When Deborah Met Jimmy: Scoring An Interview With The President
As part of a new series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click and people leap forward into their careers.
Before she became an Emmy Award-winning journalist, Deborah Norville was a senior at the University of Georgia with a low-paying job as a weekend reporter at WAGA-TV in Atlanta. She was barely scraping by on her weekly pay of $75.
"I would park underneath a street light at an apartment complex near the television station and curl up in the back seat with my little portable alarm," says Norville.
She'd wake up early enough to drive to the television station where she'd wash up in the restroom and prepare for a full day of reporting.
"I was sleeping in the car and watching my pennies and being the eager beaver who was in the newsroom before anyone else and the last one to leave," she says.
In January 1979, President Jimmy Carter traveled to his home state, Georgia, to receive the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize. One of the president's stops was his favorite restaurant in Atlanta.
Norville was sent out to cover his appearance, waiting hours in the cold before Carter's motorcade finally arrived.
"I'm standing there with my yellow and blue microphone knowing full well that I'm not going to get to ask the president anything," says Norville. "But just in case, you have that one question prepared."
The president made his way through the crowd of reporters and suddenly approached Norville.
"I got to ask him my question," she says. "And he answered it. And protocol would dictate that the president then goes to someone else. Jimmy Carter didn't move. And I only had one question."
Desperately trying to think of something else to ask while she was on live television, Norville looked at him and said, "Mr. President, how is it being home?"
"And Jimmy Carter went on and on and on," says Norville. "He talked for so long that it started to get weird. And I finally cut the president off and I said, 'Sir, I believe your dinner is getting cold. You might want to get inside. Congratulations on your award.' "
She then turned to the camera and said, "That's the scene from here, back to you."
"Truly Jimmy Carter had spoken to no one but me," she says. "And that's what got me my big break."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we're collecting stories of triumph, big and small, moments when people make great leaps forward in their careers. We call it My Big Break. Deborah Norville is an Emmy Award-winning news anchor and the host of "Inside Edition." Her big break came when she was a senior at the University of Georgia, working as a weekend reporter for a local news station in Atlanta.
DEBORAH NORVILLE: I didn't make very much money. I think I made $75 a week. And I would park underneath a streetlight at an apartment complex near the television station, and curl up in the backseat with my little portable alarm and have my coat over my head; and get up early enough in the morning that I could go to the TV station, wash up in the ladies room, and get myself all fixed up with my electric curlers and everything, and then report all day.
And so for me, it was sleeping in the car and watching my pennies, and being the eager beaver who was in the newsroom before anybody else and the last one to leave.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NORVILLE: One weekend in January, the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, was in Atlanta to receive the Martin Luther King Peace Prize. And he was going to be going to one of his favorite restaurants in Atlanta. It's a cold day, and we've been standing there for hours waiting for the president. But the network team just blazes in with the president. They're in the first couple of cars before the presidential motorcade, and they come in like a thundering herd of cattle. And then the presidential motorcade pulls up.
And you know that the president's coming because there's sort of this buzz, and this electric anticipation, that everyone can feel. And then the next thing you know, here comes Jimmy Carter.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NORVILLE: And I'm standing there with my yellow and blue number five logo microphone, knowing full well that I'm not going to get to ask the president anything. But just in case, you have that one question prepared. And the president walked up to me, and I got to ask him the question, and it'd have to be about Bella Abzug, who had just resigned as the head of his Commission on Women. And he answered it.
And protocol would dictate that the president then goes to someone else. Jimmy Carter didn't move. And Debbie Norville had only one question.
NORVILLE: Oh, my God. What am I going to do? So I looked at the president, I said, Mr. President, how is it to be home? And Jimmy Carter went on and on and on about how great it was to be back in Georgia, and what it meant to be coming back as president. And he talked for so long that it started to get weird.
And I finally cut the president off, and I said: Sir, I believe your dinner's getting cold. You might want to get inside. Congratulations on your award. And I looked at the camera. I said: That's the scene from here. Back to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NORVILLE: Truly, Jimmy Carter had spoken to no one except me. And that's what got me my big break.
RATH: Deborah Norville is the anchor of "Inside Edition." We want to hear about your big break. Send an email with your story to My Big Break at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.