COLUMN ONE : Not Even Getting a 1st Chance : Early coverage of the President seemed more like an autopsy. White House missteps and aggressive media pursuit never allowed Clinton the customary honeymoon.
It’s a videotape, only 4 minutes and 12 seconds long, but it was one of the highlights of Bill Clinton’s inaugural celebration. On the tape, one political pundit after another--pundits from such news organizations as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and the New Republic--are seen confidently spouting their predictions on television talk shows during various stages of the 1992 presidential campaign.
“Clinton is not electable,” says one pundit.
“He’s going to get out of the race,” says another.
“He won’t make it,” says a third.
In kaleidoscopic fashion, the doomsayers’ faces and voices flash by:
“Bill Clinton is unelectable.”
“In November’s general election, Clinton will be clobbered by Bush.”
“This guy’s not going to be President.”
“Bill Clinton is a loser.”
Then, the rapid-fire wrap-up:
“He’s dead meat.”
“Clinton is unelectable.”
As the video winds down, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton are seen on-screen, smiling and embracing--with Frank Sinatra’s voice crescendoing in the background . . . singing “Who’s Got the Last Laugh Now.”
Guests at the Clintons’ inaugural party whooped with delight when the video was shown, but in the almost eight months since that euphoric evening, neither the Clintons nor their supporters have had much opportunity for such laughter. Indeed, they could be forgiven if they have occasionally found themselves humming (through gritted teeth) a few other Sinatra tunes--"I’ll Never Smile Again” . . . “Everything Happens to Me” . . . maybe even “You’ll Get Yours.”
The media battered Lyndon B. Johnson over Vietnam and savaged Richard Nixon over Watergate, but perhaps never in our nation’s history--certainly not in its recent history--has a President so early in his term been subjected to a greater barrage of negative media coverage than Bill Clinton endured in his first 239 days in office.
Clinton’s own mistakes, his quixotic decision-making style and his up-and-down relationship with an increasingly confrontational, increasingly competitive news media obliterated any chance for a honeymoon--the respite, however brief, that journalists once granted new presidents.
Herblock (Herbert Block), the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post, best exemplified this traditional journalistic benevolence when Nixon was elected in 1968.
Throughout his adult life, Nixon has had a heavy beard, a perpetual 5 o’clock shadow, and Herblock had routinely accentuated that look by drawing him with a dark-jowled, sinister-looking mien.
But in the first cartoon he drew after Nixon was elected President, Herblock did not show Nixon at all; instead, he drew a barber pole, a counter filled with shaving and drawing implements--and a sign that proclaimed: “This Shop Gives to Every New President of the United States a Free Shave.”
Clinton received no free shave from the nation’s news media; he was nicked, cut, sliced and slashed by the barbers of the Fourth Estate--and instead of a honeymoon, he got an autopsy. As an early Washington Post story put it:
“The pundits have stuck a fork in this Administration and decided it’s very nearly done.”
In his first months, Clinton was described as “inept and indecisive” (the Los Angeles Times); embarked on “an error-ridden shakedown cruise” (New York magazine); beginning to “stumble with a certain farcical rhythm” (Time magazine), and someone who would “win weekly on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour” (David Brinkley on ABC).
“The President’s media ‘honeymoon’ was over before it began,” said the Center for Media and Public Affairs after studying network news coverage of Clinton during the first 10 weeks of his presidency.
Why was coverage of the Clinton presidency so negative so quickly?
There are several explanations, but any analysis of media coverage of Clinton--or of any modern President--must begin with one simple fact: Ever since a far more benign and credulous news media encountered pervasive White House duplicity over Vietnam and Watergate, reporters have become increasingly skeptical, even cynical, of virtually any word or deed emanating from the Oval Office.
“There’s a kind of sediment of cynicism that’s been building up for 30 years,” says Hendrik Hertzberg, executive editor of the New Yorker. “The layers of cynical sediment are higher for each new face” in the White House, no matter whom that face belongs to.
As a result, says Linda Douglass, a Washington correspondent for CBS News, “there’s now an essentially predatory connection between the press and the White House.”
In the eyes of some journalists, whatever the President--any President--does is wrong.
Thus, when President George Bush’s nomination of Sen. John Tower as secretary of defense ran into trouble in 1989 and Bush stuck with him to the end, he was criticized for bad judgment, for “stubbornly stretching out this soap opera” in a way that would force Bush to pay “an enormous political price,” in the words of a Newsday editorial.
