Ed Henry: Having fun questioning the President

Ed Henry: Having fun questioning the President

Bethesda Magazine Interview

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Ed Henry of Chevy Chase got his start in television covering the conservative George W. Bush administration for the Cable News Network (CNN). He now covers the liberal Barack Obama administration for the conservative Fox News Channel. Those roles fit Henry, who has never been one to shy away from asking tough questions. At 26, he conducted an exclusive print interview with President Bill Clinton the day the Monica Lewinsky affair became public.

Henry has also never been afraid to take the unconventional path. The first in his family to attend college, Henry left Siena College in upstate New York at age 20 for a low-paying job covering politics in Washington—a gamble that eventually paid off.

Youthful looking at 43, Henry—who has become famous among Fox News watchers for his colorful pocket squares—could well end up as a network news anchor someday. He met with Bethesda Magazine over breakfast at the American City Diner just inside the District line, and not far from the home he shares with his wife and two children.


Q&A

Growing up, did you want to be the next Tom Brokaw?

I wanted to be a sportscaster. I was a huge Yankees fan growing up on Long Island. I have a distinct memory of putting on one of my dad’s sports coats, which was pretty large for me, setting up an ironing board in the living room and pretending it was the set.

Was there a sportscaster you wanted to emulate?

Warner Wolf with his ‘Boom!’ and ‘Let’s go to the videotape’ [calls]. Now we’re both on “Imus in the Morning” on Fox Business News. The day after [then-House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor lost, they asked my opinion and I imitated Warner by saying, ‘If you had Eric Cantor and 15 points, you lost!’ Warner was listening and he said, ‘That’s pretty good,’ which was a cool moment for me because he was my hero when I was 9.

What did your parents do for a living?

When I was born, my dad, Ed, was a dairy manager. Then he became a store manager and then a bigger management guy. My mom, Christine, was a bookkeeper. I have a younger sister, Colleen, who runs a hair salon in Franklin Square [N.Y.], which is in Nassau County right by Belmont Park racetrack. I was born in Astoria, Queens, and when I was 4 or 5, we moved to a little town in Suffolk County called Deer Park. It’s about 45 miles from Manhattan.

How did you go from an aspiring sportscaster to the news side?

I was always an inquisitive kid, so I got involved in the school paper at Robert Frost Junior High. I did run for office then, too. I was really into Bruce Springsteen and I had signs that said, ‘Ed Henry: Born To Run.’ But I lost and I wasn’t going to ever do that again because I was so mad.

Did you go to college to become a journalist?

I went to Siena because it wasn’t too far from home and I got a partial scholarship that I could use at an in-state school. I majored in English because I felt like I hadn’t read enough major literature and hadn’t been pushed enough in high school.

So how do you go from being an English major at Siena to working for legendary investigative reporter Jack Anderson and Roll Call?

When I was in high school [at St. John the Baptist], I got invited to a short-term summer program in journalism at American University. I thank my parents, who didn’t have a lot of money, for finding a way to allow me to go. Once I was in Washington, I was hooked.

Why didn’t you go to AU or George Washington University for college?

Because I had been to that program at AU, I knew about its Washington Semester Program, and one of the reasons I picked Siena was because it participated in that program. I came here in the fall of 1991. My professor, Joe Spear, was a fierce muckraker and really instilled that in me. I owe him a lot. We would have two days a week in the classroom and two days a week at an internship. I cold-called syndicated columnist Jack Anderson’s office, which was on the list because Joe Spear had been one of his associates, and I got hired as an intern. Jack would say, ‘We don’t cover the news. We uncover the news. I don’t want you going to news conferences. There’s no news at news conferences.’ He was right. It’s more about the digging you do.

A pivotal moment for me that fall was when Clarence Thomas was nominated for the Supreme Court. One day, it came across the wire that he had decided he would answer his critics and testify that night before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I waited on line and wound up sitting a couple of rows behind Thomas. When he said it was ‘a high-tech lynching,’ I was right there. I knew right then that I had to figure out how to get back to Washington after graduation.

By the end of my internship, I had hit it off with Jack’s top associate, Michael Binstein, who asked me to stick around and not go back to Siena. I called my parents, and it still blows me away that they let me do it instead of telling me to get my degree first. I fear that if I had, I wouldn’t be here now. I moved into a group house with five guys near the National Cathedral. Jack Anderson paid me $250 a week, which was dirt even in 1991 dollars, but I got up every morning really excited. And it took me five years, but I did get my degree.

What was your next job after working for Jack Anderson?

I covered the Senate for Roll Call, which was like the campus newspaper on the Hill because everyone read it. I got my big breakthrough when the person writing the Heard On The Hill column left and I was offered the job. Then, within a couple of months, the editor and the managing editor left. At the age of 26, I went into the publisher’s office and said, ‘I want to be the editor.’ She kinda laughed because I had only been there a couple of years. A couple of days later, she said that she didn’t think I was ready to be the editor, but she offered me the No. 2 job on an acting basis. After a couple of weeks, I had the job full time.

It’s still a big jump from No. 2 at Roll Call to White House correspondent at CNN. How did that happen?

I was reading a story in November or December of ’97 that President Clinton was worried about his legacy and that the State of the Union speech in January was going to give him a chance to lay out his priorities. Roll Call had started in 1955 and had never interviewed a president. So I sent a handwritten note to [White House Press Secretary] Mike McCurry, guaranteeing that almost every member of Congress would read the interview. I didn’t think I’d get a response, but he sent me a handwritten note saying it was a great idea. My exclusive print interview was set on the same day that the president would give an exclusive radio interview to NPR and an exclusive TV interview to Jim Lehrer. Everyone at Roll Call was blown away.

