Inside the White House Briefing Room

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; 9:45 AM

I'm off today, but rather than leave you empty handed, I present you with an authoritative roster of the newly reconstituted White House press corps -- and an unauthoritative guide to some of the more unusual regulars in the White House Briefing room, past and present.

First, the press corps: I just finished updating and extending my White House Correspondents list (another White House Briefing exclusive.)

For as many of the correspondents as possible, I've included links to their latest stories and biographies. I'd encourage you to click on some of those links, check out some of the writers you don't read as often as others -- and maybe someday soon in a Live Online we can discuss the different approaches, styles, strengths and weaknesses amongst them.

What's quite remarkable is how little turnover there's actually been between the first and second Bush terms. The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have swapped out their entire teams, and elsewhere there's a new face here and there, but by and large it's the same old crew.

Laissez Faire Briefing Room

As the case of Jim Guckert, AKA Jeff Gannon has amply demonstrated, the bar for getting into the White House Briefing Room is pretty low.

But the fact of the matter is that the White House press office and the press corps have a long tradition of tolerance when it comes to eccentrics in their midst.

The current crop includes Lester Kinsolving, Raghubir Goyal, Connie Lawn and Russel Mokhiber -- each wondrously special in their own way.

Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post in 2002 how they can sometimes be useful foils for a wily press secretary: "Want to change the subject to foreign affairs? Call on Raghubir Goyal of the India Globe (he'll ask about the perfidies of Pakistan) . . . or Connie Lawn (a freelancer with particular interest in the Middle East). . . .

"Want to end the briefing by turning the whole thing into a circus? You might choose Russell Mokhiber of the Corporate Crime Reporter (he'll launch into a tirade about greed), or Baltimore radio personality Lester Kinsolving (he'll ask about how 'the Reverend Mr. Jackson impregnated his mistress and used tax-exempt contributions to get her out of Chicago'). Within seconds, the wire service reporters in the front row will beg for an end to the briefing."

But they're also part of the atmosphere.

Naomi Nover

The grand dame of White House eccentrics may be Naomi G. Nover, who passed away in 1995, inspiring then-Washington Post reporter Lloyd Grove to pen a rather acid obituary.

"Naomi G. Nover was one of the more venerable members of the White House press corps, but she was not a sweet old lady," Grove started off.

"Once in the White House briefing room during the Carter administration, Nover, who died Saturday at 84, took offense at Carl Leubsdorf's snickering. So she swung her massive purse repeatedly at the then-Baltimore Sun correspondent while chasing him into the lower press office, where he barricaded himself."

It goes on, memorably, and includes this passage: "Nover left behind a rich legacy of anecdotes concerning her eccentric, irritating and just plain impossible ways among the journalistic elite: her habit of not taking notes at news conferences but instead demanding that colleagues tell her what was happening at the very moment something important was being said; her custom of declaiming into her small tape recorder such observations as 'The president is moving to the front of the room, he is bending over, he is straightening up, he is wearing a blue suit'; and her penchant for cursing and sobbing madly, to say nothing of throwing her purse, at whoever was denying her access to whatever grand event she was desperate to attend."

Sarah McClendon

In 2003, when Sarah McClendon died, by contrast, she inspired many glowing appreciations, including one from Richard Leiby in The Washington Post:

"McClendon, who died early yesterday morning at 92, was pushy and fearless -- essential character traits of a journalist. Presidents sometimes called on her as a diversion, or to break tension, but did so at their peril. She was, as longtime admirer Sam Donaldson summed up, 'the avenging angel -- or, her critics would say, the wicked witch of the press corps.' "

Lester Kinsolving

Lester Kinsolving, a veteran conservative talk show on Baltimore radio, is currently recuperating from triple bypass surgery after a heart attack.

In a 2001 Newsweek story, Martha Brant recalls how President Bush called on Kinsolving at this third press conference.

" 'Yes sir,' Bush said, nodding to Lester Kinsolving, a radio personality out of Baltimore. Bush's press aides cringed, bracing themselves. 'Mr. President,' Les, as he's known by all, began. 'You would not equate the baby that was killed in retaliatory Israeli fire in the Gaza Strip with the 13- and 14-year old Jewish boys, one of them a U.S. citizen, who were tied up, beaten to death and mutilated near Tekoa would you?' . . .

"Kinsolving had done it again: he had ruffled another president of the United States."

It is thanks to Kinsolving that words like bestiality show up in the White House search engine.

Russel Mokhiber

As Ken Herman wrote yesterday for Cox News Service, Press Secretary Scott McClellan almost always has a response, no matter how unusual the question -- but not necessarily for Russel Mokhiber, editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter newsletter.

"Mokhiber's interactions with McClellan are catalogued in something he calls 'Scottie & Me,' (formerly known as 'Ari & I') at a Web site called CommonDreams.Org.

"Here's the most recent, in which Mokhiber noted the Justice Department sided with those who support Ten Commandments displays in government buildings:

"Mokhiber: 'The question is, does the president believe in commandment number six, thou shalt not kill, as it applies to the U.S. invasion of Iraq?'

"McClellan: 'Go ahead. Next question.' "

Connie Lawn

And then there's Connie Lawn, White House correspondent for USA Radio News, whose self-anointed moniker is "The Skiing White House Reporter."

Lawn, who has covered the White House since 1968 for various outlets is also an avid skier, who now writes for

In 2003, she described her attempt to convince Bush to take up skiing.

Robert Sherrill

All those people were allowed into the White House -- but not Robert Sherrill.

In a 1990 piece in the Los Angeles Times, Irene Lacher interviewed Sherrill, the Nation's White House correspondent during the Carter and Reagan years.

"Sherrill was distinguished in his post as White House correspondent by one curious fact: He wasn't allowed in the White House.

" 'The reason was that the Secret Service said I was a physical threat to the President,' Sherrill says. . . .

"Sherrill's security file included the fact that he'd gotten into fist fights with pesky bureaucrats in his earlier incarnation as a writer for the Texas Observer -- not that the Secret Service told him that when it turned down his request for a White House press pass during the Johnson era. The American Civil Liberties Union ultimately took up his cause, and a federal court ruled on Sherrill's behalf."

© 2005