Ask one of the biggest names in TV news about Antoine Sanfuentes and he’ll tell you, with some amusement, this story about his boss:
David Gregory, moderator of Meet the Press, had just traveled to Istanbul with Sanfuentes to cover President George W. Bush in 2004. Though sleep-deprived and functioning on a different time zone, Sanfuentes, an accomplished drummer, was determined to visit a world-renowned cymbal factory—and he persuaded the equally exhausted Gregory to go along. Gregory says he could “barely keep his eyes open” during the almost two-hour drive and he fell asleep at the factory. But Sanfuentes was in heaven.
That kind of focus and passion have propelled Sanfuentes from NBC News intern two decades ago to Washington bureau chief last year. The Bethesda native took on the position held for nearly 20 years by legendary bureau chief and Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 2008.
Russert was a hard act to follow. But NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams notes that there “are donkeys on the Grand Canyon who do not work as hard as Antoine.” Williams and Gregory agree that Sanfuentes has quickly developed a reputation as a strong leader known to be “cool under fire.”
Sanfuentes, 44, is a local boy all the way. He graduated from Walt Whitman High School in 1985 and attended Montgomery College for a year before transferring to American University, where he earned a degree in anthropology. While there, he interned at NBC’s Washington bureau before moving up the ranks. Today he lives in Bethesda with his wife and two daughters.
We caught up with him recently at his office at the NBC bureau in Washington, D.C., near American University.
Q & A
You have an interesting background. How did that influence your pursuit of a degree in anthropology—and how did that translate into a career in television?
I grew up in a household speaking French and Spanish. My mother, who taught French, is French and Belgian, and my father was born in Paris but grew up in Chile. Until I was a teenager, we would go to France in the summers and to Chile every other year during the wintertime.
In Paris, my great-aunt, an expert on Egypt, took me to the Louvre and read hieroglyphs off these enormous pieces of architecture. After our time in Paris, we would see the relatives in [the seaside town of] Arcachon, near Bordeaux, where my great-grandmother had a hotel. I was constantly playing the role of Jacques Cousteau, pulling out all kinds of edible sea life.
In Chile, we would visit relatives both in Santiago and in Machali, where I learned about my family’s background in farming and [how] to ride horses. On one side trip, we stopped in Haiti, where I was first exposed to poverty. Then, when I was a teenager, we went to visit my father, who worked for the Organization of American States in Suriname.
My father was also an antique book collector. I would ask questions and he would say, “Look it up.” Books were everywhere. We had a collection of The Adventures of Tintin, where Tintin traveled to exotic places all over the world. And every evening we would watch the [CBS] Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
Who were your role models?
At Montgomery College, my English professor was Dr. Bandy Burjorjee. He was convinced that I would become a diplomat. He is the guy that I consulted as I found my maturity, and he straightened me out. I transferred to American University. He was a big influence on me getting academically straight. He launched my anthropological pursuits.
You replaced another role model, the much-admired Tim Russert, as Washington bureau chief. What was that like?
A tremendous privilege. When I walked in the door 20 years ago at NBC, did I think that I would have the job that I have today? No, I didn’t. I started as a young desk assistant. In 1995, Tim Russert put me at the White House.
Did Tim Russert make sure that I would have the kind of experience that might make me capable of doing this job? He made sure of that every step of the way.
What do you like about the job?
I love news—the unpredictability, the rush. I like the idea that we cram for a final exam every single day. I like the fact that my briefcase is a BlackBerry and an iPad and nothing else.
What’s the most interesting news story you’ve covered?
I have been privileged in covering a lot of presidential history. I was asked to translate President Bush’s remarks from Anbar province in Iraq in 2007. It involved a secret meeting with a White House official outside of a Starbucks—it was not even safe to go inside. Then we did something that had never been done before. We had essentially flown halfway around the world to transmit the president’s remarks live from a war zone and we had done it without setting anything up in advance. We had to get on a roof in 130-degree temperatures [to transmit]. We were not able to test it. We knew it worked when we went live.
What has been the worst day of your career?
The worst day of my career was on 9/11. I was with David Gregory with President Bush at the Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. I remember looking at my pager when the first plane hit. Looking at CNN, watching the second plane hit, and watching my monitor where I could see the president being briefed. There was a tremendous amount of confusion.