But when Clinton ran into trouble over his nomination of Lani Guinier to be chief of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and he jettisoned her rather than risk having to pay an enormous political price, he too was derided in the media--for not sticking with Guinier as a matter of principle, through almost certain defeat--for “backing down in the face of political heat,” as a New York Times story put it.
This reaction only confirmed what columnist Leslie Gelb had written in the New York Times four months earlier:
“My colleagues and I, like journalistic Dr. Strangeloves, are ready to nuke Mr. Clinton at the slightest provocation.”
Jim Lehrer, associate editor and co-anchor of the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS, said in a commencement address at Williams College that this approach carries “a stench of contempt,” an arrogance that says all politicians are scum and only journalists are “smart enough to know what to do” about every problem facing the body politic.
Escalating competitive pressures have exacerbated this phenomenon. As news budgets, staffs and audience share have shriveled in recent years, reporters in Washington, as elsewhere, have become more competitive--and more competition almost inevitably leads to a lowering of standards and a blurring of lines between responsible news media and gossipy, tabloid media.
On some stories, being first--or catching and “surpassing” whoever is first--often becomes more important than being right and being responsible. Having instant impact--attracting readers, ratings and the attention of your media peers and employers--often becomes more important than having verifiable facts.
Result: More sensationalism. More trivia. More “attack” journalism. More pack journalism.
No one wants to be left behind, so if one newspaper or newsmagazine or television commentator says something, almost everyone rushes to catch up.
A single “fact” or observation becomes the conventional wisdom faster than you can say “Zoe Baird.” When Clinton faltered early--losing Baird and Kimba M. Wood as candidates for attorney general because of problems involving their domestic help--it quickly became fashionable to deride the Clinton Administration as being doomed.
“This is a city where the haberdashery is resistant to fashion but where political thought is run by fashion,” says David Shribman, Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe.
And right now, what’s fashionable in Washington, perhaps even more than in Hollywood, is celebrity. Leadership, columnist William Safire wrote in the New York Times recently, has been “transmogrified . . . into mere celebrity,” producing a cult of personality.
Nowhere is this more true than in coverage of the President.
“The President is ultimately responsible, but we exaggerate his impact,” says Ronald Brownstein, a political reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “The basic structure of the coverage is too much like ‘High Noon’ . . . the President as the lone guy at the end of the street, in this empty town, facing off mano a mano with somebody. It really doesn’t work like that. He’s one actor, who doesn’t have this whole street to maneuver in.”
With Clinton, says Max Frankel, executive editor of the New York Times, the media have made the mistake of “treating him as emperor,” not realizing that he “doesn’t fit the imperial presidency mold . . . either as a person . . . (or) as a type. The times have changed.”
The media “never cover what leaders think; we cursorily cover what they do; but we always cover what sort of people they are,” Safire wrote. “Our central question is not ‘Where are they taking us?’ but ‘What are they really like?’ ”
In the White House pressroom, the world’s most crowded--and most resonant--journalistic echo chamber, the cult of personality embraces not only the President but the reporters who cover him.
Of the 17,000 reporters stationed in Washington, almost 1,800 have White House credentials. The White House beat is one of the most prestigious in any news organization. White House reporters are usually talented and experienced. But they also tend to be driven by ambition and ego.
You don’t make a name for yourself in the White House press corps by asking easy questions or by doing “soft” stories.
“We live in a time when the worst thing that can be said about a journalist in Washington is that he or she is not ‘tough,’ ” says Brit Hume, White House correspondent for ABC News.
“In today’s journalistic climate,” says Eleanor Clift, White House correspondent for Newsweek, “you don’t say what the guy did right; you say what the guy did wrong.”
A reporter earns a reputation by being critical and confrontational, the way Dan Rather was with Nixon and Bush, the way Sam Donaldson was with Ronald Reagan.
In fact, resentment of successful media manipulation by the Reagan and, to a lesser degree, Bush administrations probably contributed significantly to the determined skepticism that greeted Clinton when he came to Washington.
But Clinton and his aides made it especially easy for the media to be antagonistic. The Administration stumbled and fumbled so often in the early going that if the White House had been a restaurant its plat du jour would have been flounder.
Ann Devroy, who covered Presidents Jimmy Carter, Reagan and Bush, is White House correspondent for the Washington Post. She says early media coverage of the Clinton Administration was “demonstrably more critical” than that of his immediate predecessors, largely for two reasons:
* The Administration began as “the most operationally dysfunctional White House I’ve ever covered.”
