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Gwen’s Take: War and Peace and the President

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama sat down with NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

It never gets old slipping inside the gates at Pennsylvania Avenue and walking up the path to the White House. Over the years, Judy Woodruff and I have been privileged to do it countless times in our roles at some of the nation’s most prestigious news organizations.

But as I sat in the East Room on Wednesday afternoon, watching on a small television monitor as the president delivered his remarks commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington a few blocks away at the Lincoln Memorial, this was different.

We’d agreed to the interview on this day. We knew it would give the president an opportunity to reflect on something he seldom talks about extensively — his role as the nation’s first African American president.

Every time you interview a sitting president is different. I’ve spoken with this and other presidents before, but as Mr. Obama strolled into the Blue Room for our joint interview, everyone in the room (and there are a lot of people in the room for these things) knew that there was a lot on his plate.

As the week began, it had become clear that the United States was ramping up to launch an attack in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad had apparently unleashed chemical weapons on his own people.

So, overnight, the task for Judy and me was to talk about war and peace. War, as in what the U.S. is prepared to do now that lines have been crossed — and peace — in the context of the 50-year legacy of a nonviolent march.

That is tougher than it looks. Although any of us could dream up a million questions, or a thousand ways to phrase them — as I’m certain many of you have — it’s a complicated thing to get the most famous politician in the world to be revealing if he chooses not to be.

You don’t think so? In answer to Judy’s first question about how close the president was to authorizing a strike, he said he had not made a decision — then kept talking for a solid three minutes. That’s a long chunk of time in what was to be a 20-minute interview all total.

So the goal for the interviewer is to come up with thoughtful questions, and then get as many of them in as possible during a structured period of time. Judy and I came prepared with a lot of ideas, but in the end only eight basic questions about Syria and the state of race relations in America made the cut.
Looking back over the transcript, I see his answers eventually also touched on Egypt, the domestic minimum wage, early childhood education and even poverty. And it’s not because we necessarily asked about these things.

Few reporters will admit it, but whether the venue is a formal news conference, a sit-down interview like ours or even in an off-the-record lunch, when the venue is the White House, journalists cede control of time place, and — often — topic.

This doesn’t mean we don’t try anyway. The best history books I have read about the presidency reconstruct events using the words uttered at the time as viewed through the time lapse of history.
Daily reporters don’t have the luxury that historians do, but getting that first draft down is important in the long run.

I don’t know a reporter who can’t think of a better, smarter way to phrase a question and press for an answer — after the fact. But that’s small beans.

Watching a crisis unfold in real time inside the White House on the same day bells were ringing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to mark 50 years of history, made for a remarkable day.

*Editor’s note: Now that you’ve read the back story, watch the complete interview here*.

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