I am thinking about my family, I am thinking about my wife, I am worried about my child, who has pre-K. My wife was ill that day—she worked at Fox News—and she was halfway to work and her office was right near the Capitol. And I was reading reports that one plane might be heading to the Capitol.
You have a reputation for being cool under fire and asking everyone for a “Plan B.” Where does that come from?
My mother, during the end of World War II, was hidden in a convent for almost a year. She grew up Jewish as a young woman. Her last name was changed. Being a product of war-torn parents, you understand resilience. You learn that you can deal with anything. I say every problem has a solution and nothing is a big deal.
Tell us about your side career as a drummer.
Presently, I am playing with Cathy Ponton King [the blues band]. I have played with them for five years. We play on average once a month at Flanagan’s in Bethesda. In the summer months we play a lot of blues festivals all over Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. We have played at Blues Alley.
I have played in bands since I was in high school, and by college I was playing in four different bands. One band back in the ’90s, Kevin Johnson and the Linemen, opened for Mary Chapin Carpenter and we shared billing with Dave Matthews. I have recorded almost 20 CDs.
You have a drum set in your office. Do you close the door and play, just as some people hit golf balls in their offices?
The drum set in my office is for show. I have a drumhead autographed by [longtime Bruce Springsteen drummer] Max Weinberg at the front of my office, and I consider him a friend.
I use a practice pad to practice the rudiments. It is not loud, so no one hears this.
I play drums at home. When I need to clear my head, I use the practice set. It requires a different part of my brain. I practice at least three times a week, besides playing on my practice pad.
I first started drumming at 12. A friend of my younger brother down the street in Wood Acres had a snare drum. The first band I was in was in the eighth grade, when we played for the talent show at Western [now Westland] middle school. We played “Misery” by the Beatles and “Get Off of My Cloud” by the Rolling Stones. I will never forget playing that gig in the gymnasium. It was such a rush. Everything changed. I was this shy kid. Drums drew me out of my shell.
How does drumming translate to your job?
Drummers are very methodical, one beat at a time. I am the backbeat. I am the one that is going to lift up the rest of the operation. And I am going to think about all those things, and if it is about time and it is about cadence, then I am going to do it in a straightforward and methodical way.
Who do you listen to?
I do not have a lot of time to go see music. I like to listen to jazz, ’60s-era rock ’n’ roll, American rock, British Invasion rock and blues.
You’ve spent time documenting and helping jazz great Butch Warren, who suffers from schizophrenia. How did that come about?
There was a piece written in The Washington Post [in May 2006], and it just grabbed me. I found out that he just got out of the mental hospital and he was performing at a club in Adams Morgan. I went down there, started taking his picture and we began to discuss jazz. We developed a bond, and I wrote a piece about it on msnbc.com.
One of the last professional jobs he had was over here in Studio A [NBC’s main studio in D.C.]. I started calling some of his band members to collect mementos for him. He told me that he had not been getting his royalties. I looked into it. They did not know where he was living. He gets a voucher to eat one meal a day.
I also just completed production of Butch’s CD. Why did I do [all] that? Drummers and bass players have a critical relationship. Butch comes from the era where the bass player was central to the band. Butch played with all my favorite drummers.
Any other hobbies besides drumming?
I developed a love of photography while covering the White House. I followed the White House photographers and I have documented a lot of history in Washington. I like to document rock ’n’ roll musicians.
I also have a ginormous exotic marine aquarium set up in the basement of my house. I run over 300 gallons of saltwater. It is a self-sustaining ecosystem which has the 180-gallon tank in the wall.
I have had fish my whole life. In college, I got kicked out of my parents’ house because the tank flooded.
The band refers to the practice space [at my house] as “the reef.”
You grew up in Bethesda and chose to raise your family there. Why is that?
Being an active musician, I have watched it grow to what it is today. Back in the day, it was a sleepy town. The big family outings were Roy Rogers on River Road and Shakey’s Pizza on Old Georgetown Road. I briefly worked in high school as a veterinary technician for Benson Animal Hospital. I used to ride my bike to work on weekends.
I love Bethesda. It is comfortable, with a great school district.
Potomac writer Carin Dessauer, a former executive with CNN and CNN.com, is a regular contributor to Bethesda Magazine.