* The Administration did a “very poor and inept” job of making their own case, thus enabling their critics and opponents to seize the initiative.
“The profound differences between campaigning and governing . . . (are) something they’re only beginning to understand,” Devroy said in late July.
In addition to committing many personnel and policy mistakes, Clinton and his top aides alternately ignored, insulted and impeded the news media.
Ironically, Clinton also gave the media the very ammunition that would be used most effectively against him. Throughout his campaign, especially in his 232-page book “Putting People First,” he articulated a remarkably specific and ambitious list of objectives and timetables against which subsequent revisions, retrenchments and retreats could be measured.
Clinton said he intended to “have a legislative program ready on the desk of Congress on the day after I’m inaugurated,” and he promised “the most productive 100-day period in modern history.”
Top Clinton aides--and some members of the press--believe that the President deserves credit for taking on so many big issues so quickly and for trying to bring about such dramatic change in so many areas of government. But they do not deny their early gaffes.
“We screwed up plenty,” says Paul Begala, political adviser to the President.
Clinton egregiously miscalculated congressional tactics and opposition and saw his economic stimulus package defeated.
He flirted publicly with candidates for Supreme Court justice, attorney general and chief of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, then abandoned them at the first sign of trouble.
He announced his views on gays in the military, Haitian refugees, western grazing lands, the use of force in Bosnia-Herzegovina, cutting middle-class taxes and the imposition of a broad-based energy tax, then reversed himself so quickly that even casual observers risked a severe case of whiplash.
Amid all this, the President--the Big Mac-chomping, baggy shorts-wearing populist President from a town called Hope--hobnobbed with Hollywood stars and got a "$200 haircut” from a stylist with one (foreign) name; he also saw his top aides fire the White House travel staff for alleged mismanagement, then backpedal furiously when the media and then their own internal investigators said they had acted improperly.
It is difficult to have a honeymoon if you determinedly avoid even a semblance of a courtship, and for the first four months, White House reporters say, presidential aides seemed more interested in wounding than in wooing them.
Clinton’s disdain for the media as an institution was evident long before he was elected. Indeed, many in the White House press corps think he has never liked the media, and his election simply gave him the freedom to act accordingly.
“Probably not since Richard Nixon has a President come into office with so much antagonism toward the media,” wrote Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.
Begala denies this. Clinton, he says, simply has “a streak of populism in him . . . like all good Southern governors . . . (and it’s) anti-institutional across the board.”
But many reporters say he does not seem comfortable with the adversarial relationship of press and President.
Perhaps that’s because he is “probably smarter than most reporters who cover him,” in the words of Adam Nagourney, who has covered the Clinton campaign and White House for USA Today, and he resents being challenged by them. Perhaps it is because Clinton is a policy wonk and most political reporters are “essentially obsessed with the process and the game, not at all interested in the issues,” as he told reporter Mark Miller of Newsweek early in the campaign.
That may be one reason Clinton snapped at ABC’s Hume and accused the media of “turning any substantive decision into . . . political process” when Hume questioned him on live TV in June about the decision-making process that led to his nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsberg to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Clinton was not always so critical of the media. Nor they of him.
Before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton was the press corps’ pinup boy. Time, the New Republic and New York magazines all ran cover stories on him, and he was anointed the Democratic front-runner before a single primary ballot had been cast.
Clinton returned the favor. He called selected reporters at home, asked their counsel, commented intelligently (and favorably) on their stories.
Then came Gennifer Flowers. And the draft. And marijuana. The media feeding frenzy stunned Clinton and almost destroyed his candidacy. In political terms, it was a near-death experience.
“Old-time friends, people who know him well have told me that those were searing experiences . . . that he never forgot,” says Albert Hunt, executive Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal.
The feelings of acrimony soon became mutual.
“Many people who covered him grew to like him less by the end” of the campaign, says Susan Feeney, who covered the Clinton campaign for the Dallas Morning News and is now the paper’s national political reporter.
That often happens after the prolonged, up-close contact of a heated political battle. Familiarity breeds contempt.
With Clinton, it may have been worse than most. He bobbed and weaved his way through all the controversies that dogged his campaign, rarely giving a straightforward answer. Sometimes he gave several different answers to the same question.
The media came to perceive him--rightly or wrongly--as someone who, even more so than most politicians, had only a nodding acquaintance with the Truth.
