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Bill Plante, CBS News’s Man at the White House, Dies at 84

Bill Plante, who was one of the leading correspondents for CBS News for more than half a century, covering the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, 13 presidential elections and the White House under four presidents, died on Wednesday at his home in Washington. He was 84.

The cause was respiratory failure, said his wife, Robin Smith.

Mr. Plante was CBS News’s senior White House correspondent under Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. During George H.W. Bush’s presidency, he reported from the State Department

In more than 30 years at the White House Mr. Plante was known for his deep knowledge of policy and his sharp questioning of presidents and their press secretaries.

“I remember Bill as fearless in how he asked questions, unflinching and unafraid to ask the president or his staff to defend their decisions,” Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s first press secretary, wrote in an email last year, “and never in the least bit worried about offending those in power in pursuit of those answers.”

Mr. Plante had a cleareyed view of what it meant to be a White House correspondent.

“It was always interesting — never fail — and in many ways the same every time,” he said in 2016 on CBSNews.com, after he announced his retirement. “They’re different people, but they make the same mistakes; they get into the same kind of jams. And you say, ‘Hey, I’ve seen this before.’”

His exasperation with presidents who did not answer pertinent questions — or who avoided questions entirely — sometime led him to shout his questions. When Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s senior political adviser, stepped down in 2007, more than nine months after Democrats took control of both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush announced the departure jointly but did not take questions from the media.

“If he’s so smart,” Mr. Plante yelled, “why did you lose Congress?” Mr. Bush didn’t respond.

Shouting questions was a necessary part of the press corps’s job, even if that behavior appeared rude, Mr. Plante told the streaming service CBSN; if reporters did not, he said, “we’d be walking away from our First Amendment role — and then we really would be the shills we’re so often accused of being.”

One of Mr. Plante’s most disquieting moments as a White House correspondent occurred in late October 1983, when he learned that the United States was about to invade the Caribbean island of Grenada. Before going on the air with his exclusive, he asked Larry Speakes, President Reagan’s acting press secretary at the time, to confirm his information.

Mr. Speakes denied it, and CBS killed the story.

“Larry said something like, ‘Preposterous — where did you get that?’” Lesley Stahl, then a fellow White House correspondent for CBS News, said in a phone interview for this obituary last year. “And the next morning there was an invasion. At the briefing the next day, Bill was furious, and justifiably so, and, in that big booming voice of his, accused Larry Speakes of misleading him.”

Mr. Plante reporting from South Vietnam in 1970. He shared a 1972 Emmy Award for a CBS News series of reports on the air war in Vietnam.Credit…Larry Downing/Reuters

William Madden Plante was born on Jan. 14, 1938, in Chicago to Regis and Jane (Madden) Plante. His mother was a school administrator and homemaker; his father was in sales and marketing for a heating and cooling business.

While attending Loyola University Chicago, Bill Plante delivered the news at a local radio station. After graduating in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in business and humanities, he was hired as the assistant news director of WISN-TV in Milwaukee. After four years there, he studied political science for a year at Columbia University under a CBS fellowship.

He joined CBS News in 1964 and was quickly sent to Vietnam; it was one of four times, through the fall of Saigon in 1975, that he reported from there.

Over the next year he was dispatched to Mississippi and Alabama to cover the civil rights struggle. He called that the most important story in his career because, he said, it marked a “sea change in American life” — as well as in his.

“What I saw there opened my eyes,” he told Gayle King of “CBS This Morning” in 2020 after the death of Representative John Lewis, the civil rights leader. “I was shocked by the raw hatred that I saw as the Black people there tried to register to vote every day and got beaten back by the local sheriff.”

Mr. Plante was in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, when about 600 marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were attacked by state troopers with tear gas, bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” He returned later that month to cover the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, interviewing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the way.

“I think this is a demonstration of progress that is definitely being made,” Dr. King told Mr. Plante while marchers were still in Selma, “the fact that once our people were totally and terribly brutalized here and now we can march by this very same spot without being stopped and without being harassed up to this point.”

On the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” Mr. Plante interviewed President Obama in Selma.

Mr. Plante, right, during a White House briefing in 1998, during the Clinton administration. Next to him was the longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas of UPI. Next to her was Sam Donaldson of ABC News. Credit…Frank Johnston/The The Washington Post via Getty Images

He won several Emmy Awards, including two he shared with other CBS News correspondents: in 1972 for a series on the air war in Vietnam and in 1997 for coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Other Emmys were for his coverage of President Reagan’s re-election in 1984 and the Reagan summit with the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1986.

In addition to his wife, a documentarian and former network news producer, Mr. Plante is survived by his sons, Michael, Dan, Chris, Brian and David; his brothers, Richard, James and John; eight grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter. His marriage to Barbara Barnes Orteig ended in divorce. His son Patrick died in 2014.

Among the newsmakers Mr. Plante covered, he was most impressed with Mr. Lewis, whose skull was fractured when he was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, two decades before he was elected to Congress.

“He was the real deal,” Mr. Plante told Ms. King of CBS after Mr. Lewis’s death. “He is the only person in public life whom I covered over 52 years at CBS who always practiced what he preached. You can’t say that about anyone else. I can’t.”

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