Bill Plante, 1938-2022
The veteran newsman is gone at 84.
CBS News, “Bill Plante, legendary CBS News White House correspondent, has died at 84“
William “Bill” Plante, one of the longest-serving White House broadcast journalists in history, died of respiratory failure on Wednesday, according to his family. The award-winning CBS correspondent was 84 years old and lived in Washington, D.C.
Plante retired from CBS News as senior White House correspondent in 2016 after 52 years with the news division. He served four tours in Vietnam – with award-winning reporting on the fall of Saigon and Cambodia – covered the civil rights movement, all the presidential elections from 1968 to 2016, and was the anchor of the “CBS Sunday Night News” from 1988 to 1995.
“He was brilliant, as a reporter and as a human being,” said 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, who covered the White House with Plante for 10 years. “There wasn’t anything Bill didn’t excel at in our profession: he was a gifted writer, a first-class deadline maker and a breaker of major stories. He’ll be remembered for his reports from the White House lawn, his booming voice that presidents always answered and his kind heart.”
Plante was a CBS News White House correspondent for 35 years during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama and covered the State Department during the administration of George H.W. Bush. He was known for his baritone voice, which he used to launch questions from afar.
During one long stretch when there were few White House press conferences, a frustrated Plante shouted at George W. Bush about his lack of availability.
When the president announced the resignation of his advisor, Karl Rove, in 2007, and began walking away without taking questions, Plante piped up loudly, “If he’s so smart, how come you lost Congress?”
“Our asking questions should not be dependent on what the White House thinks the mood or the tone of an event should be,” Plante said at the time about the incident. “And the fact that they say ‘no questions’ or don’t allow time for questions really has nothing to do with it. They don’t have to answer, but I think we need to preserve and aggressively push our right to ask.”
When he wasn’t covering the White House, Plante was usually talking about fine wine. He was known as one of Washington’s most knowledgeable wine aficionados whose prodigious collection was thought to be one of the best in the nation’s capital. Plante soon became known as the White House press corps’ sommelier. He reported on wine occasionally for the “CBS Early Show” and “CBS Sunday Morning.”
Plante reported on the Vietnam War on four separate tours in 1964, 1967, 1971-1972 and 1975, earning two awards for his work. He was one of four CBS News correspondents to win an Emmy Award in 1972 for a five-part series broadcast on the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” in December 1971. He also won an Overseas Press Club Award for “Best Radio Spot News Reporting from Abroad” as part of the CBS News team covering the fall of Vietnam and Cambodia.
Plante joined CBS News in New York as a reporter/assignment editor in June 1964. He covered the civil rights movement, and interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King on his historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965.
At the 50th anniversary of the march, Obama said Plante “who covered the marches then and who is with us here today, quipped that the growing number of White people lowered the quality of the singing. For those who marched though, those old gospel songs must have never sounded so sweet.”
New York Times, “Bill Plante, CBS News’s Man at the White House, Dies at 84“
Bill Plante, who was one of the leading correspondents for CBS News for more than half a century, covering the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, 13 presidential elections and the White House under four presidents, died on Wednesday at his home in Washington. He was 84.
In more than 30 years at the White House Mr. Plante was known for his deep knowledge of policy and his sharp questioning of presidents and their press secretaries.
“I remember Bill as fearless in how he asked questions, unflinching and unafraid to ask the president or his staff to defend their decisions,” Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s first press secretary, wrote in an email last year, “and never in the least bit worried about offending those in power in pursuit of those answers.”
Mr. Plante had a cleareyed view of what it meant to be a White House correspondent.
“It was always interesting — never fail — and in many ways the same every time,” he said in 2016 on CBSNews.com, after he announced his retirement. “They’re different people, but they make the same mistakes; they get into the same kind of jams. And you say, ‘Hey, I’ve seen this before.'”
One of Mr. Plante’s most disquieting moments as a White House correspondent occurred in late October 1983, when he learned that the United States was about to invade the Caribbean island of Grenada. Before going on the air with his exclusive, he asked Larry Speakes, President Reagan’s acting press secretary at the time, to confirm his information.
Mr. Speakes denied it, and CBS killed the story.
“Larry said something like, ‘Preposterous — where did you get that?'” Lesley Stahl, then a fellow White House correspondent for CBS News, said in a phone interview for this obituary last year. “And the next morning there was an invasion. At the briefing the next day, Bill was furious, and justifiably so, and, in that big booming voice of his, accused Larry Speakes of misleading him.”
Washington Post, “Bill Plante, CBS News correspondent for a half-century, dies at 84“
Bill Plante, who became a fixture of American television sets as a globe-trotting CBS News correspondent, covering the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, four U.S. presidents and more than half a century of national and world affairs, died Sept. 28 at his home in Washington. He was 84.
Like many journalists, Mr. Plante had the proverbial front-row seat to history. Unlike many colleagues, he also had, more than occasionally over the years, a front-row seat in the White House briefing room.
Having covered the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — a run interrupted by an assignment covering the State Department during George H.W. Bush’s administration — Mr. Plante was one of the longest-tenured White House TV journalists in history, according to CBS.
“Bill was a friendly rival, always willing to share insights,” Tom Brokaw, the longtime former anchor of “NBC Nightly News” wrote in an email, describing Mr. Plante as “a smart, serious journalist with a droll, self deprecating style.”
Many TV viewers remembered Mr. Plante for his distinctive baritone, a voice that bespoke the gravitas of the “Tiffany Network,” as CBS long was known. Fellow reporters, meanwhile, knew him for his lungs — a pair of organs “often in service” to the entire White House press corps, recalled journalist Lesley Stahl, who covered the White House for CBS with Mr. Plante before becoming a “60 Minutes” correspondent.
“Bill could boom out questions to a president over impossibly vast distances,” Stahl commented, such as across the White House lawn or over the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base. The president would “invariably answer … giving us all the lede,” she continued, using the journalistic term for the most important news of the day.
[Referencing the Rove question, whcih made all three reports] “The President, as usual, didn’t answer,” Mr. Plante later wrote. “That’s OK — he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to. But judging by some of the reaction, you’d think I had been shouting obscenities in church!”
“There was no time to frame that question because the event … was a statement, not a news conference. So I asked a more direct one. I thought it unlikely that they would answer, but it’s always worth a try,” he continued. “Reporters are not here as guests. We’re here to ask questions. Why? Because if we were ever to agree to ‘behave,’ we’d be walking away from our First Amendment role — and then we really would be the shills we’re so often accused of being.”
It was neither the first nor the last time that Mr. Plante irritated a commander in chief; on one occasion, Clinton reportedly apologized for his angry reaction to an unflattering question about an ethics controversy. For Mr. Plante, each such encounter was a useful lesson, if not a badge of honor.
“You want to pose a question that doesn’t easily allow a simple yes or no answer — especially if it’s an accusatory question that can be answered with a one-liner,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1997.
“I have no wasted sympathy on any occupant of the White House,” Mr. Plante added. “They are out to present themselves in the best possible light, and it’s our job to find out, if we can, what’s actually going on.”
Plante was on CBS’ air before I was born and was the White House Correspondent by the time I became seriously interested in politics, so he was one of those figures who had simply always been there. By the time he retired, just six years ago, I had long since stopped being a regular consumer of televised news.
That he had the respect of his competitors and enough impact that he had glowing obits in all of the major outlets is the sign of a great career and a life well lived.