Thursday, January 15, 2009

Living Jews: Peter Maer, from STL area roots to White House Correspondent

Peter Maer is a recurring guest on Air Force One, as CBS News White House Correspondent, he has covered some of the biggest stories from an inside angle. We were, of course, thrilled when Peter agreed to answer a few questions for us. Read on for an exclusive interview with a journalist known for integrity and quality reporting.

About Peter Maer, the St. Louisian
Although you grew up in Granite City, you spent some time working in St. Louis. Did you ever, or have you always, seen yourself as a St. Louisian?

I suppose you could call me a "greater St. Louisan." Frankly, I never lived on the Missouri side. I grew up in nearby Granite City. I moved to Belleville to work for a radio station there after graduating from SIU-Edwardsville.

Being that we have a few bloggers from St. Louis, they would like to know what high school you went to.

I'm a proud graduate of Granite City Senior High. My journalistic roots go back to my days as editor of the high school newspaper and host of a weekly show on the Granite City radio station.

What is one advantage St. Louis has that DC does not?

St. Louis has more "hometown" character and loyalty. I can't recall anyone in the DC area ever asking me that classic St. Louis "high school" question. People in DC are more likely to ask, "Where did you come from?" or "What's your commute to work?"

About Peter Maer, the White House Press Correspondent

You spend a great deal of time listening to or asking questions yourself. In recognition of this, what is your process for asking questions that really get at the essence of an issue?

I've used the same approach for years. I usually ask myself, "What would people back in my home town want to know?" I usually try for questions on "wallet" issues or other topics that hit home to average Americans. That was the genesis of an exchange I had with President Bush last February.

Maer: What's your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing ... "(At this point I had planned to add a few words about people facing foreclosure and other economic pain but he cut me off with a question of his own.)
Bush: "Wait, what did you just say? "You're predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline?"

Maer : "Yes. A number of analysts are predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline."

Bush: "Oh, yeah? That's interesting. I hadn't heard that."

Of course not all questions are about domestic "pocketbook issues." If there's a brewing foreign story or crisis, White House reporters always look for fresh angles.

I assume, to some degree, that you already know many of the facts regarding the questions you are asking and the stories you are writing. When someone is clearly telling lies, half-truths, or putting up a smoke screen, what is your process for pushing to get the information you need, and how do you know how hard to push?

There's really no set process for that kind of situation. I just keep pressing until the topic is exhausted or I feel that my listeners will be able to tell that the person is "blowing smoke."

You have been a 'fly-on-the-wall' at many historic occasions, and given the opportunity to interact with some of the most influential people on the planet. What have been some of the moments that you particularly cherish or have made the most impact on you?

Some life or death moments have had the greatest impact. I covered the massive 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. More than 10,000 people died. I was standing outside the rubble when some lives ended within earshot. It was the first story that really made me literally value life itself. The same lesson hit home when I covered former Presidents Bush and Clinton when they traveled to the Asian Tsunami zone.
Asked what happened to his family, a man told the former presidents, "They only live in my heart."
I also covered President Clinton's poignant journey to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin. I was the pool reporter aboard Air Force One. The former presidents and a congressional delegation were also on board. It was a very somber flight.

Given the myriad sources of information, as well as the biases that exist at all levels, where do you get your news?

I get much of my news from the vast resources of my colleagues at CBS News. There is a constant flow of internal information and of course postings on
I also read at least four newspapers every day: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the L.A. Times. I also scan the Post-Dispatch, Chicago Trib(une) and other web sites.

You have had numerous interactions with President Bush. Ideology aside, what is one story about President Bush that stands out?

He'll be remembered for the first days after the Nine-Eleven attacks. That was his finest hour. My most vivid moment during the Bush years came when I and others were evacuated from the White House on September 11, 2001. While President Bush was in Florida that day, it was a very dramatic and at-times frightening scene in Washington, especially after the plane hit the Pentagon. We could see the smoke as we were rushed from the White House. Other key moments in his presidency including the botched response to Katrina, the flawed weapons of mass destruction justification for war in Iraq and the sour economy have been well-documented. Historians will be analyzing the Bush presidency for years to come.

About Peter Maer, DC Resident
How to you find the relatively high percentage of Jews in DC to effect your professional pursuits (does being Jewish help), as well as your personal and religious activities (ease of observance)?

I don't mix personal and professional pursuits.

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