Trude Feldman, Jewish journalist who spoke to presidents and prime ministers, dies at 97
WASHINGTON (JTA) — The scene I remember is the exterior of a Washington hotel, one of the stately luxury palaces Israeli leaders indulge in when here on business. A group of Israeli and Jewish media is waiting for Ehud Barak. He gets out of an SUV. We shout questions. He ignores us.
But then he sees Trude Feldman, and he smiles and he hugs her, hugging her little body to his, her long coat scraping the pavement, her huge bun of gray hair sticking out. Barak smiles. “Trude Feldman!” he exclaims.
It was Trude Feldman’s power, her omnipresence, her grandmotherly affect and her incessant softball questions offering her the company of the powerful.
I don’t remember exactly when the scene with Feldman and Barak took place – was it when he was prime minister, defense minister, was he in opposition? One of the reasons it’s hard to pin down is that Trude Feldman has always been around.
Feldman, who freelanced for mainstream, fringe and Jewish media and interviewed several Israeli prime ministers and every president from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush, died Jan. 23 in Washington. She was 97 years old.
She was famous for scoring presidential exit interviews, the last official encounter with the media. She also relished the Yom Kippur interview, which she would present as an opportunity for redemption. This is what earned him the first interview with Bill Clinton after he agreed in 1998 to have sex with this woman.
The mainstream media mocked her for her softballs – Feldman didn’t mention Monica Lewinsky once, instead asking Clinton, “Now what would you say to the kids around the world who look up to you and consider you a role model?
Clinton, a savvy media player, took the field. “What has been really helpful to me over the past few weeks is the religious guidance I have received on the atonement of the Yom Kippur liturgy, to remind me that while it is unusual for the president to to be in a public situation like this, the fundamental truth is that the human condition – with its frailties and propensity for sin – is something that I share with others,” he said. “I can believe in the reality of atonement and ultimately forgiveness.”
Her gentle approach was immortalized by ‘Saturday Night Live’ player Victoria Jackson, her hair piled high in Feldman’s chaotic bun, in a 1988 skit in which Robin Williams played confused President Ronald Reagan embattled over the Iran Contra scandal. and seeking to avoid the difficulties of the questions. “Trudy! Trudie! Trudie!” an aide whispers to Reagan as he seeks refuge at a press conference. Williams calls on Trudy.
“Mr. President, this may sound like a lob,” Jackson says as Feldman. “But what would you like to talk about?”
Her nephew, Rabbi Daniel Feldman of Teaneck, acknowledged in a reminiscence for the Jewish Standard that her aunt’s approach drew mockery – but he said it also sparked truths.
“The joke, however, was on everyone,” he wrote. “Associated with her characteristic persistence, her style more often elicited not puff but depth, more sincerity than sugar. by all – yielded memorable results.
She was loved enough by the powerful that when George H.W. Bush celebrated his 75th birthday in 1999, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., read from the Congressional filing what he called “a wonderful story of the indefatigable correspondent of the White House, Trude Feldman.
Her papers, including stacks of documents documenting the famous and powerful she befriended and covered, are held by George Washington University in Washington D.C.
“Don’t take notes, you’re making me nervous!” she told a Ronald Reagan aide during a 1986 interview, “I’m not gonna hurt the guy!”
Feldman was a fluid and engaging writer; she made the learning of nothing in an interview sound, well, capital.
“As president and vice president (from 1981 to 1989), the two men had lunch together every Thursday in the Oval Office and shared their views on domestic issues and foreign affairs as well as their personal feelings,” writes She in 1999’s Paean to Bush, which included interviews with Bush and Reagan. “To date, neither has disclosed these conversations.”
The daughter of a rabbinical family, she launched her career covering the 1961 trial of Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she put her training as a Hebrew teacher to good use by teaching the language to the lawyer of the Nazi. (She also taught Hebrew to famous converts Sammy Davis Jr. and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as Paul Newman on the set of “Exodus.”)
The promise of friendly treatment helped Feldman secure his interviews, but so did his perseverance. George H. W. Bush’s spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, in a 1995 memoir called her “a pleading little old lady in a floral print dress.”
“Trude perfected his White House coverage based on a simple premise,” The New York Times quoted Fitzwater as saying in his book. “Nobody wants to be rude to an old lady.”
An anonymous White House insider was more blunt in telling The Washington Post how she scored Clinton’s interview. “She keeps bugging people until someone breaks down and says yes,” he said.
She was a constant presence at the White House – her press pass was suspended for 90 days in 2001 when a security camera caught her after hours of snooping around a desk in the building. Jake Siewert, a Clinton spokesman, told Newsweek in 2003 that “I don’t think you can put five of us in a room for more than an hour without sooner or later the conversation going back to Trudy Feldman.”
Bill Jones, another former White House correspondent, wrote in a reminiscence for the World Tribune, one of Feldman’s clients, that there were similar Secret Service conversations. She “had the nerve to get her way when she ran into obstacles in her attempt to write a story”.
Feldman was part of a cohort that for years haunted the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and Congress — stringers credentialed by one of their gigs, often an outlet no one had heard of (Feldman’s was “Trans Services”) which seemed age in place.
There are none left – none that I know of, anyway – eliminated by a press corps and a bureaucracy which, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, took themselves much more seriously. Too seriously to take the lonely voice at the back of the room asking the weird question, the one you laughed at until you realized there might be questions that weren’t in your playbook that had to be asked. Slowly, sometimes gently, sometimes not, these second stringers were asked to leave their hard-earned cubicles.
The White House revoked Feldman’s press pass in 2007, but she continued to work in the city, appearing at AIPAC conferences, outside of hotels — until she nodded. do it more.
His nephew, Rabbi Daniel Feldman, in recalling his aunt quotes the Exodus commandment not to bear false witness, and an interpretation of the Talmudic commandment: “Do not accept, nor transmit, a negative report which is false or aimless. ”