Obits are never dead

So much has happened in the 6+ years since I left USA TODAY for the digital world and beyond. But Sunday, with the news that Nancy Reagan had left for the Great Beyond, it was, as a great New York sage once said, deja vu all over again.

That’s because, as any journalist knows, advance obits never get old as long as their subjects stick around. Thus, yesterday saw the publication of another of the first ladies whose legacy it was my job to distill before I moved from what we once called “The Nation’s Newspaper” on to other journalistic pastures.

I think it holds up well. What do you think of “Nancy Reagan, protector of former president’s legacy, dies at 94?”

 

What A Week For News

This was quite the week to begin a new job in the news business but, as they say, timing is everything.

As I write this, the fugitive suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing has just been taken into custody, the search for more victims of the Waco fertilizer plant explosion goes on and the man whose visionary creation for a national general interest newspaper, Al Neuharth, has died.

Although I began my career working for a series of small newspapers in New York, Florida and Illinois, it was USA TODAY — where I worked for nearly 24 years — that made my career. Thanks to the newspaper, I traveled the country and the world covering the biggest news of the day. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.

But the news business, as we know, eventually changed. A few years ago, I left to join the online world with AOL News and then The Huffington Post. And now, in this most momentous week for news, I begin the latest — and arguably the most exciting — phase of my journalism career as senior executive producer for digital news for the new Al Jazeera America.

We are just getting started and won’t launch until later this year. There is much work to do until then but I hope you will follow our progress and check us out when we make our debut.

In the meantime, read the release about myself and my colleague Tony Karon here.

History Has Been Made

The news just broke: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is lifting the military’s ban on women in combat. The move will open hundreds of thousands of front-line positions to women, clearing away the daunting career barriers that have been in place since a 1994 rule that prohibited women from being assigned to small ground combat units (of course, thousands of women have been “attached” to such units and the world did not end).

I have covered this issue for more than two decades and wrote about military women’s long slog toward acceptance, most recently here.

No doubt, social conservatives will decry the move as the end of civilization and at least one gadfly will use the announcement to raise funds for her questionable organization. But women are already on the front line and this nation could not go to war without them.

It was true back in 1999, when I shared a leaky, muddy tent in Albania with women warriors during the Kosovo War:

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And it remains true to this day in Afghanistan.

Bravo to the Pentagon for lifting the already irrelevant ban on women in combat.

Where Would You Rather Be?

The never-ending, New Years Eve-spoiling Fiscal Cliff drama still unfolding on Capitol Hill has reminded me why I so disliked my years covering Congress as a reporter for USA TODAY. As many of my friends and former colleagues learned last night, much of their job is standing around. And standing around. And, oh yeah, standing around while our elected representatives dither over what they would — or would not — do about something they should have done long before. In other words, a lot of late nights.

Take this photo that ran in The New York Times back in 2005. It shows Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist briefing the media during the debate on Judge John Roberts’ nomination for chief justice of the Supreme Court. That’s me on the right diligently taking notes. That was a rather calm presser and, unlike those covering the current controversy, I didn’t have to cancel my New Years Eve plans.

Capitol Hill 2005

Now take a look at these photos of me hard at work almost four years ago to the day:

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abu ghraib street interview

These were taken outside the prison in Abu Ghraib in Iraq a couple days after New Years 2009. I was there for this story about the transfer of detainees to the government of Iraq.

Yes, I did have to wear heavy body armor to interview a local council member and storekeepers in the market. And I did have to travel in an armored MRAP to get to my appointments. But compared to covering the political battle right now on Capitol Hill, I’ll take a war zone in the Middle East any day.

Another Secretary Rice?

If Republicans get their way, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice won’t be promoted to secretary of State in President Obama’s second term after Hillary Clinton retires. While the brouhaha over Benghazi doesn’t appear to have damaged her, new details about Rice’s relationship with certain African governments when she was an official the Clinton State Department may yet doom her nomination.

The current situation recalls an earlier controversy over another African-American woman named Rice who was slated to become America’s top diplomat after holding a similarly high-level job in the administration. I’m talking, of course, about Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s choice to be secretary of State in his second term.

