Diplomatic Community

CBS news journalist Margaret Brennan covers breaking world news as a member of the State Department’s press pool. We sit down with the thirty-four-year-old to discuss everything from the bombing in Benghazi to joining seasoned guests on Face the Nation.

On a bright, breezy January day, Margaret Brennan walks into the lounge of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York City. She is a few minutes late and apologizes profusely, as she takes a seat at a corner table. “I’ve been in meetings all morning,” she says, giving her eyes a quick rub. “I could use some coffee.” The waitress brings a fresh pot, and a napkin-lined silver basket with baked goods—scones and chocolate croissants. Across the room a wall of windows overlooks Central Park. The view is mesmerizing. Here, thirty-five floors above Columbus Circle, patrons talk in hushed tones, while the wait staff hovers in the background. The mood is calm and restorative. It’s a far cry from the mayhem that is Times Square on this Friday, two days before the Super Bowl, and light years away from the Syrian refugee camp and other foreign hot spots that are Margaret’s normal stomping grounds.

The thirty-four-year-old television journalist has covered dozens of groundbreaking stories during her thirteen-year broadcasting career. She reported from Tahrir Square during the Egyptian uprising, the Gulf Coast after the BP oil spill and Tehran during the Non-Aligned Movement. She conducted the first American television interview with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and met with grieving parents after the Sandy Hook massacre. Now, as the State Department correspondent for CBS News, she is part of the press pool that travels with Secretary of State John Kerry. That means she has to be ready for wheel’s up at a moment’s notice. Inside of a month she has been to Islamabad, Kabul, Syria, Paris, Geneva, Davos and Kiev—some places more than once. “We get to see tremendous sites, but often the stops are a blur. I’ve been to Paris a handful of times for work, yet I’ve only seen the Eiffel Tower from a speeding motorcade,” she says. “One of these days I’d love to spend more than twenty-six to thirty-four hours in a place and be a tourist.”

When she’s not in some exotic locale, Margaret is based in Washington, D.C., where she divides her time between the news bureau and the CBS booth in the State Department “bullpen,” where press is stationed during the day.  “Our mobility within the building is limited due to security reasons,” she says. She frequently checks in with her sources, trying to get a handle on the crises and issues that are on the Administration’s agenda—“or should be,” she adds, with a wry smile.

With her poised, self-possessed demeanor, chic shoulder-length bob, and wearing a sleek red and black dress, Margaret appears anything but the nerd she professes to be. “No, I really am,” she insists. “Model U.N. all the way.”
That was back when she was a high school student at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich. She credits the school with giving her the education and self-confidence she needed to pursue her dreams.

The eldest of three children, Margaret and her family moved to Danbury when she was a young girl. She commuted to Sacred Heart with her father, Ed, who worked in Greenwich for Bowater, at the time the largest producer of newspaper in the country. Her artist mother, Jane, was the curator for the corporate art collection at United States Tobacco.

The single-sex school gave her the freedom to flourish, she says, to be an independent thinker, and to stand up for her beliefs. One nun in particular taught her an important life lesson. “She used to say, ‘Girls, if you don’t have the courage of your own opinions, then don’t raise your hand.’ It cut straight to me,” Margaret recalls. “I figured out I better raise my hand, and if I did raise my hand, I better know what I was going to say.”

Margaret was drawn to foreign affairs from an early age. “In my family we would talk about what was happening around the world at the dinner table,” she says. “My dad loved politics and my mother was a history buff. They just always had us be aware. They didn’t dumb things down.”

“Ever since she was young, whenever I was home with her, I had the news on a lot, maybe too much,” says her mother, Jane. “Once she was doing a painting on the floor, I was at the kitchen table, and the news came over the radio that Sadat had been shot. She looked at me and said, ‘Mom, what’s Lebanon?’ She was maybe three.”

In addition to her course load, Margaret managed to carve out time for a variety of extracurricular activities at Sacred Heart, including acting in school plays, editing the school newspaper, working on the yearbook and participating in Model U.N. She also pursued a passion for Irish Step Dancing. “My mother had us highly scheduled,” she says with another wry, slightly bemused smile. “It’s probably why I thrive on my schedule today.”

