When former Chattanoogan Steve Holland was a United Press International reporter in Knoxville in the early 1980s, he noticed that the newswire printer in his office always seemed to be typing out bulletins about important happenings in Washington, D.C.
“It seemed like something was always going on in Washington,” he said. “So I was determined to get to Washington.”
Today, the 1973 East Ridge High graduate is the one sending out the important stories from the nation’s capital. A White House reporter for 16 years and Reuter’s senior White House correspondent since 2000, he has reported first hand on some of the major events in the world during that time.
Assuming his job during the middle of George Bush Sr.’s term, he has covered three presidents.
He has been near the chief executives during some of the great events of recent history, including when George W. Bush was in New York City a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.
“That was the most remarkable White House story I have covered,” said the University of Tennessee journalism graduate, who has a down–to-Earth personality.
He has also been on two secret trips with President Bush to Baghdad, Iraq, and Kabul, Afghanistan. In fact, they were so secretive that he had to meet a senior White House official at a Starbuck’s on one occasion to get details.
“It is very exciting and very hard to keep that kind of secret,” he said.
During his time in Washington, he has traveled to all 50 states with the three presidents and has also been to 80 countries.
But on Feb. 21, he had an opportunity to travel with the president to a place presidents only occasionally visit - Chattanooga.
After he climbed off Air Force One at Lovell Field, he called his mother, Mrs. Don (Frances) Worley, from the tarmac on his cell phone to let her know the most famous jet in the United States had arrived. While he was talking to her, well-known Bush adviser Karl Rove jokingly grabbed his phone and, knowing Mr. Holland was from Chattanooga, began talking with her.
The whole visit to his former hometown was memorable, he said.
“It was a real thrill, particularly going to Erlanger, where I was born in 1955,” he said. “My brother (Al Holland) works there in the X-ray department.”
And when the president made a stop at Porker’s barbecue restaurant on Market Street for lunch, Mr. Holland was with him.
The visit to Porker’s also made him reflect a little on a visit he was taking to Mom’s Italian Villa on the same block back in 1980. He was filling in as the police reporter on a Saturday night while working at the Chattanooga News-Free Press and was on his way to Mom’s to pick up some dinner.
While out, he noticed an emergency vehicle going in the direction of what was then Ninth Street. Since he was on the police beat, he figured he better follow it.
He was the first person on the scene other than the emergency workers and realized three African-American women had been shot. Eventually, two people with ties at the time to a racist group were arrested.
That summer, trial verdicts favorable to the defendants later were followed by rioting in what was one of the tensest racial crises in the city’s history.
That same year, Mr. Holland moved to Knoxville. After three years there, he and his wife, the former Lucie Stephens, moved to Washington, where he worked at the UPI bureau.
In 1985, he moved to Paris. There he covered another hate crime trial, but one with more international implications. Klaus Barbie, who had been a member of the Nazi SS during World War II, had fled after the war but was later arrested by French intelligent agents and forced to stand trial.
Mr. Holland returned to the United States in 1988 and worked briefly at CNN before joining Reuter’s later that year. When an opening later came up for the White House bureau, he heartily volunteered.
“I threw my hand up and said I would like to do it, and I have been doing it ever since,” he said. “It’s a real thrill for a Tennessee country boy to be covering the president.”
He said that each of the three presidents has been somewhat different in dealing with the media. George Bush Sr. was probably the most accessible, and both he and Bill Clinton would regularly visit with the press corps on Air Force One during trips. George W. Bush does not, however.
“It is just a different way of controlling things,” he said.
But Mr. Holland has had one-on-one interviews with Mr. Bush and the previous two presidents.
“Sitting in the Oval Office can be very intimidating, but in recent years I've been able to overcome the terror and relax enough in there for a proper give and take with the president,” he said.
Mr. Holland was one of the reporters in the highly publicized meeting with President Bush before the November election, when the president said Donald Rumsfeld would remain as defense secretary. A week later, after the elections, Mr. Rumsfeld was replaced.
“The president admitted that he had been planning to replace Rumsfeld but was not in a position to tell us at the time because he had not been able to work out the details,” Mr. Holland said.
At least one of his interviews with the chief executives has been in a less serious setting, he added.
“Probably the most fun interview I did was of the current president after he took me mountain bike riding with him on his Crawford ranch,” he said “It was fun to get his feelings about the importance of exercise, and for a 60-year-old guy, he's in remarkable physical shape.”
Despite the competitive nature of Mr. Holland’s job, he has also developed a good rapport with fellow members of the White House press corps, many of whom have familiar names, faces and voices.
“The press corps is like an extended family,” he said. “We travel together and we work together. At the end of the day we all get along.”
Mr. Holland and Lucie have an 11-year-old son, Carter, and live in an older home in the historic section of Alexandria, Va. Mrs. Holland, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Gerry Stephens, works in the auction world after several years of being a stay-at-home mom.
They are enjoying Washington, he said. And the news is still happening there, just as it was when he was in Knoxville 25 years before.
“It is a great place for a reporter because there is always something going on,” he said.