Democrats opposed elevating the White House national security adviser, citing her role in the invasion of Iraq on the faulty grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons on mass destruction. The Senate went on to confirm Rice 85-13, with the most negative votes cast against a secretary of State nominee since 1825.

All that was behind Rice as she embarked on her first official trip as secretary of State in February 2005. I was on Rice’s plane, covering the historic trip for USA TODAY. It was a whirlwind trip as we raced to 10 European and Middle Eastern capitals in six days: London, Berlin, Warsaw, Ankara, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Rome, Paris, Brussels and Luxembourg. I filed this report on her reception.

Surely the most memorable moment of the trip — other than a case of food poisoning that laid me low from Germany through Poland and into Turkey — was our stop in Rome. Although I had already been to the Eternal City as a tourist, it was nice to revisit the Pantheon for a private tour with the world’s most powerful diplomat (that’s me on the right listening intently to the docent):

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Afterward, the entire traveling press corps went to a nearby restaurant for a private, off-the-record dinner. Since Rice had already given the reporters on her inaugural trip signed world atlases, the journalists returned the favor by giving the rabid Cleveland Browns fan an autographed football. You can see where I signed just between her fingers:

Rice’s honeymoon wouldn’t last long. By the time I accompanied her overseas on a high-stakes mission in the summer of 2006 as yet another crisis in Lebanon raged, the mood had darkened considerably.

Israel Ceasefire, Circa 2006

President Obama has dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Cambodia to Israel to try to broker a ceasefire that will end the conflict in Gaza. The deepening violence, which comes as the administration is trying to pivot its foreign policy away from the Middle East and toward Asia, recalls a previous crisis in which America’s top diplomat shuttled between the two regions in a precarious balancing act.

In July 2006, I traveled with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she led a high-level U.S. diplomatic mission to end an earlier battle in which Islamic militants fired thousands of rockets over a border into Israel. Today the clash is with Hamas in Gaza, then it was Hezbollah in Lebanon. In each, the conflict quickly escalated with Israel’s superior firepower taking a disproportionate toll on its enemy and the international community demanding an end to hostilities.

Then as now there were questions about how hard the White House would press the warring factions to stop the conflict. Back then, the small traveling press corps secretly choppered from Cyprus into Beirut with Rice to meet with Lebanese leaders. Here is my  audio report from Beirut:

Next we were off to Jerusalem and Ramallah, where Rice huddled with here Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. Here is my audio update from Jerusalem:

Our next stop was Rome for a hastily convened meeting of representatives from 15 nations. The conference failed to end the fighting thanks to foot-dragging by President George W. Bush’s administration, which quietly favored giving Israel more time to pound Hezbollah’s forces before calling a truce. Listen to my audio report on the conference:

From Rome we were off to Malaysia for a previously scheduled forum of Southeast Asia nations. We would cool our heels for two days in Kuala Lumpur while backroom talks continued in the Middle East. Then it was back to Jerusalem once more before we headed home to Washington with a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, where we filed our last trip dispatches.

The UN Security Council would approve a ceasefire two weeks later. How the current crisis will end remains to be seen.

Nancy Pelosi Is Staying

The news this morning that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California will stay on to head the Democratic caucus for another two years ends speculation on Capitol Hill on who will be in charge of the minority party during the upcoming 113th Congress.

Pelosi has already secured her place in history as the first woman to serve as speaker of the House. I was covering Congress in 2006 when it became clear that Democrats would take over the House in a wave election. USA TODAY sent me to Albuquerque, N.M., to interview the future leader, whose schedule was so tight that the way I could get a few minutes was to meet her on the campaign trail. It was worth it though as my profile of the highest ranking woman in U.S. history would later show.

Though Pelosi went on to win the votes of her caucus, her tenure as leader was hardly without bumps or controversy — none more divisive than her pivotal role in pushing through health care reform. Still, as I wrote for AOL News, by the time Republicans took back the House and ousted her as speaker, historians and nonpartisan political observers ranked her among the most effective legislators in history.