Trude Feldman, White House Reporter Who Got Access, Dies at 97

Trude Feldman, a second-string member of the White House press corps whose insistent approach to seeking access and softball questions won her exclusive interviews with American presidents and other world leaders, died on Jan. 23 in Washington. She was 97.

Her death was confirmed by Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, a nephew.

Ms. Feldman interviewed every president from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush. For McCall’s magazine, she wangled the first interview with Richard M. Nixon and his wife, Pat, after the president resigned in 1974. She went on to be granted the final presidential interviews with Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan as well as with Mr. Bush.

She had the first interview with Bill Clinton after he publicly apologized in 1998 for covering up what he admitted was an inappropriate relationship with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. In their talk, Ms. Lewinsky’s name never came up. Instead, Ms. Feldman and Mr. Clinton obliquely discussed the implications of repentance on the upcoming Jewish Day of Atonement.

Ms. Feldman wrote for an array of newspapers, wire services, women’s magazines and local Jewish journals; many of her articles were syndicated. Her Clinton interview was distributed by the Universal Press Syndicate.

Her opinion pieces appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post, The Associated Press and The New York Times. Those and other news outlets sometimes quoted her syndicated reports, for Trans Features.

Ms. Feldman made the Middle East her main subject, but she also treated her readers to articles that explored why Sammy Davis Jr. had converted to Judaism, why the first lady Rosalynn Carter cried on her first day in the White House, and why the F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover considered the Bible one of his best sources for what he viewed as his moral fervor.

She covered the war-crimes trial of the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for The Jewish Press and The Beverly Hills Reporter; she was said to have given Hebrew lessons to Eichmann’s lawyer. Ms. Feldman reported that Eichmann’s wife, Vera, interviewed in Munich, had pleaded with her husband’s jailers to let her “hold him in her arms once more” before he was hanged in 1962 for his role in the Holocaust.

Ms. Feldman in an undated photograph. She wrote about why Sammy Davis Jr. converted to Judaism, why Rosalynn Carter cried on her first day in the White House and why J. Edgar Hoover consulted the Bible.Credit…via Daniel Feldman

Sometimes, inadvertently or as the beneficiary of a trial balloon over a proposed policy shift, she would walk away from an interview with a scoop. What vexed many of her fellow White House correspondents most was how she finagled access to high-level government officials, even getting their unlisted telephone numbers. Some saw her as a toady who was given access because of her reputation for going easy on interviewees.

“Her path was neither Pollyannish nor naïve, but intelligently idealistic,” her nephew, Rabbi Feldman, wrote in The Jewish Standard on Feb. 2, although he acknowledged that “superficially, her generosity toward her subjects could invite mockery.”

As it did in 1988, on “Saturday Night Live.”

In a skit, Robin Williams, playing a beleaguered President Reagan, is advised by an aide through his earpiece at a news conference to call on Ms. Feldman. She promptly says on cue: “Mr. President, this may seem like a lob — but what would you like to talk about?”

Still, in his 1995 memoir, “Call the Briefing!,” Marlin Fitzwater, a press secretary to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said that Ms. Feldman, along with Sarah McClendon of McClendon News Service and Evelyn Y. Davis of Highlights and Lowlights, was a pillar of “the First Ladies’ Club” of the White House press corps.

“Trude has perfected her coverage of the White House based on one simple principle,” Mr. Fitzwater wrote. “No one wants to be rude to an old lady.”

He added, “The most remarkable aspect of Trude was that she could write, smoothly and well, and she got published.”

A granddaughter, daughter and sister of rabbis, Ms. Feldman expressed the hope that she was making a modest contribution to Mideast peace when she asked King Hussein of Jordan to dance at a White House reception. (At 4-foot-11, she said, she was the only woman short enough to be a suitable partner for him.)

Sometimes, though, what was indulged as eccentricity crossed a line.

Ms. Feldman had a small apartment not far from the White House, but from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week, she could routinely be found behind a stack of newspapers in the Executive Mansion’s basement briefing room. Once, her press credentials were suspended for 90 days after a security camera caught her snooping late at night around a press assistant’s desk.

Jill Abramson, a former Washington bureau chief and executive editor of The Times, described Ms. Feldman in an email as “the very definition of indefatigable.” The media critic Howard Kurtz wrote in The Washington Post in 1998 that she “repeatedly scooped her better-known rivals” but remained “humble and bashful,” quoting her as saying after the 1998 Clinton interview: “Let the article speak for itself. I don’t need the publicity.”

Gertrude Bella Feldman was born on Aug. 13, 1924, in Los Angeles to Rabbi Moses J. Feldman and Rebecca (Namiat) Feldman, both prominent authors of books on Judaism. Her brother was Dr. David M. Feldman, a bioethicist and the author of “Birth Control in Jewish Law” (1998).

Besides her nephew Rabbi Feldman, her survivors include a sister, Miriam Landau.

As a young woman Ms. Feldman covered sports for her junior high school newspaper and later taught at Hebrew schools in Los Angeles and metropolitan New York. She also coached Paul Newman in Hebrew for the 1960 film “Exodus” and was an extra on the set in Israel. (Her family knew the director, Otto Preminger, in Los Angeles.)

Ms. Feldman retired in 2007.

She had conducted interviews on her own terms, insisting, for example that they be one-on-one without aides present. When, in the 1980s, she showed up to question Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, as the journalist Bill Jones recalled this month in the weekly newspaper World Tribune, she was escorted to the office by a young brigadier general, who proceeded to sit down with his own pad and paper to take notes.

“But Trude would have none of it, of course,” Mr. Jones wrote. “Weinberger explained that the brigadier was there only to keep his own record of the interview. But this would not do. So Brigadier General Colin Powell had to take his notebook and leave.”

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