By Charlie Warner
Argus News Editor
Back in the 1970s a cigarette commercial for Virginia Slims used to proclaim, “You’ve come a long ways, baby!”
That statement certainly holds true for Roger Runningen, the son of Violet and the late Dale Runningen of rural Houston, who grew up on a farm seven miles north of Caledonia in the 1960s, where he spent his Saturdays shoveling “you know what.”
Fast forward 40 years to when Runningen was named the White House correspondent for the Bloomberg News Service in 2003.
For the past decade, the Houston County native has traveled the globe (with the exceptions of Antarctica and the North Pole), spent countless hours at the White House and hob-nobbed with U.S. Presidents.
So how did Runningen get from point A to point B?
“I wanted to be a teacher when I was going up,” Runningen said. “I was interested in news. I wrote occasionally for the high school paper. I think the journalism juices were still developing at that time.”
After graduating from Houston High School in the late 1960s, Runningen enrolled at Winona State, where he was a double major in political science and speech, with a public address concentration.
Runnigen’s aspirations of being a teacher faded when, during his sophomore year at WSU, he sat in on an unruly class at Winona Senior High. Right then and there he decided he just wasn’t cut out to be a high school teacher.
Runningen joined the debate team at WSU and was asked to write for the school’s newspaper. Soon he received a promotion.
“During college I was editor of the student newspaper, The Winonan. It was more fun to cover news stories on campus than to attend classes. As a result, I skipped many classes, showing up only for mid-terms and finals.”
Upon graduating from WSU, Runningen landed a job at The Wabasha County Herald.
“That was one of the best jobs ever, because you see and get to know the real people you write about,” Runningen recalled. “And when you make a mistake — and I did — they came storming into the office to let me know.
“I covered everything from the cop shop and school board to county commissioners, city council and Friday night high school sports,” Runningen continued. “I took pictures too.
“It was the best training ever. It was political science, raw and up front, in your face. The principles, mechanics and even the political battles are still applicable today – even at the White House. It’s just a grander scale.”
Runningen got the taste for both the journalism and political worlds while attending WSU.
“During my junior year in college, the Minnesota State College system operated an internship program with the state’s two U.S. senators and U.S. House member. At the time that was Senators Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey and Rep. Al Quie. Quie selected me from the dozens of applications to be his press secretary, a lucky break.
“In the fall 1971 I was an intern in his Washington office, helping write speeches and press releases or covering some congressional hearings — many of them on agricultural issues.
“The three-month internship ended in December 1971 and after writing a paper about my experience in exchange for 16 credits of political science, I returned to Winona State and graduated in May 1972.
“In August 1973, while I was at The Wabasha County Herald, Quie called me from Rochester one day out of the blue, and said his press secretary left the staff for a position at the Nixon White House and was I interested in a job?
“Talk about things falling out of the sky. So I joined his staff in Washington in a permanent position on Sept. 17, 1973, and remained for five years until his election as governor of Minnesota in 1978.
“I was just 22 and it was like being a small fish in very big pond. For a kid who grew up on the farm shoveling you-know-what on Saturdays, it was a bit heady.
“Washington was only a place you read about or saw on television, some far-off fantasy land where big shots do important things. But Quie’s staff was home folks, all of them from southeastern Minnesota.”
In 1979, when Quie was elected Governor of Minnesota, Quie offered Runningen a staff position in the governor’s office. Runningen turned it down, preferring to return to journalism.
Runningen returned to journalism and covered Capitol Hill for the SNG Group of newspapers, which was a family-owned chain of papers based in Illinois.
In 1991 Runningen was asked to serve as press secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the George H. W. Bush Administration. When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1994, a changing of the guard took place.
“I wanted to get back into journalism and spend more time with my family,” Runningen said.
So he hooked up with a wire service that was just starting up and has been with Bloomberg ever since.
For the past 17 years, Runningen has covered the White House under three different administrations. When asked to contrast those three administrations, Runningen carefully replied, “Reporters keep opinions to themselves, at least this one does. I will say each has its pluses and minuses.”
When asked about the ever-widening division between the two major political parties, and that things seem so much more polarized between the two parties now than nearly 40 years ago when he first began working in DC. Runningen stated:
“I agree, and it’s hard to pinpoint. Social scientists and historians are still trying to figure it out.
When asked who he felt would come out of the Republican group of presidential hopefuls to run against Pres. Obama, Runningen said, “Gonna pass on this one, too. It’s been a zany campaign so far and the elections are, in political terms, light years away. In any event, I’d probably be wrong. It’s like trying to guess a Supreme Court decision.”
Runningen said he returns to Houston County “on average, once a year. Not often enough. I miss the bluffs, the sweet scent of a cornfield in July and the crisp aroma of leaves in the autumn. Fall comes in Washington, too, but it’s not the same.”
You can contact Charlie Warner at [email protected]