I moved offices last week - they're actually "suites", though our cat certainly would not survive a swinging in either - in the National Press Building here. A colleague immediately suggested, only half-jokingly, that I have my new office exorcised: its previous occupant was one Naomi Nover, who died last year aged 84 and was a member of the White House press corps. Wherever the President went, be it to Cincinatti or China, Dharan or Denver, Naomi would be there - pushing her way to the front of some non-event, busily taking notes and holding out her tape recorder. When she died, even President Clinton paid tribute to her devotion to her "craft".

The only problem was that Naomi was stark, raving bonkers. Her husband had died in 1973, leaving behind the already tiny "Nover News Agency". For decades, it had no clients, and Naomi wrote for no newspapers, no magazines, for no one at all: she almost certainly never had done. She was 4'10" and walked slowly, bent almost double in Chinese sandals and blue dress, usually pushing a cart full of grapefruits and tins of tuna fish.

She was anything but a sweet old lady, though - cursing at people, screeching and crying without any provocation, and continually beating innocent cameramen, say, with her umbrella or ancient handbag, if she thought they were in the way of her Brownie instamatic; because she was so old and frail no one ever retaliated. For the same reason, no one ever dared try to revoke her White House credentials. I well remember landing at Andrew's Air Force base with George Bush's Air Force One party at 3.30am, having taken the trouble with four others to book a taxi home; Naomi simply got in and refused to budge before bursting into tears and loudly howling that the taxi was hers. A kindly Secret Serviceman carried her gently to another taxi while she screamed that he was killing her.

Poor Naomi, of course, was hardly typical of the journalists who cover political affairs in America. But had she still been alive for this year's election coverage, for example, she would probably have been not much better and not much worse informed than the average hack covering the events. So many journalists now cover the US that we have moved into an era of what can only be called Virtual Reporting, where even the mightiest US journalists rely solely on television and (now) computer coverage of what is happening.

What actually then gets reported - Dole is looking better/older/younger, Clinton calm/nervous/confident, Perot is gaining fast/losing ground, etc, etc - is usually the result of stories cooked up by the hacks gossiping among themselves.

Those who like to give the impression they continually rub shoulders with the likes of Dole or Clinton - and there are one or two Brits among them - are simply being dishonest with their readers. On my first presidential trip, for example, covering the disastrous summit between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev in Malta, I did not set eyes on either man. (I did get what I thought was rather a good story, though: because some idiot had decided the two men would meet on naval ships moored in the harbour, all the American delegation, including Bush, took a certain drug to prevent sea-sickness - one of the possible medical side-effects, I discovered, being "global disorientation".)

Next morning, the only newspapers available in Malta - in great numbers, too - were the Observer (the paper I then worked for) and the Sunday Times. To a mixture of horror and amusement, John Cassidy (then of the Sunday Times) and I found our journalistic meanderings being pored over by every single reporter there. John and I temporarily became the world's leading experts on nuclear strategy as well as on the top-secret talks - simply because there were no alternative feeding grounds for the hungry hacks.

I did finally see Bush on that trip, relaxing in an armchair at Nato headquarters in Brussels; and l did talk to Bill Clinton on the last Presidential campaign trail. But such proximity is rare. As for Naomi - well, Naomi was different. Everyone noticed Naomi; even Clinton presented her with some birthday cake a couple of years ago. Perhaps there was a common realisation among all of us that she was truly both a tragic and heroic figure, desperate to give her life meaning.

And Naomi stories are still told all the time, too. My favourite is when she was checking out of a hotel in Paris, and was presented with an enormous bill. Brief investigation showed that her mini-bar had been entirely divested of its contents over the several days she had stayed there, and the clerk politely expIained this to her. "Do you mean they're not free?" she said of the mini-bar's contents. No, the clerk politely explained, they were not. "In that case," said Naomi, "you can have them all back." With that she asked someone to lift a bag on to the counter - and out tumbled dozens upon dozens of miniature bottles of liquor, bars of chocolate and all the other contents of the mini-bar she had carefully hoarded over several days. In a way, it is a privilege to be moving into the office of so legendary and unforgettable a lady

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