Bill Plante, whose tenure as a CBS News White House correspondent spanned the administrations of Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, has died.
Plante retired in 2016 after 52 years with the news division, a career that included coverage of the civil rights movement and Vietnam and all presidential elections from 1968 to 2016. Plante was also the anchor of CBS Sunday Night News from 1988 to 1995.
Plante joined the network in 1964 as a reporter and assignment editor and, starting two years later, as a correspondent in Chicago, where he was born. During the 1960s and 70s, he covered the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers that would go on to be featured in the movie Mississippi Burning, and he interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 as he marched from Selma to Montgomery. Plante did four tours reporting in Vietnam — in 1964, 1967, 1971-1972 and, when Saigon fell, in 1975. He won an Emmy award for his three-part investigation of the U.S.-Soviet wheat deal in 1972.
In 1976, Plante joined the CBS News Washington bureau and was assigned to the White House when Reagan took office.
During that time, Bill Plante asked concise and direct questions. As Reagan faced the Iran-contra scandal, Plante asked him at one point, “Did you make a mistake in sending arms to Tehran, sir?” The president, a bit irritated, answered, “No, and I am not taking any more questions.”
When he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award from the Radio Television Digital News Foundation in 2014, Obama said of Plante, “Thank you for giving us the news we need to hear.”
NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell wrote on Twitter of Plante, “Bill was a pro, a class act and a marvellous colleague. I met Bill Plante as a local reporter and was delighted to call him a friend in the WH briefing room.”
In an interview with CBS News when he retired, Plante said that as much as presidential administrations changed, what didn’t was the desire of presidential staff to try to go over reporters’ heads and communicate directly with the American people. He said that social media has made that even easier, but journalists still had a role. “Yes, they can go over our heads unfiltered, but we still have to try to tell the story from the point of view of people who are looking at it straight,” he said.
He added, “It’s the public’s right to know that we are supposed to be protecting, not our right to know. It is not about us.”
He said that the most important event he covered was the civil rights movement, even though “politics I love.”
According to CBS News, Plante’s career started in 1956 as a newscaster for a Chicago radio station while he attended Loyola University. After graduation, he worked as assistant news director at CBS’s Milwaukee affiliate.
Bill Plante is survived by his wife, Robin Smith and three brothers, Richard, Jim and John, and sons Michael, Dan, Christopher, Brian and David, as well as eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild. His first wife, Barbara Barnes Plante, and son Patrick pre-deceased him.