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Dire Judgments on Clinton Started Just Days Into Term : Media: Competition among analysts and President’s risky agenda played roles in drumbeat of early criticism.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twelve days after President Clinton took office--with only 1,448 days left in his term--Sam Donaldson of ABC News was on a weekend talk show, saying, “This week we can talk about, ‘Is the presidency over?’ ”

That same day, a Page 1 story in the Los Angeles Times warned, “The President must tighten his grip or risk disaster.”

Later that week, a Page 1 story in the New York Times said, “The President desperately needs a victory, as soon as possible.”

Desperation and disaster in the first two weeks of a four-year term? Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, has seen a lot of harsh media criticism of Presidents in her 28 years in Washington journalism, but never, she says, has she seen an administration “pronounced dead” so early.

A burgeoning cottage industry in analysis and opinion-mongering, especially on TV talk shows, spurred this new phenomenon, as did Clinton’s own large ambitions. Although there is substantial evidence that the public thought Clinton deserved more time to prove himself, the widespread predictions of a doomed presidency continued for several months.

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Each time the President’s deficit-reduction package went before Congress, the pundits warned that its defeat would destroy Clinton.

On the night in late May that the House was to vote on the original deficit-reduction plan, Roger Mudd of the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” asked longtime Washington columnist Elizabeth Drew, “What is riding on the vote this evening?”

“Nothing less than the Clinton presidency,” she replied.

“Really?” Mudd asked.

“I don’t deal in overstatement,” she said.

Of course not.

Amid flaps over Clinton’s "$200 haircut,” the firing of the White House travel office staff, the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t high-level appointments and the assorted policy reversals and defeats--forecasts of Clinton’s imminent political demise intensified.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Albert Hunt, then Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, said “I’m not sure he’s going to recover from the problems of his presidency.” Time magazine published a tiny photo of Clinton on its cover, beneath the large-type words “The Incredible Shrinking President.” Inside the magazine, a reporter with presumably psychic powers wrote that Clinton “saw his presidency pass before his eyes” when his chief of staff told him two Democratic congressmen had decided to vote against his deficit-reduction plan.

Clinton had suffered several setbacks, some of them quite serious, but wasn’t this rush to judgment premature? Didn’t it amount to “infanticide,” asked Marvin Kalb, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” Wasn’t Clinton entitled to a few mistakes while learning a new and dauntingly complex job?

After all, Clinton was not the only national leader who was stumbling. In Italy and Japan, scandal rocked governments and swept heads of state from office. In France, the Socialist Party of President Francois Mitterand was badly beaten at the polls. In Canada, Brian Mulroney stepped down as prime minister. In Germany and Great Britain, opinion surveys showed all-time low ratings for the heads of state.

“We are witnessing a crisis of representative democracy,” Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, told the Wall Street Journal in early July.

That’s one reason that many journalists were uncomfortable with their colleagues’ determined haste to give Clinton his last rites. They didn’t want to praise Clinton, but they didn’t want to bury him yet either. They wanted a little context, a little perspective.

Robert Kaiser, managing editor of the Washington Post, had that in mind when he decided to change the headline on the lead story in the Post’s widely read Style section between editions May 27.

The first-edition headline said, “Just Another Failed Presidency? If History Is a Guide, Clinton May Be a Lame Duck Already.”

Kaiser thought that judgment a bit premature, and he worried that it “sounded too much like political analysis” for a Style story. He wanted something “more flip,” more like the story itself, which he thought was “quite good.”

The new headline: “Another Failed Presidency, Already? Sure, It’s Early. But What’s That Sound of No Hands Clapping?”

Reporters on the Post’s national staff “hated” the story, Kaiser says. Even with the changed language, White House correspondent Ann Devroy says she was “freaked” by the headline.

“I thought it was terrible,” she says. “It is just wrong . . . ridiculous.”

Others in the media use exactly the same word-- ridiculous-- to describe their colleagues’ terminal diagnoses of the Clinton presidency.

Paul Richter, White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, says the new Administration’s many stumbles did “raise doubts about the guy, and I think it was legitimate to explore all that and to comment on that, (but) we way overshot in doing that.

“Even the most bitter Republican foes would say, ‘I really don’t like what he’s doing . . . but, Jesus, the guy just got there; he’s barely unpacked his bag.’ ”

Why were the media so eager to pronounce Clinton DOA?

One explanation is that opinion polls and the “who’s ahead?” horse-race journalism that has come to dominate campaign coverage has seeped into government coverage as well.

