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Bill Plante, CBS News correspondent for a half-century, dies at 84

Sept. 28, 2022 Updated Wed., Sept. 28, 2022 at 9:36 p.m.

Mr. Plante, right, with Sam Donaldson of ABC News and Helen Thomas of UPI at a White House press briefing in 1998. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Frank Johnston  (Frank Johnston/The Washington Post)
Mr. Plante, right, with Sam Donaldson of ABC News and Helen Thomas of UPI at a White House press briefing in 1998. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Frank Johnston (Frank Johnston/The Washington Post)
By Emily Langer Washington Post

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.

The cause was respiratory failure, said his wife, Robin Smith.

Plante joined CBS News as a reporter and assignment editor in 1964 – two years after Walter Cronkite assumed the anchor’s chair on the network’s nightly news – and retired as senior White House correspondent in 2016, having become in his own right one of the most visible newsmen on television.

Like many journalists, 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 – 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 the “NBC Nightly News” wrote in an email, describing Plante as “a smart, serious journalist with a droll, self deprecating style.”

Many TV viewers remembered 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 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.

Plante appeared on “CBS This Morning” and the “CBS Evening News,” anchoring the Sunday evening news broadcast from 1988 to 1995. But he was perhaps best known as a White House correspondent, covering events from the Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan administration to the 2008 election of Obama, the nation’s first African American president.

The job frequently placed Mr. Plante in conflict with White House press secretaries and other officials – sometimes the president himself – who resented his digging and needling.

In 2007, when President George W. Bush announced the resignation of political strategist Karl Rove, Mr. Plante yelled out what some attendees regarded as an impertinent question: “If he’s so smart, why did you lose Congress?” (The question referred to the 2006 midterm elections, which Bush had characterized as a “thumpin’ ” of Republicans.)

“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.”

William Madden Plante was born in Chicago on Jan. 14, 1938, and grew up in the neighborhood of Rogers Park. His father was a field engineer for a heating company, and his mother was a school administrator.

He was educated in Jesuit schools, graduating from the private Loyola Academy in Chicago in 1955 before enrolling at Loyola University Chicago, where he received a bachelor’s degree in the humanities in 1959.

He had his first taste of broadcasting at age 17 or 18, when he worked at a classical music radio station in Evanston, Ill., and dropped out of Chicago-Kent law school when a friend referred him to a job at a Milwaukee television station. After gaining practice on air, Mr. Plante won a journalism fellowship at Columbia University and then joined CBS News.

The network soon sent him to Mississippi, an experience that Mr. Plante, who said he had never before traveled south of St. Louis, likened to “going to the other side of the moon.”

“But you learn quickly, especially when the Klansmen are chasing you just for fun,” he told the Chicago Tribune in a 2014 interview. “They could always identify us. We had the new cars from the rental people at the airport.”

He covered the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting, among other seminal moments of the civil rights movement, and traveled four times to Southeast Asia to cover the Vietnam War, including the fall of Saigon in 1975.

He joined the Washington bureau in 1976, although his reportage continued to take him around the world.

“He makes Anthony Bourdain look like a homebody,” journalist James Warren observed in Vanity Fair when Mr. Plante retired. “He’s been everywhere: Saigon, Moscow, Selma, Berlin, Phnom Penh, maybe hundreds of other places. Wars, murders, you name the genre, he was there, as a young buck, as a wizened veteran.”

Mr. Plante was first married to Barbara Barnes Orteig and adopted four sons from her previous marriage. The couple had two more sons before divorcing.

In 1987, he was married to Robin Smith, then a producer for NBC News.

Besides his wife, of Washington, survivors include five sons from his first marriage, Michael Plante of New York City, Daniel Plante of San Diego, Chris Plante of Washington, Brian Plante of Lake Forest, Ill., and David Plante of Evanston; three brothers; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. His son Patrick died in 2014.

Mr. Plante served as an unofficial sommelier for the White House press corps. His turned his knowledge of fine wine into a professional asset, Stahl recalled, convening off-the-record social gatherings that helped him develop a stable of sources to rival that of “any correspondent who has ever covered the White House,” she said.

In a more adventurous display of camaraderie, Mr. Plante once traveled with Clinton to New Zealand, where, at age 61, Mr. Plante went bungee jumping with White House aides over the Kawarau River. (Clinton did not partake in the activity.)

Ever the newsman, Mr. Plante announced his plunge before he took it, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.

“This is Bill Plante of CBS News,” he intoned, “proving that you’re never too old to do something really stupid.”

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