What’s life like for a St. Paul native covering President Donald Trump during unprecedented times?
Ben Tracy, who started WCCO’s popular “Good Question” news segment a dozen years before becoming a White House correspondent for CBS, gave viewers a partial answer this month on social media.
“I felt safer reporting in North Korea than I currently do reporting at the White House. This is just crazy,” he wrote in a tweet on Oct. 5 that has so far attracted nearly 195,000 likes and plenty of blowback.
Tracy, 44, who attended St. Thomas Academy before embarking on a journalism career, went deeper last week in a phone conversation from Florida, where he was preparing to cover two Trump rallies.
Q: Any regrets about that tweet?
A: I’ve thought about this a lot. I wish I had provided more context. That’s the problem with Twitter. Let me start with what it wasn’t. I wasn’t comparing Trump to Kim Jong Un.
That was the week the outbreak was happening in the White House and we’re always interacting with people there. We weren’t getting good information about who was testing positive, so you weren’t really sure if you were exposed.
Do I really want to go home to my partner and possibly expose him? I had never had a moment in my career where I thought about my health in such an acute way every minute of the day. Not even when covering a tsunami in Indonesia or wildfires or was in North Korea. It was a real concern.
Q: How do you feel now?
A: I think we’re all taking more precautions. I’ve limited the amount of face time I spend with anyone at the White House. It’s one thing to be sick, but you also don’t want to test positive and then be on the bench for two weeks. So I’m being very careful. I’m doing a lot more on the phone and through e-mail.
Q: Was covering the White House always an ambition for you or did it just sort of happen?
A: Here’s the funny thing. When I was in college at Marquette University, I actually interned in the White House’s communication press office during the Clinton years. But I have to tell you, it wasn’t like I was taking steps to get here. I was really enjoying telling stories from the West Coast [for CBS] for nine years. Then I had two years in Beijing. I had given up on the D.C. thing. I just didn’t think my career was moving in that direction. When they offered it to me, you just don’t turn it down, especially with this president in such a fascinating moment in history.
Q: Before the pandemic, what was a typical day on the job? Not that there is such a thing.
A: You’re right. There’s not a normal day, especially with this White House. When I first started in May 2019, I came in during a whirlwind: the Mueller report, the whistleblower thing. I thought the impeachment would be by far the biggest thing I would cover.
As far as routine goes, it depended on what show you’re working for that week. If it’s the morning show, you showed up at the White House at 6 a.m. and gave a report at 7 a.m. Around 1 or 2 p.m., the evening newsperson came in and you switched out. None of that happens anymore.
Because of COVID, we try to limit how many people are at the White House. If you’re the morning person, you are on for the entire day and the others sit out. If someone tests positive, you don’t want to run the risk of wiping out the whole team.
Q: What don’t people understand about the beat?
A: There are a lot of misconceptions. They think it’s a glamorous gig. It’s not. The work space in the White House is tiny. It’s old.
When the president is traveling, you’re constantly running to planes and vans. You’re on his time schedule and he gets to move around quickly. There are no moments that are routine. Things are coming at you a mile a minute and you have to always be ready. Whatever you might say about Trump, he’s very accessible. He takes a lot of our questions.
Q: What’s it like to be on Air Force One?
A: The seats are nothing fancy. What is great is the service. The food is fantastic. The first time I flew, they served a breakfast of chicken and waffles. That’s not a normal part of my diet, but I gladly took it.
One thing they warn you about is posting pictures of the food. People get the wrong idea. They think taxpayers are paying for it. That’s not true. CBS and the government come up with a price for the plane ticket and all that stuff. The second time I flew on Air Force One, it was when the president went to Mount Rushmore on the 4th of July with all the fireworks. They take you in a helicopter and drop you right on it. If you’re going to see Rushmore, that’s the best way.
Q: What about being inside the Oval Office? What do we not see on TV?
A: When they bring the president in there, there’s about 20 of us. It gets crowded really, really quickly. We’re all behind the couch with our little mikes, jockeying for position.
You may have caught this, but on the coffee table there’s this model of Air Force One redesigned so that it has red-white-and-blue colors. It looks a lot like his private plane. I think it’s in the same spot Obama used to keep a wooden bowl with apples.
The shape of the room may never change, but other things do. Trump has a lot of flags from all the military services. It’s probably more ceremonial than it has been in the past.
Q: The job also comes with a lot of criticism and personal attacks. How do you deal with that?
A: My family asks me that a lot. How do you feel when you’re called an enemy of the people? I don’t find it hard to set that all aside. I mean, I would prefer the president didn’t call us that. I think it’s dangerous. But it doesn’t influence how I do the job. It isn’t hard for me to compartmentalize. I’ve never been a partisan person, which is great. I feel like a true independent.
The yelling and name-calling doesn’t bother me as much as the false information or unwillingness to share certain information. If I do feel stressed, I go for a run. Maybe the occasional gin and tonic.
Q: What else do you do to ground yourself?
A: I don’t have a car. I walk to work. It’s about 25 minutes. It’s really a peaceful time where I can listen to a podcast and clear my head. But this is the kind of job you always have to be doing. Trump has a very different style of communication. He could say something at all hours of day. You don’t have the luxury of putting your phone away for a few hours. It doesn’t work that way.
Q: What are you most looking forward to once the election is over?
A: A break would be great. I miss California a lot. More than the election being over, I’m looking forward to when we get past the pandemic and to seeing friends and family, being around those we love. Maybe a glass of wine at a winery.