“We don’t have ‘governing’ reporters today, only ‘political’ reporters,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause. “They judge governance--policy--in purely political terms.”

Richard Smith, editor-in-chief of Newsweek, has another theory.

“There are so many pundits now that the race to be first with a judgment is a pretty frenetic one,” Smith says. “Particularly if you look at the world of television political talk (shows) these days, the emphasis is on who can say the most dramatic, outrageous, ‘bold’ comment that attracts the most attention.

“Six days into a presidency to be talking about a failed administration is a pretty outrageous stand,” Smith says. “The ability to get genuine news scoops out of the White House, with however many hundreds of people are covering that place, is limited. It’s much easier to make the most outrageous analytical point in hopes of getting noticed for that.”

Many in the media unhappily concur.

“In the same way that CNN has speeded up the news cycle,” weekend talk shows have created “an incredible acceleration of the judgment cycle,” says Ronald Brownstein, a political reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “Everybody is competing . . . to render the definitive judgment.”

When U.S. warships launched cruise missiles on Baghdad in late June, panelists on the Washington talk show “The Capital Gang” were analyzing the political fallout before the White House even knew if the missiles had hit their targets.

The competition for quick analytical hits has become so heated in part because there are many more players in the game, all scrambling for the newest angle or insight the way football players scramble for a fumble.

When Jimmy Carter took office in 1976, there was no CNN, no C-SPAN, no “McLaughlin Group,” no “Capital Gang,” no “Nightline,” no “Prime Time Live,” no “20/20,” no “Crossfire,” no “Inside Politics"--and no Rush Limbaugh, the prototype of the radio and TV talk show host whose political views and huge audience help polarize the partisan dialogue and create an atmosphere in which instant judgment, brazenly expressed, is a marketable commodity.

“The demand for definite-sounding, pugnacious opinions far outstrips the supply of same that are grounded in any kind of reality,” says Hendrik Hertzberg, executive editor of the New Yorker. “There’s a huge sucking vacuum of op-ed pages and TV talk shows . . . . This huge maw has to be fed.”

Andrea Mitchell, White House correspondent for NBC News, agrees that media commentators were “ferocious . . . extraordinarily shortsighted” in their premature determination to inter Clinton’s presidency. Worse, she worries that many in the public feel “bombarded by highly opinionated commentators and that gets confused with daily reporting” of the news, which she thinks has been “fairly balanced.”

Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University scholar of the presidency, says he’s “struck by the extent to which coverage is now highly interpretive and the extent to which you have difficulty distinguishing between news pieces and opinion pieces.”

The contemporary media’s tendency to see the presidency as “a piece of well-managed theater,” with the President as merely the leading actor, inevitably means “every second person in the press decides to be a director,” advising the President what to do and how and why he isn’t handling his role properly, says Max Frankel, executive editor of the New York Times.

Not every story has said Clinton wasn’t handling his role properly, of course. Just this week, he was the largely passive beneficiary of the euphoric coverage that attended the historic signing of a framework for peace between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Two months ago, he received favorable coverage for his performance at the G-7 economic summit in Tokyo and his nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court. As far back as February, he won widespread praise for his economic message to Congress.

Indeed, in March, beneath the headline “Beginner’s Luck or President’s Prowess? Dazzled Capitol Wonders if Clinton Can Keep Lighting Up the Board,” a Washington Post story said:

“Professional Washingtonians, impressed by Clinton’s proficiency at the game--his command of the airwaves, his ability to connect with voters, his smooth touch on Capitol Hill--are giving him high marks. . . . “

Clinton’s media coverage has been so schizophrenic over the past seven months that looking at it is a bit like watching a pornographic movie--he’s up, he’s down, he’s in, he’s out, with (as Meg Greenfield of the Post, notes) “a lot of moaning and groaning and hugging and kissing in-between.”

Such oscillation is “endemic to press coverage,” says David Lauter, White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. “We always seem to exaggerate the highs and lows. . . .”

Thus, Thomas L. Friedman, White House correspondent for the New York Times, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in June, “My feeling about this Administration has always been, it’s either going to be a great success or it’s going to be a great failure--but there’s not going to be a lot in between.”

The most difficult task confronting any Washington journalist, it often seems, is to “offer a view that is not at one extreme or the other,” says columnist David Broder of the Washington Post. “Either a guy is a genius or he is a total bum, depending on the events of the previous 24 hours.”

“It’s very hard to separate yourself from . . . those huge swings of the pendulum.”

In early June, Broder himself wrote of Clinton’s “presidential meltdown” as “a calamity,” and he said of Clinton’s various mistakes, “That this is happening to the man who will remain as President for the next 43 months is an international disaster.”

