This is my 1,768th opinion column. It is also my last.
Permit me a few reminiscences.
Elizabeth Taylor, the movie star, was married to John Warner, the Republican senator from Virginia. She was not at all happy in Washington. She had expected to be a political salon hostess as mistress of Warner’s vast Virginia estate, like in the movies. But she was often alone while Warner politicked on Capitol Hill.
Ben Bradlee, then editor of The Washington Post, and I, then president of the Washington Press Club, were hosting a cocktail party for the American Society of Newspaper Editors at the Kennedy Center. I was to escort Taylor around for the evening. She looked at my lavender polyester blouse with a bow at the throat and glowered. “You’re wearing my color. But I’ll forgive you if you keep me in three fingers of Jack Daniels all night.”
When Warner showed up, late, he whispered to her, “Elizabeth, I think you’ve had enough.” She turned with the studied purpose of an immense ocean liner and hissed, “I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough. Ann, three more fingers.”
Diana, princess of Wales, and Prince Charles came to Washington and were lionized at many parties. At a reception at the home of the British ambassador, I found myself looking up at her and realized nobody else was around. I had a moment of panic, wondering what we would talk about since it was made clear it was a social occasion, not a journalistic one. She asked if I had children, and we chatted happily about our offspring for what seemed to be an inordinately long time. I forgot how gorgeous and royal she was and remember thinking, “What a wonderful mother!” As I left, she came over and said, “I so enjoyed our conversation.”
I also once asked her mother-in-law, the queen of England, why she always carries a purse and what was in it. She didn’t answer the first question. (I am sure the purse is to keep excited subjects from getting too close or hugging her). To the second inquiry, she said, “Well, dear, let’s see.” She opened her purse to reveal a handkerchief.
I covered the White House full time as a reporter for more than 20 years and had the amazing privilege of often traveling abroad with the presidential entourage. Yes, Ronald and Nancy Reagan flew their bed to Europe. But in a move that could never be repeated, I once went from my house, boarded Air Force One and stood a few feet away from Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan in Helsinki without ever going through security. Different times.
Once I complained to President George H.W. Bush that my elementary-school-age daughter did not believe I went to the White House every day because he had not called on me at his last two press conferences. He sat down at his desk, pulled out an ivory card embossed at the top with “The White House” and wrote, “Dear Kirstie. I do know your mother. Love, George.”
Once, when he and then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met for the Good Friday summit in Bermuda in 1990 on Saddam Hussein, the Soviet collapse and NATO, a gale was blowing so hard that it was difficult to stand. Kites, hats, music stands and reporters’ notebooks were swirling everywhere. But nobody who was there will ever forget that not a hair on Thatcher’s lacquered head stirred.
The same President Bush hosted the G-7 group of richest nations and decided to have it at a Texas rodeo. He gave every leader a pair of cowboy boots. Thatcher showed up in a suit, stockings, her own pumps and white gloves. As the leaders sat by the dusty bleachers, a young woman wearing a few strategically placed sequins rose out of a trapdoor in the arena floor in front of them riding a horse bareback and waving a huge U.S. flag. The prime minister was appalled. Neither was she impressed with the armadillo race, bull riding, barrel racing, calf scrambling, the Grand Ole Opry, an Old West village, cowboys and Indians, oil rigs, square dancing, a sheriff with silver spurs, Styrofoam cacti, a model of the space shuttle, horseshoe contests, 1,250 gallons of barbecue sauce and jalapenos, 500 pounds of onions, 5,000 servings of cobbler and carrot cake or 650 gallons of lemonade and iced tea.
The summit communique said the accomplishment cited was a pledge to “increase forests while protecting existing ones.” It was forgotten by barbecue time.
When Bill Clinton was running for president, I was on the press pool when he barnstormed my hometown of Springfield, Ohio, which Karl Rove would later turn red for George W. Bush. My entire family came to the Clinton event — to see me, as they had earlier when Rosalynn Carter was stumping for her husband Jimmy. Later, Clinton would say at a white-tie dinner in Washington, “If I had as many brothers and sisters as Ann McFeatters does, Hillary would have won Ohio.”
On the day Barack Obama gave his we-are-one nation speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, he appeared at a breakfast for reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. We all openly speculated that we were eating eggs with the man who would become the first U.S. Black president even though he wasn’t a senator yet. I briefly asked him if he would move his family to Washington if he won a Senate seat because housing in D.C. is so costly. That, he drolly noted, was not something to which he’d given a moment of thought and nor did he intend to do so. Ultimately, of course, 18.7 acres of D.C. real estate became very important to him.
I covered every inauguration from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump. I covered them in blizzards, with pneumonia, with boots that left my feet bloody, with new technology that refused to work, with M&Ms the only food I ate for 20 hours, with a ball gown over leggings and galoshes.
And then, often messy but always fascinating, came watching the arduous complicated work of governing.
Being a witness to history has given me enormous satisfaction and immense gratitude to the vital, fun and increasingly difficult profession of journalism. There is always a feeling of awe that a peaceful transition of power happens. And the joy of being at the right place at the right time. It has been at times frustrating, always enlightening and humbling, whether it meant meeting the infamous, Bashar al-Assad, or the noble, Nelson Mandela.
But most of all, I am grateful to the amazing journalists I have known. They have kept the flame of liberty burning, and, we must all hope, they will be able to continue to do so.