But didn’t Clinton get more favorable coverage than Bush in the campaign? Isn’t that the conventional wisdom?
Yes. And for once, the conventional wisdom is right. Sort of.
From the New Hampshire primary in February through the New York primary in April--the months of Gennifer Flowers, marijuana, the draft--Clinton got “maybe the worst press I’ve ever known a candidate to get,” says Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of the Washington Post.
But before and after that period, Clinton fared very well.
A UC Irvine study by Mark P. Petracca, associate professor of political science, and Emily Bach, an honors graduate, says campaign coverage of Bush in Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report from May, 1991, to November, 1992, was 75% unfavorable and 17% favorable; coverage of Clinton was 34% unfavorable and 60% favorable.
In the final weeks of the campaign--as in the months preceding the first primary--Clinton’s coverage was especially favorable (or at least it was much less unfavorable than Bush’s). In the 73 days preceding Election Day, 58% of the Washington Post’s Page 1 stories and headlines on President Bush were negative, compared to 28% negative for Clinton.
This imbalance was probably attributable far less to any ideological bias than to a certain generational affinity between many campaign reporters and the Clinton people. More important, there was a largely subconscious bias to which virtually all reporters fall prey--the bias in favor of a “good” story, which often translates to “change,” something new. New makes NEWs.
“The feeling was that a second Bush term would be fairly boring,” says David Broder, syndicated political columnist for the Washington Post. But with Clinton, “for a lot of reporters of his . . . generation, (there was) a sense of anticipation: ‘Our folks are going to be in charge.’ ”
In addition, Clinton’s problems with the media during the campaign notwithstanding, his press aides ran a smart, efficient operation, one based on knowing what reporters needed and getting it to them quickly; that kind of service can overcome almost any journalistic pique.
James Carville, Clinton’s campaign manager, says he talked to key people in the press every day during the campaign, doling out select morsels of information, trying to find out what they knew and what they were talking about.
“Information in a political campaign is like spit in an 11th-grade class,” Carville says. “It gets swapped around a lot between the boys and the girls.”
But the exchange of spit (and of virtually everything else) shut down abruptly during the transition period between Clinton’s election and his inauguration--a time when he might have capitalized on his triumph and on whatever goodwill he had in the press.
“The transition ruined any good feeling that there might have been,” says Birnbaum of the Journal. “The dark days of Little Rock after the election, I think, are what soured the press relations with the Clintons.”
Reporters covering the transition sat around Little Rock day after day, week after week, waiting for announcements of Cabinet appointments and other news. But Clinton and his transition team moved slowly, held their cards close to the vest and acted as if, now that they had won, they no longer had to court the media.
Earlier administrations had used the transition to schmooze with the press and to “dribble out an appointment a day (so) . . . the waiting press had something to write about,” says Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
When Clinton’s people did not do that, the press corps grew restive and resentful.
Reporters have to write something. How else can they justify their time?
“There was no way that a reporter without any news, sitting in that hotel room, staring at the wall, not having a great restaurant to go to, not having a great bar to go to, was going to write a favorable story--and they didn’t,” Hess says.
That same problem carried over into the White House.
Press secretaries to Presidents Reagan and Bush knew that they had to feed “the beast,” as the White House press corps has come to be called. Give them something, anything, at the daily press briefing or--starved and desperate--they’ll gnaw your hand off.
In the early months of the Clinton Administration, aides not only did not feed the press, they put a lid on the media trough: On his first day as communications director, George Stephanopoulos closed off the corridor outside his second-floor office and the adjacent office of his top aide, thus limiting reporters to the downstairs area, which houses the reporters’ own tiny cubicles, the press briefing room and the office of the lowest-level press aides.
Often, says Devroy of the Post, the only people in the lower press office were “20-year-olds, clerical people.”
Suppose a “tremendous crisis erupts at 10 a.m.,” she says. Could a reporter go in there to get confirmation of “ ‘reports that 16 ships are heading toward Iraq and we’re about to bomb Iraq?’ This kid doesn’t even know were Iraq is.”
Reporters understandably preferred being able to pop upstairs to corner a more knowledgeable press aide when they had a question, as they had been doing for years.
But no one can wander at will in the corridors of any major news organization; uniformed guards usually prevent visitors from venturing beyond the public lobby. Why, Stephanopoulos argued, should reporters insist on the right to wander at will in his corridor?
Nagourney of USA Today sympathizes with Stephanopoulos.