With Clinton, the media’s swings from low to high and back have often been so sudden and so extreme that it’s sometimes seemed as if the entire press corps were afflicted with a massive case of manic-depressive disorder.

One reason is Clinton himself. Many in the press corps liken him to a “streak hitter” in baseball, who can rip line drives day after day, then suddenly misses so often he couldn’t hit the water if he fell out of a boat, then he goes right back to smashing the ball.

Despite several extra-base hits, Clinton has spent much of his still-young Administration mired in a slump. That, at least, is how he’s been portrayed by many in the news media. There is evidence that the public doesn’t like this portrayal.

A poll in June by the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press showed that 43% of the American public thought the news media were criticizing the Clinton Administration unfairly.

A New York Times/CBS News Poll that month showed 69% thought Clinton was learning from the problems he’d encountered and would do better; 26% said he was “not up to the job.” But that information was published in the 10th paragraph on Page 14 of a story that led Page 1, under the headline “More People View Clinton as Liberal, Latest Poll Finds.”

Similarly, a Los Angeles Times story published 10 days later said 27% of those polled thought Clinton’s early difficulties “show his presidency is in long-term serious trouble;” 67% said his problems were “due mainly to inexperience and he will probably improve with time.” That information was also in the 10th paragraph on Page 16 of a story that began on Page 1 under the headline “Public Loses Faith in Clinton Economic Plan.”

Friedman of the New York Times says he didn’t join many of his colleagues in writing Clinton off precisely because he is convinced “the American people want him to succeed.

“This is a defining moment in American history,” Friedman says. “We cannot afford to have a failed presidency. I’ve always felt that was kind of a life vest around Bill Clinton, holding him up in bad times. That affected, obviously, how I covered his presidency.”

Adam Nagourney, who covers Clinton for USA Today, says Clinton did “a lot of remarkably incompetent things” in his first six months, but when two acquaintances asked him why the press was being so tough on the President, he decided to “go back and look at (my) stories.”

He asked himself, “ ‘Am I being too negative? Am I not giving the guy a chance? Am I part of this culture that sort of seems set up . . . to ensure that any President, no matter how smart, is going to fail?’

“The answer is sometimes yes.”

One of the most striking illustrations of the difference in perceptions of the President inside and outside Washington involves the question of Clinton as (alleged) promise-breaker.

“No one can undecide a decision quite as often as Bill Clinton,” said Newsweek in late June, during the President’s screening of candidates for the U.S. Supreme Court. “That is one reason why so often in his fledgling presidency Clinton has appeared to walk away from his promises. From accepting gays in the military to welcoming Haitian refugees to rescuing Bosnia, Clinton has had to abandon his grand ideas because he lacks the discipline to make hard choices.”

Commentators and White House correspondents representing news organizations from Boston to Houston echoed that charge.

But the public seems much less troubled (or surprised) than the media by broken campaign promises.

The Post’s Broder says that when he interviewed voters for a story on Clinton’s first 100 days, he found that campaign promises “don’t mean that much” to voters, and several polls early this year showed that voters didn’t really expect Clinton to keep most of those promises.

Perhaps this is because most Americans simply no longer believe anything that politicians tell them. After all, just before Clinton took office, surveys showed only 20% of the electorate believed public officials could be trusted--down from the 70% recorded when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961.

But recent polls have also shown that most people didn’t care if Clinton kept most of his campaign promises (health care reform being the major exception).

A Los Angeles Times Poll taken the week before Clinton was inaugurated, which showed that only 8% of the public expected him to fulfill “many” of his campaign promises, also showed that 60% would not be upset even if he decided against a middle-class tax cut.

The public seemed to realize that a middle-class tax cut, per se, was not the only way for Clinton to achieve his major campaign promise--to reverse the policies of the 1980s, to see that the very rich carried the heaviest tax burden.

As passed by Congress, his deficit-reduction plan achieves that objective.

Isn’t that in keeping with the spirit, if not the precise letter of Clinton’s campaign promise?

So why did a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll taken while Congress was voting on the deficit-reduction plan last month show that 68% of the public believed the middle class would have to pay most of the new taxes? Why did only 22% understood that the wealthy would actually pay the most?

The media certainly spelled out--often, in great detail--the exact nature of the tax legislation. But the media also said often--and prominently--especially early in the debate, that Clinton was abandoning his pledge of a middle-class tax cut.

It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of such coverage.

