He's still 2,718 plates of bacon, eggs and hashbrowns shy of his mentor's record of 3,241 breakfast interviews, but Christian Science Monitor Washington Bureau Chief David Cook is making history of his own, crossing the 500 mark this year with headliners including House Speaker John Boehner and likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio.
Along the way to hosting 523 Monitor newsmaker breakfasts, lunches and even teas for reporters since coming to Washington in September 2001, he has also instituted modern changes to the events long known as the "Sperling Breakfast," for Godfrey "Budge" Sperling who launched them in 1966.
While still mostly held at the downtown St. Regis Hotel across 16th Street NW from the Monitor Washington bureau, Cook has expanded those invited to cover the speakers and most recently hooked up with C-SPAN which airs some of the gatherings two hours after they occur.
"There are sessions which have been especially memorable over the past 11 years. Illinois State Senator Barack Obama was our guest at a lunch in Boston after delivering the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention," said Cook. "I recall greeting him in the lobby of the Colonnade Hotel, watching him be thronged by hotel guests and workers, and marveling at the appeal of this political newcomer."
Cook rarely eats at the events. He's too busy: he introduces the guest, asks a few opening questions and then calls on those who have indicated they want a shot at the newsmaker. Unlike press unruly conferences, reporters at the Monitor breakfast raise their hand to catch Cook's attention and they get to ask their question in order. Follow-ups aren't encouraged.
Keeping the quaint breakfasts relevant in today's 24/7 news cycle has been a challenge, but Cook has made changes that have satisfied his crowd. Among the first was letting in non-print reporters, like those who write for websites. TV reporters are also invited to the breakfasts which used to be exclusive for newspaper reporters and columnists. And he started a partnership with FORA.TV which offers access to the breakfasts to the public on a subscription plan.
But there are still rules. Even in this age of Twitter, the media is barred from posting news from the events before it is officially over, creating a level playing field for everyone.
"One of the joys of the job is greeting guests speakers at the door of the St. Regis Hotel and chatting with them as we walk to the dining room," Cook told Secrets. "One of my favorite memories is of the late Senator Kennedy who would be driven to the hotel with his Portuguese water dogs Sunny and Splash in the car. The dogs would jump out with the senator before being coaxed back into the car to wait for the breakfast to end."
He has also made it a family affair at times. "My three sons have attended a variety of the gatherings," said Cook. "Former General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner won their affection with opening remarks at a breakfast which included a pitch for me to buy my then teenaged sons each a new Chevy."
But it is all about news and getting headlines out of the newsmaker breakfasts and Cook has a list of big names he wants to nail down. "As for guests I would like to land - President Obama, Chief Justice Roberts, Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke, and comedian Jon Stewart top the list," he said.