No aspect of the President’s life is too trivial for the press these days. The vast maw of the modern media demands constant feeding, one factoid after another, no matter how personal or how inconsequential.
For weeks this summer, the White House press corps buzzed with speculation about where President Clinton and his family would vacation. As first one potential site and then another was discarded, reporters began to sniff in print that this was “typical” of Clinton’s indecision on matters large and small.
“Final Wave of Indecision Roils Clinton’s Vacation Plans,” a New York Times headline said at one point.
Preoccupied for six months with Clinton’s stumbles, fumbles, retreats and rebuffs, the media seemed determined to treat his vacation plans--and the vacation itself--as an Important Matter of State, a continuation of the peril-filled daily soap opera “As Bill’s World Turns . . . and Turns . . . and Turns.”
When the Clintons finally settled on Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, the New York Times published frequent bulletins on his activities and on the quaint habits of others in the island--many of whom, not coincidentally, are media superstars (television’s Mike Wallace and Barbara Walters, Katharine Graham, who last week stepped down as chairwoman of the Washington Post Co., columnist Art Buchwald, novelist William Styron, cartoonist Jules Feiffer).
The first paragraph of one front-page New York Times story was “Whoa, mama, stay up!” a direct quote addressed by the President of the United States to his “pockmarked” golf ball.
Later in the story, we learned what the President ate for dinner (“grilled bonito”) and what he wore (“a raspberry shirt and green Windbreaker with jeans and cowboy boots.”)
The Washington Post also provided thorough--indeed biting--coverage of Clinton’s golfing wardrobe on Martha’s Vineyard: “an all-lavender get-up so doofy-looking, so White Guy, that you just know Chelsea took one disgusted teen-age glance and rolled her eyes, ‘Oh, Daddy , you’re not wearing that .’ ”
Ruth Marcus, White House correspondent for the Post, clearly learned the lesson Bob Woodward hammered home in his pursuit of Watergate evidence--"Follow the money”; her inside account of Clinton’s visit to a Martha’s Vineyard bookstore contained not only the names of the books he bought but also the disclosure that “the $119.49 tab (was) paid for with Hillary Clinton’s credit card.”
Virtually everyone in the media, especially on the East Coast, got into the Martha’s Vineyard act. Some provided more details on Clinton’s recreational activities than they had on Lani Guinier’s writings before Clinton decided not to nominate her to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
Press briefings from Martha’s Vineyard were filled with such startling announcements as:
“The President . . . is horseback riding with Chelsea. They went down to Scrubbyneck Farm and are riding back to Oyster-Watcha.”
Reporters questioned Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, on various weighty matters of state:
“Can you give us any readout on (Clinton’s) . . . talk with Jackie O (Onassis) yesterday?”
It all became too much for William Safire, the columnist for the New York Times, who wondered in print if the “saturation coverage” was simply the inevitable byproduct of a “world press . . . all geared up for round-the-clock coverage, and . . . forced by its own momentum to cover the non-news” as well as the real news.