But it turned out that was a very important day, right?

The night before the interview, I got a call from Amy Weiss, a junior White House press person, saying that they wanted to cut it from 45 minutes in the Oval Office to 20 minutes over the phone. I said, ‘Interview a president over the phone? It just doesn’t work. You don’t see the body language.’ She said, ‘Something’s come up. Let’s talk in the morning.’ The next morning, I went out to my doorstep in Bethesda and there was The Washington Post with the headline that said, ‘Clinton Had Sex With Intern, May Lead To Impeachment.’ I rushed to the office and called the White House. When McCurry finally called back, he said the interview was on. [Clinton] did Lehrer first and said, ‘The relationship is not sexual.’ When I saw it on the AP wire, I said, ‘He’s denying it,’ but someone else pointed out that he was using the present tense. So during my interview, I asked it again and Clinton said, ‘The relationship was not sexual.’ He changed the tense. I always tell people that my legacy is secure because he lied to me first. That scoop got me on TV a little bit. Then CNN came calling [in 2004] because their two congressional correspondents, Kate Snow and Jonathan Karl, left for ABC within a month of each other.

Do you ever miss writing?

I love TV. I love Fox. It’s a dream come true. I’m in the front row in the White House press room. But I do miss writing, and that’s why I’m trying to write a book. It’s about Jackie Robinson [who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947]. My angle is about faith ultimately tying [Brooklyn Dodgers general manager] Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson together. Rickey almost didn’t do it. A pastor in Brooklyn helped convince him that it was what God wanted, that it was the right thing to do. I have talked to [Jackie’s widow] Rachel Robinson, and she gave me some interesting insight on how faith was also the key for Jackie.

What else do you do to get away from the daily grind?

I play golf. People criticize the president for playing golf, but that might be the only four hours he has each week to get away from the constant barrage. Golf is a refuge for me, too.

What about your family?

I have a 13-year-old son, Patrick, who’s an eighth-grader at Westland Middle School, and a 10-year-old daughter, Mila, who’s a fifth-grader at Chevy Chase Elementary. Patrick and I have played golf a few times together. Mila really likes tennis. So does Patrick. My wife, Shirley, doesn’t really play either. We met at CNN; she was a longtime CNN producer. Now she’s a senior editor at NPR.  

Tony Snow, Jay Carney, Bill Moyers, to name three, went back and forth between the media and the White House. Have you ever thought about becoming part of an administration?

When I was working for Jack Anderson, I wrote a hard-hitting column on [then-Pennsylvania Sen.] Arlen Specter. I got a call from his staff saying that he wanted to meet me for lunch. I thought I was going to get taken to the woodshed. Instead, he offered me a job. I was dirt-poor and I was wondering how long I was going to stick it out in journalism…but I decided I loved journalism too much. I haven’t talked to anyone in either party about a job since.

Would you like to be an anchor someday?

Who wouldn’t want that? But the White House is the biggest stage as a correspondent. There’s glamour and fun in the job, but no one knows about when it’s 3 in the morning in China and you’re doing a live shot with no sleep. The president’s last trip to Europe is a great example. We were in Paris for about eight hours. We did a couple of live shots, but there wasn’t enough time to sleep, so I just checked into my room to shower and change my clothes. I didn’t even have a meal. It could’ve been Des Moines, except my producer, Wes Barrett, who lives in Bethesda, and I took a bunch of sunset pictures from a vantage point near our hotel where you could see the Eiffel Tower.

How is your relationship with the president?

We’ll go back and forth sometimes at news conferences. I was president of the White House Correspondents’ Association a couple of years ago, and at the end of your term you preside over this big dinner. I was able to bring my parents, my sister and her kids to meet the president beforehand. He and Mrs. Obama were amazing with my family. People think that as a White House correspondent you get to spend all this time with the president, but there’s a significant difference covering the president compared to covering a mayor. I still get goose bumps walking up to the White House, and I don’t want to leave until that’s no longer the case. I’m 43 and I’ve never been happier in my life than right now.

Do you get criticized in liberal Montgomery County for working at conservative Fox?

I think there’s a feeling around the country that not enough people have been asking tough questions of the Obama administration, so people thank me for doing that. Some people forget that I used to battle the Bush administration when I was at CNN. [Former Bush Press Secretary] Dana Perino once told [Fox News Chairman and CEO] Roger Ailes that every time The Washington Post or The New York Times ran a photo of her she looked really angry and it was because I had asked her a question. She called me an equal opportunity jerk. Roger laughed and laughed.

How long have you been in your house in Chevy Chase?

Eight years. I’ve lived in Montgomery County for 20 years or so. Walking around downtown Bethesda is such a great experience. If we go to the movies, we go to the UA on Wisconsin Avenue. My kids really love to eat at Nando’s Peri-Peri on Bethesda Avenue.

Do people think the White House is like The West Wing or House of Cards?

There’s some idealism in the White House, but not as much as on The West Wing. And while some pieces of House of Cards [are accurate]—there have been some contentious battles in the White House briefing room—I still haven’t seen anybody thrown on the Metro tracks. People would be stunned about how calm things are at the White House most days. Going to the White House and following the president around the world is still awe-inspiring, but it’s only when major news is happening that it’s all hell breaking loose.

David Elfin owns DavidElfinOnSports.com and is the author of seven books on Washington sports.

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