“I get pissed off when I’m writing a story and someone comes over and looks at my (computer) screen,” he says. “I could understand why (Stephanopoulos) . . . didn’t want reporters walking around.”
Reporters from other major news organizations agree that the closing of the press office door did not particularly bother them. When they had a question, they called Stephanopoulos or any other aide they wanted to talk to, and their calls were returned.
But reporters from less prestigious organizations--and those from wire services and radio stations, with an almost endless cycle of deadlines--insisted that without the open door their burdensome competitive disadvantage would be ruinously exacerbated. Their calls might be returned too late--or not at all.
“In this age of instant communications,” reporters must be able to reach the press secretary or his deputy “at any hour,” says Helen Thomas, White House correspondent for United Press International. “There are some questions that really won’t wait.
“We don’t walk into their offices if the doors are closed. We wait till they come out and try to ambush them or buttonhole them.”
Thus, when the press office door was closed, Thomas says, “I was screaming like a banshee.”
Even though the closing of the door had little, if any, effect on other heavyweights in the press corps, most either joined the protest or made no effort to calm their colleagues.
Rightly or wrongly, the Closing of the Press Office Door became a symbol of the Clinton Administration’s perceived contempt for the news media. Reporters treated it like “the burning of the Magna Charta,” says Jeff Greenfield, political and media analyst for ABC News.
In retrospect, Stephanopoulos, now a senior adviser to the President, and press secretary Dee Dee Myers concede that closing the door was a mistake, and it was compounded by Clinton’s own reluctance to talk to reporters informally.
In the early weeks of Bush’s presidency, he ambled into the pressroom so often to schmooze that some reporters began to grumble that they had run out of questions to ask. Neither Clinton nor Stephanopoulos bothered to schmooze. Reporters felt neglected.
In more practical terms, reporters complain, Clinton and his aides were consistently late--without apology or explanation--on virtually everything from simple procedural announcements to daily briefings, often forcing reporters to scramble to readjust their schedules and meet their deadlines.
“This guy is the worst . . . absolutely the worst,” says Devroy of the Post. “Clinton has no concept of the traditional middle-class virtue of not keeping other people waiting. He is extraordinarily self-absorbed. . . .”
Moreover, Clinton and his top aides gave the distinct impression that they intended to bypass the White House press corps and use new communication technology to take their case directly to the American people via talk shows, town hall meetings and regional press interviews.
Why should Clinton face hostile questioning from veteran hotshots eager to make themselves look good at his expense when he could sit in the White House, linked by satellite to five cities, and answer softball questions from reporters grateful just for the opportunity to question the President of the United States?
Clinton’s top aides insist they never intended their regional and direct-to-the-people communications to replace the traditional White House press corps, merely to supplement it.
But Clinton did not hold his first full-fledged news conference until he had been in office for more than two months. When reporters grumbled that he was holding fewer news conferences than any of his recent predecessors, he replied, only partially in jest, in a speech at the Radio and Television Correspondents Assn. dinner:
“You know why I can stiff you on the press conferences? Because Larry King liberated me from you by giving me to the American people directly.”
The Administration’s blend of arrogance, ignorance, inexperience and incompetence not only made the media’s job more difficult, but it undermined the effectiveness of the President’s communications strategy. Technology notwithstanding, White House reporters remain the President’s daily link with the American public.
“You can talk to Omaha or Portland or Los Angeles on any given day,” says Broder of the Post, “but the next day, Omaha and Portland and Los Angeles TV are not going to be there to cover you. If you want to do get your story out day by day, you really have to deal with the White House reporters.”
White House reporters still make the front pages and the top of the evening news more than other reporters. What they write and say helps set the agenda for the rest of the press.
The White House has those reporters “captive” for up to an hour a day during the press briefing, and Clinton could have turned that to his advantage, Devroy says. Top aides in the Reagan and Bush administrations did that repeatedly.
But Devroy says she has “never seen the White House podium used less effectively in the pressroom” than it has been used by the Clinton Administration.
It is ironic to hear reporters criticizing the White House for not manipulating them effectively. But it is undeniably true that by providing little positive “spin” of its own, the Clinton White House often fell victim to the negative spin engendered by its missteps--and by the resentment that many in the White House press corps felt toward it.
Jacci Cenacveira and Peter Johnson in The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this series.
* Today: The White House’s own stumbles and an increasingly confrontational and competitive news media led to early--and unfavorable--pronounce
* Thursday: Did the media rush to judgment on the new President?
* Friday: The revenge of the White House press corps.