20 Questions with Jessica Yellin

Former CNN Capitol Hill and national political reporter Jessica Yellin has been named the news network’s chief White House correspondent.

The veteran broadcast journalist spoke to The Hill about her new role, her thoughts on politics and policy, and the on-air disaster she very narrowly avoided.

Congratulations on the new job; are you excited?

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I am excited. You know, I’ve done it before, but it’s always a little bit intimidating to think you’re going into the White House in this kind of a position … It’s still a huge responsibility, and you never lose sight. There’s something about the White House, you just turn and you have these moments where it hits you it’s the White House. You just have that flash where you feel sort of awestruck all over again every so often.

 You previously covered the campaign trail [Yellin reported on the 2008 and 2010 elections for CNN]; is this very different?

Yeah, I don’t have to deal with the TSA [Transportation Security Administration], so that’s good. Not so far, at least. I’m not running in and out of auditoriums where they’re breaking down and setting up and doing loudspeaker checks all day long while I’m trying to report … The constant motion of the campaign is one of the hardest parts of covering it. The logistical challenge of moving while covering a story is just draining on your body, so this will be a different challenge. But that’s just a big change in and of itself. This adds the complexity of doing policy with politics.

Is there any difference between interviewing Barack Obama as a candidate during the campaigns and interviewing him as the president?

I think that’s such a good question; I can’t answer that well until I actually have the experience. I haven’t been up close to him. What I can tell you is that I’ve been up close to [former President] Bill Clinton, and I’ve been up close interviewing President Obama when he was a candidate. And they’re both incredibly sort of intense people in very different ways. And the quality you get from President Obama is he has this deep, deep quality of inner calm that is almost more profound than any other person I’ve encountered. And President Clinton had this quality where he has this sort of energy that comes out at you in a very intense way. And President Bush had this quality that was very, very attuned to you, sort of in this emotional-intelligence way. And they all have these highly developed qualities that are just sort of more exceptional than other people I’ve encountered. And the thing that struck me as so unique about President Obama, different from the other presidents I’ve met, was that quality of centeredness and calm.

Are there any specific policies within this administration you’re looking forward to covering?

I like covering issues that hit home for real folks at the kitchen table. You know, sort of looking at the campaign promises and seeing what’s been delivered, and checking on the policies, watching the policies, going back to the policy proposals and seeing how it’s been rolled out and what’s actually brought to bear. I think that one of the things that sometimes doesn’t happen is we’re all so busy chasing the day-of story that we don’t always sit back and look at the big picture and see what’s really happening and what’s been implemented. And we do a better job if we actually take the time to look at what’s come out of Washington that’s actually hit home out there.

Debt talks have been going on for months and seem in some ways never-ending; do you have any thoughts on them?

I think what you’re alluding to is this supposition that we all know how it will end, and the story is about the process. So it’s the opposite of a cliffhanger, which makes it challenging for us to keep it interesting. You never know, but because all responsible leaders say it has to happen, we all think it will happen in the end, one way or another, ugly or pretty.

 Any guesses on how it will play out?

I would be crazy to speculate. I do think that one way or another, they’ll vote to raise the debt ceiling, and it will either be painful, excruciating or really, really ugly. But I do think that somehow they’ll raise the debt ceiling.

 What led you to political journalism in the first place?

I just wanted to be in politics, and I thought I had an obligation to give something back. And I actually never thought of being a reporter because I thought that reporters were the kinds of people who watch but don’t do and don’t participate … And then I just sort of shifted when I got older and saw how important the media was and how much of an influence the media has on shaping what politicians do, and sort of being able to call out the truth.

 You went to Harvard — a notoriously competitive environment. Which is tougher, covering politics or attending that university?

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I went to an all-girls school in west L.A., and that was the most competitive environment I’ve ever been in. I still wear my ring from Westlake, because I felt like if I could survive that, I could survive anything … That was harder than Harvard, harder than the White House.

Have you experienced any memorable on-air bloopers during your career?

During the Republican convention of 2008, we had flown overnight or we were just waking up exhausted from the Democratic convention, and arrived onstage and I was doing a live shot onstage where the candidate was going to stand. And they were still finishing the podium, and there was a huge gaping hole in the center of the podium. And I was so tired I wasn’t judging distance well. I was in the middle of my live shot backing up slowly into the hole. I was about, I swear, an inch from falling into the hole live on television, when the man who is now currently my producer lunged at me live on-air and grabbed me to stop me from falling in the hole. And I of course thought, “What is he doing? I’m on television!” And everyone around him started applauding, and we quickly wrapped the live shot. I was completely confused, but he saved me from utter television disaster.

To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Kris Kitto at (202)628-8539 or email him at kkitto@thehill.com.