‘Journalist with a heart’ gets personal
Just three weeks away from becoming the first female chief White House correspondent for the Associated Press in early 2003, Sandra Sobieraj Westfall left to take a job at People magazine.
Why? The impeachment of President Bill Clinton “had sucked the life out of me,” said Westfall, on May 1 at the Grand Marquis in Old Bridge for the Main Event of the Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of N.J., where she was the keynote speaker.
Westfall, who has covered presidential campaigns and served as AP White House correspondent from 1997 until her departure in 2003, said the burden her position carried also influenced her decision. In the days before most Americans were connected to the internet, Westfall said, the AP was a heavily relied upon news source, and she worried something she reported would cause a financial crisis on Wall Street or, as the Bosnian War raged, destabilize the Balkans.
“I learned what I wrote and said had real consequences,” she told the 450 people in attendance.
Since 2007, Westfall has served as People’s national political correspondent, and her career has taken her around the world with leading American political and entertainment figures. During her days with the AP, she flew on Air Force One with the press corps, and rode camels with Chelsea and Hillary Clinton. She climbed the Great Wall of China with President George W. Bush, whom she also accompanied to Ground Zero four days after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
But, she said, although being in that position may seem glamorous, it came with a tight schedule and rigorous rules that governed when reporters could eat and even when they could visit the bathroom.
When she decided to leave the AP and take the position at People, Westfall said, it was a decision to “lean out,” a counter reference to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” website and book title touting the attitude toward career advancement that such a phrase implies. Instead, she said, “I learned to care.” In fact, the description of herself that she most likes is “journalist with a heart.”
Westfall said “the blessing” of her career has been “showing people the other side of what they think they know” about government leaders and other celebrities.
While she was interviewing Laura Bush near the end of her eight years in the White House, the first lady confessed to Westfall that she regretted not giving interviews out of fear of disgracing her husband by accidentally saying something controversial. Bush lamented that the public saw her only as “the nice librarian,” her profession before her husband entered politics; because of Bush’s reticence, Westfall said, “no one knew who she really was.”
Westfall spent two weekends with Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of disgraced former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, as she was suffering from cancer (she died in December 2010). By then Edwards was separated from her husband, who had fathered a child with another woman.
“I slept in the same bed as her son, Wade, was using when he died at age 16,” said Westfall, who wrote of Elizabeth’s heartbreak and strength.
One of Westfall’s challenges has been trying to combine familial responsibilities and a dynamic career. Sometimes they overlapped: A Secret Service agent set her up on a blind date with another agent, whom Westfall ended up marrying.
Other times they complicated matters: While covering a holiday party at the White House during the Obama administration, she decided to bring her then-six-year-old son, Jonathan, to Washington, D.C., as her date. But when an unplanned interview opportunity with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor arose the following day, Westfall, far from her New Jersey home, she had no one to leave Jonathan with.
She recalled something Michelle Obama had told her about being offered an interview for a plum job when the Obamas’ daughter, Sasha, was an infant. Still on maternity leave and without any child care options, the future first lady decided to bring Sasha along in her stroller, hoping the baby wouldn’t cry and that her potential employer would understand the challenges of being a working mother.
This story in mind, Westfall decided she would take Jonathan with her and notified Sotomayor’s staff that her son would sit outside the office and read during the interview. A short time later, Westfall was told that “The justice won’t hear of it.” Instead, a staff member told her, Sotomayor would be happy to meet not only with Westfall, but with Jonathan, too. Sotomayor even had hot chocolate and other goodies ready for him.
She later learned Sotomayor was especially sensitive to the plight of working mothers because, thanks to an understanding employer, her own mother was able to work to support her family after Sotomayor’s father died when she was 9.
Sometime after, Jonathan received a message from the justice telling him how much she enjoyed meeting him; she signed the note “Sonia.”
“To this day, I have no idea what they talked about,” said Westfall.