Obituary: Ralph Harris
Thursday 8 January 2009
Ralph Harris, who as Reuters' White House correspondent covered eight US presidents from Truman to Reagan, has died at the age of 87.
The cause of death in a hospital outside Washington on 24 December was respiratory failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He also had emphysema.
Harris reported on the "frenzied" aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination amid shotgun-wielding Texas policemen in 10-gallon hats and filed details of Lee Harvey Oswald's own murder from a public telephone box while surrounded by an angry mob.
He was unflappable and invariably easy to deal with, provided he was shown the proper respect as the most senior reporter in Reuters' main reporting bureau. He was known for precise and clear-cut reports and was never reluctant to point out shortcomings. As Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes put it when announcing at a White House briefing on 25 March 1986 that Harris was retiring, he was a “reporter’s reporter” focusing on “accuracy and speed... facts without fluff”. Reagan wrote to Harris describing him as a “veritable institution among the Fourth Estate in Washington”.
Harris was immensely proud to be Reuters' chief White House correspondent and refused to take another job. Although well-qualified, he did not even want to be considered for bureau chief when that post became vacant.
But he could occasionally be cajoled to handle other major news events. In February 1976, with an announcement imminent on whether Concorde would be allowed to fly into the United States, Reuters was anxious to be first with the news, and Harris was suggested as the best person for the job. "No," he said, "I only cover the president!"
Colleagues appealed to his pride by noting he was the quickest reporter they had. "You really think so?" he asked, and, scouring official documents, he quickly found his story, leading with the supersonic aircraft's two-word landing authorisation: "Concorde OK".
In the early 1980s Reuters - conscious of the importance of branding - wanted Harris to ask questions at televised presidential news conferences. Harris initially shied away from the limelight but quickly relented when warned that another Reuters reporter at the news conferences would take his place. Thereafter, presidents were often quizzed as television screens flashed: "Ralph Harris, Reuters."
Born in Manchester, England, in 1921, he started his career with the Birkenhead News in Liverpool. After World War Two, during which he served with the Royal Air Force in South Africa, he travelled to the United States and joined Reuters in Washington in 1949. The bureau had a staff of five - four correspondents and a teleprinter operator.
Harris began covering news conferences towards the end of President Harry Truman's administration and remained through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, travelling all over the United States and the world as a member of the White House press corps.
For the better part of 37 years Harris made the White House beat his own. He established himself as one of Reuters’ quickest and most facile writers with his reports on presidential politics, crises and tragedy through the Korean War, the Cuban missile stand-off, the assassinations of President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy, Vietnam, Watergate, Richard Nixon's downfall and the Iranian hostage crisis.
When President Kennedy was shot on 22 November 1963, Harris flew immediately to Dallas where Lee Harvey Oswald was already being grilled as the chief suspect.
He later described the “fantastic and fiction-like” atmosphere there.
“The most frenzied scene I have ever experienced greeted me on my arrival outside the Homicide Squad Room on the third floor of Police Headquarters. Oswald was being brought in and out for questioning by cigar-smoking detectives wearing ten-gallon hats. Witnesses were besieged and pinned against the wall for interviews before police, armed with revolvers and shotguns, rescued them and took them away.”
Harris established himself in a television transmitting-truck parked outside the building, “keeping one eye on the possibility of trouble from a large ill-tempered crowd outside and the other on the monitors in the truck”. He described his reaction upon seeing Oswald’s murder on screen.
“The fatal shot fired by Jack Ruby into Oswald’s abdomen at point-blank range in the presence of armed police and reporters had such a stunning impact that the scene froze into a moment of paralysed amazement. Then pandemonium as Oswald dropped to the concrete floor...
“I ran to a street telephone two blocks away, filed a snap to New York, dashed back to the TV truck, and then back to the phone to fill in some of the details... A crowd of about 200 people crowded around me to listen to what I had to say, and as I was talking to New York I could hear some of them shouting, ‘He should get a medal’ and ‘Let’s hope he shot him in the eye’ (this took place before Oswald died).
“I included these remarks in my story, and then turned around to find a small scowling group threatening to express displeasure with what I had filed. It often happens, particularly in the violence-ridden South, that people do not like to be quoted, even anonymously, when they give vent to their feelings. But I was not interfered with, and the next problem was to find transportation to get to the hospital where Oswald was dying.”
In 1979, Harris earned the singular distinction of becoming the first foreign-born journalist to be elected president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
At the association’s annual dinner, he described the traditional role of his office as “criticising the president's last 12 months and advising him on the next 12 months.
“As a foreigner, I thought it would be impertinent...,” he said, as the rest of the sentence was drowned out by loud, prolonged applause from President Jimmy Carter.
The next year, Carter did not attend the dinner. Harris suggested it was because “he was afraid I would introduce him as the 39th governor general of the Colonies”.
A long-time member of the National Press Club, in retirement he spent many hours there playing gin rummy tournaments.
Harris is survived by Ena, his wife of 64 years, daughter Fabia, son Stephen and four grandchildren. He lived in the Washington area for 60 years and became an American citizen in 1995.
Photo shows Harris (centre) at the time of his retirement in 1986 with four White House press secretaries and (far right) Washington bureau chief Bruce Russell. The press secretaries (left to right) are Jerald terHorst (Gerald Ford), Ronald Ziegler (Richard Nixon), James Brady (seated, Ronald Reagan), and Jody Powell (Jimmy Carter). ■
- Washington Post