“Even though they don’t trust us, people absorb opinion from us,” says Linda Douglass, a Washington correspondent for CBS News.

But why was coverage of the deficit-reduction package often so negative? Why was Clinton’s determination to reason with, rather than threaten, his congressional opponents reported as if it were a major personality flaw?

The President wasn’t playing “bare-knuckled politics,” the New York Times noted pointedly. “Few, if any, threats flowed from the White House.”

Similarly, Newsweek said the President’s “approach to leadership . . . (is) about understanding, not threats; accommodation, not confrontation.”

Some might regard that as a mature, sensitive way to seek consensus. But Newsweek dismissed Clinton’s style as “reminiscent of another patient, non-judgmental figure given to hugging in public: Barney the Dinosaur.”

Is it true, as Douglass of CBS News argues, that “you have to be a thug to succeed in this town?

“The President should be vicious, coldblooded, so totally committed to his agenda that he doesn’t care who he steps on,” Douglass says.

But if the President has to emphasize the “bully” in his White House “bully pulpit,” what becomes of the tradition of political compromise? When is a compromise a broken promise and when is it a legitimate tactic--what Gwen Ifill, White House correspondent for the New York Times calls “the essence of what politics is about, especially if you’re a politician from the South.”

When Clinton compromised on the middle-class tax cut--as when he compromised on his pledge to completely lift the ban on gays in the military--many in the media accused him of craven capitulation.

The problem, his critics said, was not so much that he compromised on those specific issues to achieve a portion of his original objectives but that he seemed to have no core beliefs on which he would not compromise.

“It still isn’t clear what principles, other than political survival, are driving him,” Newsweek said last month.

President Ronald Reagan compromised to achieve his goals, too. But he is remembered as a man of principle precisely because he was “able to convey a gut commitment to a set of conservative principles so convincingly that many said, in effect, I’m not worried about the details or the compromises because I know where Reagan stands,” Friedman wrote in the New York Times.

Clinton has no such “clear, broad government themes that connect with the voters on that level,” Friedman wrote.

As a result, says Albert Hunt, now executive Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal, in a typical media evaluation of Clinton, “When the going gets tough, this guy caves.”

This has been a constant theme of Clinton coverage, and it created an early portrait of the President painted in unprecedentedly bleak-and-blue tones.

This is not to suggest that the media gave his predecessors a free ride in the early going.

At the beginning of President George Bush’s term, he was criticized in language remarkably similar to that used to describe Clinton.

“Stumbling Mars Bush Team Debut,” read the headline on a Washington Post editorial.

“Bush doesn’t frighten Congress,” said the Christian Science Monitor.

“Bush frequently has temporized,” said the Los Angeles Times.

But there was no steady drumbeat of criticism of Bush as there has been of Clinton. A study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs shows that through the first six months of Bush’s presidency, 61% of the network news evaluations of his performance were positive; for Clinton, in a similar period, the figure was 34%.

The media have derided Clinton as a quitter when he’s compromised, for example, but Bush’s compromises were praised for the “flexibility or pragmatism (that) . . . surfaced repeatedly in (his) . . . early decisions,” said a Page 1 story in the Washington Post.

The Washington Monthly argued in a story last month that the media haven’t used the same standard to measure Bush and Clinton on such matters. The magazine cited three promises that both men made as candidates--national service, education reform and campaign financing reform--and pointed out that Clinton has been pilloried for reneging on his promises, even though he has delivered much more on all three than Bush did.

Clinton also has had to endure more early criticism than Bush because Clinton has made more mistakes. He made more mistakes, in part because of indecision, in part because of poor (and arrogant) staff work, in part because he and his aides lack Bush’s long Washington experience but also, in part, because he has tried to do more.

Michael Duffy, White House correspondent for Time magazine, says it took him a year to figure out that the Bush Administration was “desperately trying to do nothing, concocting a minimalist strategy.” Clinton, he says, is “radically different . . . moving in so many directions at once.

“When we look back on the Clinton presidency from a year’s distance and begin to see it with some perspective, we’ll see that, wittingly or unwittingly, he was willing to take a lot of short-term risks and pain in return for the potential of some long-term gains, something his predecessor wasn’t willing to do. . . . There may be an element of guts that we aren’t, at the moment, crediting him with.”

Peter Johnson and Jacci Cenacveira in The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this series.

Covering Clinton

* Wednesday: The White House’s own stumbles and an increasingly confrontational and competitive news media led to early--and unfavorable--pronouncements by the media.

* Today: Did the media rush to judgment on the new President?

* Friday: The revenge of the White House press corps.


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