Perched atop the National Press Building within sight of the White House and just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol, the National Press Club is the traditional meeting place in Washington for newsmakers and journalists.
Founded more than a century ago as a haven for Washington reporters to relax, enjoy a drink and play cards, it is now the world’s leading professional organization for journalists.
Through its doors have come presidents, premiers, kings and queens, Cabinet secretaries, senators and House members, movie stars and sports heroes, titans of business and finance – just a who’s who of the 20th and the 21st centuries. Here they have found a willing audience of reporters waiting to grill them with questions, interpret what they say and send the news around the world.
It all began on a cold, blustery February day in 1908 when a one-legged reporter for the old Washington Times by the name of Graham Nichol crossed 14th Street on crutches and met a colleague, James Hay. “I’m getting tired of having to hunt a stuffy, ill-ventilated little hall room in a cheap boarding house every time I want to play a game of poker,” Nichol exclaimed. “Hells bells, why don’t we get up a press club? A place where the fellows can take a drink or turn a card when they feel like it.”
“How? Where?” Hay responded through chattering teeth. “I don’t know and I don’t give a damn where,” Nichol replied. “But all the same, we’re going to have a club.” And he hobbled to the pressroom at police headquarters on 12th Street and started collecting signatures of reporters willing to plunk down $10 each to get the Club started.
On March 12, 1908, 32 newspapermen with $300 in their treasury and promises of support from 200 of their colleagues decided that a press club was feasible and elected officers to look into it. Meeting just 17 days later in the F Street Parlor of the Willard Hotel, they framed a constitution for what they called the National Press Club.
By May, the Club had rented two floors above a jewelry story at 1205 F St. NW and threw a housewarming party that drew not only hundreds of journalists but several members of Congress, diplomats and Buffalo Bill Cody.
Right from the beginning the Club attracted noted figures of the era. Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin and Andrew Carnegie dropped by in those early days.
William Howard Taft became the first president to visit the Club when he hoisted his 300-pound body up the stairs on New Year’s Day 1910. He gave the bartender a rosebud from his lapel in exchange for a glass of water. Former President Theodore Roosevelt stopped by to tell of his exploits hunting big game in Africa and hint he may run again in 1912. Woodrow Wilson visited often. He once said the Club was the one place in town where he could relax – something hard to imagine in today’s adversarial environment. Warren Harding, who was a newspaper publisher before he went into politics, voted in Club elections.
During a World War II canteen for servicemen, then vice president Harry Truman played an upright piano while movie actress Lauren Becall sat on top and draped her long legs seductively over the side to the soldiers – and photographers – delight.
As the Club rapidly expanded, it outgrew its first three homes. In the 1920s, the Club’s board decided to build a high-rise office building with the Club at the top. It would be filled with the Washington bureaus then scattered along 14th and F Streets known as Newspaper Row. President Calvin Coolidge laid the cornerstone, and the 14-story building – the largest private office building in Washington at the time -- opened in December 1927 with a spacious Club on the top two floors. In the early 1980s, the building was torn down to its girders and rebuilt while the Club kept functioning. In 2006, the Club added a Broadcast Operations Center that shoots and transmits news and events around the world.
It’s hard to imagine now, but the Club excluded women until 1971. In retaliation, women journalists began their own Club, the Women’s National Press Club, in 1919, the same year women got the right to vote. That club developed its own lively program, especially with the help of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It became famous for its annual “Salute to Congress” dinner. It fought the National Press Club for access to its speakers, and in 1959 it convinced Nikita Khrushchev not to speak at the NPC unless women were admitted. They were – for that one event. When the NPC finally voted to admit women, the women’s club changed its name to the Washington Press Club and admitted men. They remained rival clubs until they merged in 1985.
When President-elect Franklin Roosevelt spoke in 1932 he began what has become the newsmaker luncheon series that has attracted thousands of leaders to the Club’s podium including Khrushchev (who explained what he meant by “We will bury you”), Madame Chiang Kai Shek, Charles deGaulle, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Boris Yeltsin, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, and the Dalai Lama. Iranian President President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the Club and took questions by two-way satellite hook up in 2007.
Some historians believe the Club may have played a role in launching the Korean War. In January 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson outlined America’s “defense perimeter” in the Far East during a Club luncheon but did not include South Korea. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin may have taken that as a green light to arm the North Koreans to invade the South.
Both Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter announced their presidential bids at the Club, and George W. Bush introduced his national security team during the 2000 election. When Sen. Barack Obama visited the Club in 2006, he joined actor George Clooney in a press conference about Darfur.
Beginning in 1994, CBS news legend Marvin Kalb launched a series of television forums that probe the craft of journalism. He has questioned such journalism luminaries as CBS anchors Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Katie Couric, CNN international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, investigative reporters Seymour Hersh and Dana Priest, AP President Tom Curly and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch.
On any given day now, the Club is bustling with press conferences, newsmaker events, forums and professional training. Hundreds of people pass through the Club daily looking to make news and to get news, looking for professional advancement and looking for fellowship. Members enjoy the restaurants – and yes, Graham Nichol would be pleased that the card room is still open.
CBS Commentator Eric Severeid summed up what the Club means to its members. Speaking in 1982 in the ballroom where so many events had taken place, he called the Club the “sanctum sanctorum of American journalists … It’s Westminster Hall, it’s Delphi, it’s Mecca… the Wailing Wall for everybody in this country having anything to do with the news business; the only hallowed place I know that’s absolutely bursting with irreverence.”