From the age of five until she stopped dancing at eighteen, Margaret competed nearly every Sunday at events throughout New England, making it all the way up to champion status. She hasn’t danced seriously for years, she says. “It would take a few Jamesons to get me up there now.” Or, as it turns out, the urging of her producers at CBS, who convinced her to take a turn last month with students at The Gray School of Irish Dance in Danbury, for a St. Patrick’s Day segment on the growing popularity of Irish Step Dancing.

The Business of Diplomacy
By the time she was ready for college, Margaret had an idea that she might like to pursue a career in diplomacy. She attended the University of Virginia to study international politics and Middle East studies, in part at the urging of her mom. “She had a very romantic view,” Margaret says, noting—as an interesting aside—that the school was designed by Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State.

At a time when many political science majors were learning Mandarin, Margaret chose Arabic language studies, an under-funded and little-known academic discipline. “It probably would have been smart to major in Mandarin,” she says. “That’s where all the money was. We had this tiny department in the basement somewhere. After 9/11, the money caught up.”

During her junior year, she spent a semester abroad as a Fulbright-Hays Scholar, studying Arabic at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan. The experience was both revelatory and disheartening. “After I got home I would watch the news about the Middle East, and it would be so frustrating,” she says. “It didn’t have the depth I thought it merited.” In the summer of 2001, Margaret landed a job as an intern on CNN’s international desk in Atlanta. Her language skills came in handy. While her peers were filing phone logs, Margaret spent her time doing initial translations of tapes from Osama bin Laden. “After 9/11 I thought there would be more money for international news, but that’s not really what happened,” she says.

After graduating summa cum laude, Margaret headed to New York to look for a job in TV broadcasting. She was hired at CNBC as a research assistant for the legendary Lou Rukeyser (a Greenwich resident). She eventually worked her way up to become an associate producer of Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street. To this day, she considers the late Mr. Rukeyser one of the greatest influences on her career. “He wanted someone young and malleable and who wanted to learn,” she says. “He started his career as a journalist covering the Middle East. When I mentioned something he would say, ‘Oh yes, I covered that war.’ It made a lasting impression on me.” She spent seven years at CNBC, where she landed a coveted spot as a general assignment reporter. She regularly contributed to MSNBC and NBC’s Today Show and Nightly News. “It was a time that was marked by corporate malfeasance scandals, the hedge fund boom and later the financial crisis,” she says. “I really saw how interlinked the global markets are and how economic change reverberated through almost all aspects of society.” She used that knowledge to her advantage when Bloomberg came calling in July 2009. As the host of a two-hour live broadcast from the NYSE, InBusiness with Margaret Brennan, she covered the top political, economic and financial news impacting the marketplace. “When the European debt crisis exploded I was able to connect the dots for people so they could see why it mattered for them here in the U.S,” she says. Margaret is adept at connecting dots—whether explaining the connection between food inflation and the uprising in Tahrir Square or how the de facto revolution in Ukraine stemmed from protests over a rejected trade deal with Europe. It’s a skill that seems to come naturally. And it is one of the many traits that make her good at her job, according to her boss, Chris Isham, CBS News vice president and Washington D.C., bureau chief.

“So many of the elements that she needed were already in place. She had studied foreign affairs at UVA and lived in Amman, and spoke Arabic,” says Isham. “Her beat at Bloomberg encompassed international economics. She understood how the world works. She understands that so much of what goes on in the world is rooted in economics.”

Margaret jumped at the opportunity to move to Wash-ington in 2012. “I wanted to get out of the bubble that was Wall Street and go out and tell stories while I still could,” she says. “I wanted to bring more foreign news into the broadcast. That idea really appealed to me.” The move proved to be one of the biggest turning points in her career. “I made the shift from covering the global markets in New York to covering foreign policy in D.C. I changed companies, cities, beats and apartments.”

The Dizzying Pace
She arrived in D.C. when Hillary Clinton was still Secretary of State; she was with Clinton in Lima, Peru, when the Secretary of State gave her first in-depth interviews about the bombing of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. “It was a very difficult story to report,” she says. “It was so difficult for so many people.”

Margaret spent eight months traveling with Clinton, visiting a range of countries from East Timor to Qatar. “She was the rock star of diplomacy,” Margaret says. “She has great cachet with world leaders.” When asked the inevitable question: Will Clinton run for president in 2016? Margaret laughed. “That’s the question we’re all asking.”

