still up on top of the mountain!
NC: All you needed was a burning bush (laughs).
WB: After that the Jerusalem Post asked if I’d like to be their Washington correspondent—they thought since I had gone to Johns Hopkins that I was really plugged into Washington (laughs). So I went back, and started writing some books—a book on US-Israeli relations in 1985, and another on Jonathan Pollard’s spy case. That’s when Ed Turner came to me and said, “You’re breaking all these stories. Won’t you join us as our Pentagon correspondent?”
NC: You were a print reporter for about 15 years. Transitioning to broadcast, was that terra incognita?
WB: When I started off—on May 8, 1990—it was pitiful. The CNN way is sink or swim, so they gave me just three days of training. The first live shot we did I got nervous. I was stuttering and sweating. I remember coming home and saying to my wife, Lynn, “I’m a total failure. I’m not going to be good at this.”
Blitzer moderating a Democratic primary debate between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards in January 2008.
NC: But you were a hit.
WB: Not until August 2, 1990, when all hell broke loose. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and suddenly I was covering a huge story. I was on television for the next six months. We were the only ones with reporters in Baghdad, so people were watching CNN like crazy. I’d been a broadcast journalist for all of three months, and I became famous.
NC: And then you moved to the White House beat.
WB: In 1992 CNN asked me to be their White House correspondent. I spent the next seven years covering Bill Clinton, which I loved. He packed a lot of travel in—we went to China and Africa and South America. We had the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
NC: There must have been times when you were in some dicey spots. Which one made your palms sweat the most?
WB: The closest I came to dying was in 2002. I was doing our Sunday show, Late Edition, and went to the Middle East for an interview with Yasser Arafat. We did the interview at 11 PM—I took two crews and my producer Linda Roth and we drove through several Israeli military checkpoints to his fortress in Lebanon. He gave me a good, fiery interview, then we had to sit there and talk with him for a while. At two AM, we’re driving back to Jerusalem. We get to the first checkpoint in our armored vehicle, which had sealed windows. We wait for some Israeli soldier to come out. But there’s silence, no movement. Finally I said, “Maybe we should get out of the car.” As the driver got out, all these lights went on and we heard all this noise. For the last five minutes the Israelis had been screaming into a bullhorn, “Turn off the engine, get out, put up your hands, or we’re going to blow up the car.” They thought it was a car bomb. And we’d been sitting there like idiots. The Israeli soldiers came up to me afterward—they knew who I was—and said, “You had 30 seconds more until we blew up your car.” That was pretty scary.
Blitzer talking with former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in the CNN studio on election night 2008
NC: You’re influential. But are you ever worried you’ll use the power of your position in a way that is detrimental?
WB: I worry about it sometimes in a military situation. On August 1, 1990, my pager starts going off at 10 PM. It’s CNN calling. Steve Springer, the news editor that night, says Reuters is quoting sources in the Gulf as saying the Iraqis have crossed the line and moved into Kuwait. I had a source at the Pentagon who was really in charge of the Persian Gulf area. I said, “It’s 10 PM; I’ll call his office and if nobody answers, it means the report’s bogus.” He picked up on the first ring and told me, “The Iraqis are going through Kuwait like a knife through butter. The emir has fled. They’re taking over Kuwait.” We broke the story. Then I went back to the Pentagon to go live. The anchor asked me, “What’s the Bush administration going to do about this?” I wanted to say, “Beats me.” But I thought, I’m on television, I can’t say that. I’d been to a hearing that week where a guy at the State Department made a point of saying there were no treaty obligations to Kuwait—so that’s what I said. Then the anchor says, “What’s to stop them from just going to Saudi Arabia? All the Saudi oil fields are right there along the coast.” I basically said, “I don’t know!” When I got back to my desk, the phone rang. It was a high-ranking Pentagon official—as highranking as it gets. He said, “Wolf, I know you’re new to TV, but you’re standing in the Pentagon briefing room. And people all over the world are watching as you say there’s nothing to stop the Iraqis from moving toward those oil fields in Saudi Arabia. You’re basically telling Saddam, ‘Do it.’” He said, “I’m authorized by the president to tell you the US is not ruling out any option in dealing with this aggression.” I realized that the fastest way the US could get a message to Saddam wasn’t through some back channel, but to have me report it. So I went back on air. That night, the Iraqis—for whatever reason—stopped at the border. They did not go into Saudi Arabia. I realized then that I have an enormous responsibility.
NC: You’ve interviewed everybody in the whole bloody world. Who’s surprised you?
WB: Nelson Mandela, in 1998. What surprised me was that if anyone wanted to be bitter and vindictive, it would be Nelson Mandela. This racist apartheid regime threw him in jail for [more than] 20 years—solitary confinement in awful, Spartan conditions. But he had no vindictiveness. He said to me, “We have a white minority, a black majority. But we have to live together.” I said to myself, “I would want to kill all these guys!” And any other leader in a situation like that, there would have been a bloodbath. Like in Rhodesia or Zimbabwe. But because of Nelson Mandela, there was a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy. That’s about as great as it gets.
NC: Any times you’ve been awed by your job?
WB: I was in Moscow when the last red flag went down over the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1991, ending 74 years of Communist rule. That was pretty heavy. As a student of history, I appreciated that I was an eye witness to one of the most historic events of the 20th century.
NC: The thing that Bob Schieffer always says about the anchor job is, “Yes, it’s important. Yes, it’s serious. But what we never tell people is that it’s fun.”
WB: He’s absolutely right. I’ve always said to my family, “Don’t tell my bosses at CNN how much fun I’m having.” They pay me to have a good time. They pay me to ask world leaders tough questions. They pay me to learn something every single day. I go to bed at night smarter than when I woke up in the morning. It doesn’t get any better than that. I sometimes pinch myself—is this really happening? I’ve really been blessed.
TOP: Nick Clooney and Wolf Blitzer at The Hay-Adams Hotel
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF CNN