On almost any weekday at the National Press Club (NPC)—from the time the doors open early in the morning until they close late at night—a tall blonde man flashing a thousand-watt smile can be seen bounding up stairs and disembarking from elevators.
That man, Jerry Zremski, stays on the move to fulfill two functions in the National Press Club Building at 14th and F Streets, NW. He’s the 2007 NPC president—the club’s 100th president—and the Washington bureau chief for the Buffalo News, a promotion he accepted just weeks before his NPC inauguration. And if that’s not enough, Zremski has also been teaching journalism as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland since 2001.
He was inspired to take up the avocation after teaching journalism in Nigeria in 1998 to prepare reporters for the country’s first free elections in 16 years. A Pennsylvania native, “Jerry Z,” as he is affectionately called, believes that the president of perhaps the world’s most prestigious news club should see—and be seen by—its members.
“I just work hard,” explained Zremski, whose four grandparents were Polish immigrants. Part of this year’s hard work has been laying the foundation to get more heads of state to talk at the club’s well-known speaker luncheons—as well as enhancing other international aspects of the club.
Zremski’s international efforts got under way from the outset of his presidency. Indeed, Polish ambassador Janusz Reiter, a former journalist himself in communist Poland, delivered remarks at Zremski’s inauguration. According to immediate past NPC President Jonathan Salant of Bloomberg News, “When I turned over the gavel to Jerry and toasted him at his inauguration, I said that he was as deserving of the honor of being club president as anyone who had ever occupied the office. Already, he has started a mentor program to pair U.S. and international journalists.”
Zremski also tapped the chairman of the club’s International Correspondents Committee, Myron Belkind, to head the Speakers Committee’s task force as part of an effort to attract more heads of state to the club’s luncheons. Belkind joined the National Press Club in 2004 after spending four decades abroad for the Associated Press.
Belkind noted that, as president, Zremski leads by example, citing his personal touch with club members that helped to ensure the success of a hasty luncheon organized for Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in February. It was the first lunch of the year for a visiting international leader, who also happens to be Africa’s first elected female head of state. With only one week’s notice to plan the luncheon, Zremski got the ball rolling by sending a personal message to all NPC members asking them to make every effort to attend.
In addition to setting a tone of involvement for club members, Zremski also considers himself to be the National Press Club’s ambassador to the world. He is responsible for moderating the speaker luncheons that are televised on C-SPAN and has gone through media training to polish his television performance. He further engages in a kind of personal diplomacy to increase interest in speaking at the club.
For instance, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in town, Zremski paid a courtesy call to his press attaché, hoping to pave the way for a future speaking engagement by Olmert. Zremski also met with former President Jimmy Carter when he was in Washington to accept an award to persuade him to speak at the club. “I did the same thing with Tiger Woods, a few weeks earlier. That’s the public role of being president of the press club,” he noted.
According to Zremski, since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the press club has not received as much advance notice when a head of state comes to town. Nevertheless, the club is prepared to put on a full-court press, beyond just a letter to an embassy, to get heads of state to speak. Zremski observed that although world leaders can choose to speak in many different D.C. venues, there is no venue that has the “extraordinary reach across America” that the National Press Club does—largely through its live broadcast on C-SPAN.
Zremski added that unlike some other news-making events in Washington, a press club luncheon is a dignified forum with 20 to 30 questions from audience members that are presented in an organized and “civilized way.” Zremski reviews a research packet of up to 100 pages to prepare for a speaker luncheon. However, he focuses the first part of his questioning on the speaker’s topic to promote the news-making aspect of the forum. Speakers must agree to participate in the question-and-answer session to appear at a club luncheon.
At a recent luncheon, for example, Laura Bush stayed past her scheduled appearance to answer questions following her presentation on Africa, in which she discussed, among other things, the administration’s efforts to provide aid to Africans infected with HIV/AIDS.
Another speaking forum offered by the press club is the Newsmakers series, a club-sponsored press conference. Zremski credits Peter Hickman—a club member and former Foreign Service officer with the now defunct U.S. Information Agency, as well as a staple on the diplomatic circuit—with bringing in a wide array of international Newsmakers to the club.
According to Hickman, “I have done about 950 Newsmakers over 15 years, including about 150 heads of state of government and a few heads of other things—like Yasser Arafat and the president of Tatarstan, which is part of Russia.”
In fact, Hickman once held a Newsmaker with nine prime ministers in relation to the new NATO member and candidate countries. The largest Newsmaker event that Hickman moderated included more than 300 attendees and about 30 television cameras. The speaker, actor Sean Connery, was supporting Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, and interestingly, many of the attendees were women.
Within the next two years, Zremski predicts the press club will have many more international members. He noted that in addition to foreign correspondents, ambassadors as well as press attachés are eligible to join.
“The press club is a great place for socializing and networking,” Zremski said. “If you go to the bar on the 14th floor”—called the Reliable Source, which is only open to members or their guests—you’ll hear accents from around the world.”
National Press Club 529 14th St., NW (202) 662-7500 http://npc.press.org
About the Author
Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.