By Joni Moths Mueller
Ted Knap covered five presidents and collected enough memories to fill a book.
Ted Knap, Jour ’40, watches the 2016 presidential campaign drama with knowing eyes, and it chafes a bit. “Oh, I watch it, damn right. If I were writing a column. …” he says wistfully. Knap covered five presidents, seven “wannabes” and 14 national political conventions as chief political writer and White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service from 1966 until he retired in 1985. His “White House Watch” column premiered in 1973 and was syndicated to more than 100 newspapers nationwide.
One wall of 8×10-inch photographs in the living room of his Oconomowoc, Wis., home testifies to this journalist’s history as a member of the national press corps.
The photography tells a one-dimensional story; it takes Knap’s personal memories to breathe in the other dimensions. About Robert Kennedy, whose 1968 campaign Knap covered, he quips, “He or Ethel was always brushing his hair.” Knap was home in bed the night Robert Kennedy was killed by assassin Sirhan Sirhan — an enormous regret of his career. About Hubert Humphrey, Knap remembers a moment during his presidential campaign when the press and candidate joined in a circle to sing We Shall Overcome. About President Richard Nixon, Knap recounts the tension surrounding a nearly disastrous visit with Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev at the Kremlin in 1972 to negotiate a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the two world powers. “It was touch and go,” he says. After seven days of negotiations, when collapse seemed eminent, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suddenly appeared at midnight in the doorway of the press room and delivered a jubilant one-hour briefing on the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, providing every detail without notes.
Knap went to work to write a news story explaining what this meant from a national security standpoint. “And then I did a political analysis piece, because this was an election year so it was going to have an impact on the election,” he remembers. He finished writing and looked up to see it was getting light outside. “I realized I had just worked right through my birthday.”
The witness-to-history position of national correspondent came by following what Knap calls a “well-worn track.” Journalism found him, thanks to prodding by a teacher at Messmer High School in Milwaukee who spotted skill in his writing. For one homework assignment Knap traveled to Chicago to cover the 1936 Democratic National Convention with press credentials for his school newspaper. “I think that’s when I decided I didn’t want to be just a journalist but a political writer and go to Washington,” he says.
He came to Marquette as a 16-year-old freshman. “Scholastically I had no trouble, but socially it was terrible. You know the difference between a 16-year-old boy and an 18-year-old girl?” he asks. “Lots of luck getting a date.”
Possibly that empty social calendar opened time for Knap to commit to work in Sears Roebuck Department Store’s credit department. He says the experience taught him that you can ask people any questions about themselves and you’ll get answers. “That emboldened me. I got to the point that asking questions became much easier. Thank you, Sears Roebuck,” he says.
“The press is treated like the villain. I like to say, ‘If not the press, who would tell us?'”
After graduating he worked as a reporter and editor at the Waukesha (Wis.) Freeman, with a four-year interruption due to serving in the U.S. Army, then the Indianapolis Times before being promoted by Scripps Howard to cover the White House. In Washington, D.C., he gained a reputation for being dogged for asking the questions: Why? What will that mean? Who will it help?
“I enjoyed the camaraderie of the press and the politicians,” Knap says. “At that time there was a rise in adversarial journalism, which I applaud — but that’s not me. I don’t start out with the premise that this guy is a crook. I start out with the premise that he’s like most of us, a good guy. In most cases public officials are in that business because they think they can help.”
He was on the USS Hornet when Nixon was present to welcome the Apollo 11 astronauts home after the space module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. He stood ready at Camp David while President Jimmy Carter worked to hammer out peace agreements between Israel and Egypt with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat. “There were four or five days at Camp David when it looked like it was shot, not going anywhere,” he remembers. “Then they managed to get a breakthrough, and do you know that peace treaty is still in effect?”
He covered Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, interviewed former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt twice, interviewed actress-turned-U.S. Ambassador Shirley Temple and Princess Grace of Monaco and the list goes on. He never wrote a book about those years or those conversations, but thinks maybe he should have.
He is proud of the role he played in chronicling history and can’t understand today’s disrespect for the media. “The press is treated like the villain,” he says. “I like to say, ‘If not the press, who would tell us?’ I took very seriously my job and privilege to inform the people, to tell them the truth as I saw it. If as a journalist, if you do nothing else except show the light, inform the people, that’s an accomplishment. That’s doing something for your country. The press doesn’t get much credit for that.”
Covering five administrations
Ted Knap, Jour ’40, chief political writer and White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service, covered five U.S. presidents (from left): Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
“I believe there should be an arm’s length relationship between journalists and politicians. So you can be friendly, be friends, be polite, considerate — but you have to watch everything, be careful. It doesn’t mean I’ll do anybody a favor, but I will be considerate,” he says.
Knap was president of the White House Correspondents Association from 1973–74, the year the Watergate scandal “broke open.” He ignored tradition at the White House dinner of toasting only the president. Instead he raised his glass to toast both President Richard Nixon and Vice President Gerald Ford. “I did not want the White House correspondents associated with booing the president. I thought that would be inappropriate. He was our guest, after all,” he says.