She appears frequently on CBS This Morning, which means a 5 a.m. wake-up call so she can walk her rescue dog, Yogi, a chihuahua-dachshund mix, before getting to the office at 5:40. “I rush into hair and makeup while tapping away on a script on my Blackberry,” she says. From there she races over to the State Department to do a live shot and then starts working on stories she plans to pitch for the Evening News at 6:30 p.m. Sleep is in short supply, especially when she’s on the road. “Often I end up filing stories in the middle of the night because of the time difference.”

She is also a frequent guest on Face the Nation, where she joins other news analysts in roundtable discussions about topical subjects. The show’s host, Bob Schieffer, CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent, praises her work ethic and great reportorial instincts. “She brings new meaning to the words ‘fast learner,’” says Schieffer. “She was on the State Department beat for two weeks, and it was like she had been there for two years. I never met anyone who could absorb so much information in such a short time, and not only remember it but make sense of it.”

On a Sunday morning this past February, she talked about the challenges of getting Syria to abide by the chemical weapons ban; in March, she filed a breaking news story about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “Margaret can always be counted on to bring insight to our roundtable discussions on the show,” he says. “She always comes prepped, and I never hesitate to ask her a question. When she doesn’t know the answer—which is rare—she just says so, which gives her added credibility.”

In addition to her CBS news duties, she is a newly elected term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she recently presided over her first “conversation” with Senator Angus King about the Iran nuclear negotiations. In her spare time, she relaxes by working out, doing yoga, playing with Yogi and—of course—watching House of Cards. “It’s a caricature of D.C. and we do joke about ourselves,” she says. “Though in truth, I’m more of a rabid Homeland fan.”

A city person at heart, she loves living in Washington—though judging by her travel schedule, she is rarely home. She keeps a bag filled with everything she might need to file stories from the road: adaptors, chargers, antibiotics and makeup. When it comes to clothes, she packs on the fly. “I can throw a suitcase together quickly, though I tend to overpack,” she says. Because the Secretary often flies overnight, Margaret has to have a carry-on bag that contains work clothes, since she never knows when she’s going to actually get to see her luggage.

The hectic pace agrees with her. “It’s exciting and exhausting all in one,” she says. “Diplomacy is often a slow process full of consultations behind closed doors, so there is a lot of security and a lot of sitting and waiting.” Even the simple act of waiting can offer its own special challenges. She describes sitting in Hamid Karzai’s palace in Kabul desperately trying to get a Wi-Fi signal. “We have to e-mail story updates on our laptops since our phones get confiscated.”

It’s a job that requires a huge amount of multitasking. “I can be dealing with Syria and Davos, and the same day have a briefing on the Sochi Olympics. It requires staying on top of a lot of topics at once,” she says. She credits her family with helping her remain centered and grounded.

“Margaret works very, very hard,” says Jane. “She is really driven to get the stories and the facts. When she was in South Korea, she slept on the desk. In Egypt she was out after curfew. These are the things that make you a good reporter but are not good for your mother’s hair.” Jane says she doesn’t know which is worse—knowing her daughter is traveling to a war zone or finding out after the fact. “I only knew she’d been to Islamabad when I discovered a picture of the gas mask in her hotel room on Facebook,” says Jane.

When asked about a moment or place in the past year that left an indelible impression, Margaret pauses and looks away for just a second. “The Syrian refugee camp,” she says. “It’s near where I studied in Jordan. It was such a beautiful place then. I’ve seen the generation of kids who aren’t in school. I remember this refugee mother and her little boy with a cast up to his thigh, and her telling me her sixteen-year-old son was still back there fighting.” She takes a deep breath. “It’s a fallacy that this war is contained; it feels very immediate.”

As a young, attractive female working in the male-dominated world of Washington and, to a certain extent, television broadcasting, Margaret has learned to let her work speak for itself. The mention of a 2008 Maxim article that named her as one of TV’s hottest correspondents earns a flash of displeasure. “I didn’t have anything to do with that,” she says. “I think women of my generation have the luxury of being able to look like a woman and still do our jobs.” At the same time, she is acutely aware that women, especially those who wield influence and power, can be their own worst enemy. “Wasn’t it Madeleine Albright who said, ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help women.’” I’m lucky, I had mentors who helped me early on, and I try to mentor people today.”

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