Memorable Meals with Newsmakers ; the 73 Breakfasts and Lunches Hosted by the Monitor in 2004 Offered New Perspectives - and Insight into Character

Article excerpt

The nation and its capital saw some extraordinary news made during 2004 - much of it tied to an election campaign that brought a sprinkling of new faces to Washington even as President Bush held onto the Oval Office despite deep public divisions.

As part of our effort to help put it all in perspective, the Monitor hosted some 73 newsmaker breakfasts and lunches in Washington and at the political conventions.

On a good morning, our breakfast guest may offer a new perspective on some issue in the news. And in the process of nibbling at their eggs and bacon and chatting for an hour with 25 reporters, our guests often reveal something of their character. A window on the mental qualities that the newsmaker brings to his or her job helps reporters write

more insightful stories.

Some breakfasts are memorable just because they happen at all. After two years of sending invitations, in late

December Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed to be our guest for lunch. The session began almost too memorably when a cabdriver ignored Mr. Powell's security team and came within inches of backing into the secretary's armored Cadillac at the hotel entrance. Striding into the dining room, Powell was impeccably tailored in a dark blue suit, standing ramrod straight like the Army general he once was.

Powell offered a spirited defense of the administration's foreign policy and several flashes of humor. When asked to describe his relationship with the current president he quipped, "I only describe them after I've left."

The secretary is charming but maintains a reserve that perhaps is a remnant of the command presence a general develops - fraternizing neither with the troops nor the journalists.

The most emotionally unguarded moments of this year's breakfasts occurred in our late July session with John Kerry's daughters: 30- year-old, raven-haired Alexandra and 27-year-old, blond Vanessa. They had not yet retreated into the land of prepackaged, plastic responses that candidates and their families often adopt. Instead, at least for the hour they spent with us, they were gracious, articulate, intelligent, funny, and open about their fears.

"To be totally candid, I am scared. Definitely," Vanessa said. "There are things that you want to be sacred. You want your friends, your private jokes. You want those moments. You want to know you can walk down the street and not have someone just come up and just give you a kiss on the cheek because they think they can, which has happened."

While the Kerry daughters were reluctant politicians, Barack Obama is a natural, one of the most naturally gifted politicians I have met. …