The Foolhardiness of Stiffing a Zero-Tolerance Press The Clinton Presidency


Washington. -- Five months after Bill Clinton became president, CBS' "This Morning" set up an audience of a couple of hundred tourists on the White House lawn. Rattling off a series of poll numbers, the host, Harry Smith, turned to the president and said:

"The negatives are now higher than the positives in the polls. . . . I think people in America want you to succeed, but I just want a raise of hands this morning -- and don't be intimidated just because you're in the Rose Garden. Do you feel like he could be doing a better job? Raise your hands if you think so. Don't be intimidated. There are a lot of folks who feel that way. . . . What went wrong?"

President Clinton stood there and took it -- a symbol of a changed balance of power between president and press. In fact, Mr. Smith only looks like press. This is not CBS News. Mr. Smith is an entertainer paid more than $1 million a year.

But these days there are real reporters who make that kind of money, too. The president aside, many Washington correspondents, the rich and famous, seem a good deal larger than the people they cover -- when they are not too busy on "Nightline" or out of town for big-feet, big-fee speaking dates.

Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton's national-security adviser, who began his advising in the Nixon White House, said: "When I first came here, if you wanted to know what a reporter really thought about people and issues, you had to get drunk with him. Now I just turn on television."

On a day I was talking to Mr. Lake last August, he was in despair over the lead story on Page One of the New York Times. "Top U.S. Officials Divided in Debate on Invading Haiti" read the headline over the byline of Elaine Sciolino, who wrote:

"This division became evident, officials said, at a meeting of Clinton's top national-security advisers on Tuesday at the White House. . . . Defense Secretary William J. Perry opposed . . . but Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott said . . . in a sharp exchange . . . "

The piece went on for 30 paragraphs, reporting word-for-word arguments of and between "principals," as the highest officials call each other. There had been only eight people in the room on the ground floor of the White House, but the lady from the Times got it exactly right, telling the world before the president knew.

"How? Why?" Mr. Lake said. "Who?" Ten weeks later, Mr. Clinton and Vice President Gore were still talking about the Sciolino story, telling me in separate interviews that they thought they were getting close to figuring out who leaked it. In reaction inside this transparent White House, dialogue was becoming more and more distorted as meetings were getting smaller and smaller, and less and less was put in writing.

"You lose expertise, you lose precision," said Mr. Lake. "People are afraid to speak their minds, or they say things because they expect to see them in tomorrow's Washington Post."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. President Clinton came to Washington determined to dominate or ignore the capital's gigantic press corps -- as he had during the campaign when his sex life became an issue. Then he bypassed ink-stained wretches by going on "60 Minutes" with his wife, much preferring public humiliation to private life.

As president, he told the White House Radio and Television Correspondents Association, which was demanding regular and formal press conferences: "You know why I can stiff you on press conferences? Because Larry King liberated me from you by giving me the American people directly."

Mistake. Larry King does not cover White House briefings or congressional hearings, nor do MTV and all the good-hair-day local anchorpeople he had charmed and used during the campaign. He stiffed the regulars of the Washington press corps -- and they stuck him. Surveys indicated he got two negative stories for every positive one during his first 18 months in office.

In the first week of his presidency, The New York Times, leader of the zero-tolerance press, greeted him with an amazing series of editorials complaining that he was not moving fast enough. On the first day, it was "crablike retreats from campaign promises." the third: "Perhaps by now Mr. Clinton has learned . . . he has to deliver." On the fifth: "It is none too soon to say, 'Show us what you've got in mind.' "

Mr. Clinton was resisting the press-conference demands because he was afraid that reporters would try to trip him up with scandal questions on women and Whitewater. One of the few times he agreed to expose himself formally to the regulars was on the evening of March 24, 1994, He opened with a long statement that began, "This is a good time to assess the real work we are getting done . . ."

He touched on the day's events -- the assassination of the leading candidate for president of Mexico, an Air Force transport crash, statistics showing 2 million new jobs in the United States, the progress of health-care and welfare-reform legislation, renewed fighting in Bosnia, nuclear weapons in North Korea, human rights in China and the return of American troops from Somalia.

Then there were 21 questions, one on health care, one on American efforts to block the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea, one on the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio -- and 18 on Whitewater and Clinton family finances.

By the end of the press conference, the president was almost whining, in the Nixon manner: "I was the lowest-paid governor of any state in the country. I don't complain about it. I was proud of that. I didn't do it for the money. I worked on creating jobs and improving education for the children of my state. My wife never took any money for any work she did for the state."

Perhaps some reporters felt sorry for the big kid, but you never show that in this big town without pity.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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