On a wall in Ted Knap’s house, there are dozens of framed photographs of him with Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Icons such as Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Dempsey and Pope John Paul II are there, too.
Knap, 95, a native of Milwaukee and 1940 graduate of Marquette University’s College of Journalism, covered the six presidents during his two decades as a White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.
And yet, he told students, faculty, alumni and friends listening in the Diederich College of Communication recently, the most interesting people he knew were his fellow journalists.
“They were bright, funny and open people,” he said.
An example: He and other journalists were unexpectedly invited to a formal dinner at a hotel where they were staying while on assignment. The only woman among them needed an outfit for the occasion. Improvising, she tied a belt around a peignoir.
“That was the night I saw Barbara Walters dance with Henry Kissinger in her nightgown,” said Knap, referring to the television newswoman and nation’s secretary of state.
For nearly an hour, Knap shared his memories from his years as a cub reporter for the Daily Freeman in Waukesha, a suburb of Milwaukee, to his time in Washington.
In 1950, he found himself sitting on a stairwell with Nixon, then a congressman from California, reviewing details of a Lincoln Day Dinner speech the politician had just given. Twenty-three years later, during the Watergate scandal, Knap, by then president of the White House Correspondents Association, on Nixon’s “enemies list.”
Following Knap’s prepared remarks, Mike Gousha, a distinguished fellow in law and public policy at Marquette’s Law School, interviewed him about his life and career. As Gousha, a longtime local TV newsman, recounted that Knap had witnessed so much of history, the guest of honor sought to downplay any notion of being extraordinary.
“I don’t want you to get the idea that just because I had good times and laughs that it was all fun and games,” he said. “It was also hard work.”
Asked how he stayed grounded and connected with his readers, Knap replied: “I would tell the truth the way I saw it. That part was simple.”
In a farewell column, Knap said, he revealed his political ideology to his readers, believing he owed that to them. But despite writing that he had voted for six Republicans and six Democrats for president, he insisted that professionally he had remained nonpartisan.
The audience took its turn to ask Knap questions. One woman asked which 2016 presidential candidate he would want to interview. He said either Hillary Clinton, because he doesn’t think her campaign was going as well as expected, or John Kasich, whom Knap said he considered the most reasonable and viable among the Republican choices.
A student asked who was the most interesting person he had interviewed. Hubert Humphrey, the former vice president and the 1968 Democratic presidential nominee, who Knap called “a bright, informed and open person.”
What about current media coverage of presidential candidates? Knap bemoaned that too much time is spent reporting on provocative stories, rather than substantive ones.
2015-16 O’Brien Fellow Liz Navratil, a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said when she heard that Knap was returning to Marquette, she knew she wanted to attend.
“A man with his journalistic history is bound to teach you a few lessons,” Navratil said. “Watching him recount his stories covering six presidents was an inspiration.”
Brittany Carloni, a junior journalism major who is interning with O’Brien Fellow Dave Umhoefer of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, appreciated that Knap urged journalists to remember their duty to hold elected leaders accountable.
“His comment about a good democracy requiring an informed electorate was really motivating for me as a journalism student,” Carloni said.
Grace is a junior journalism major and a program assistant with the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism.