The White House took another step Tuesday in acknowledging the new ways in which politics gets communicated: for the first time it invited radio talk show hosts, those purveyors of America’s political Angst , to the White House for high-level briefings on the Clinton health care plan.
And it learned, along the way, that you can take radio talk shows hosts off the air and give them an audience with the First Lady and the President, but you can’t necessarily get them to behave--even to the uncertain standards of regular Washington journalists.
“Drop dead. You drop dead!” conservative Baltimore talk show host Les Kinsolving shouted at Washington host Mark Davis, after Davis “apologized for the impertinence” of Kinsolving’s question about why Clinton would not release his personal medical records.
“Hey!” “Whoa!” “Boo,” the crowd added.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” shouted Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, trying to restore order.
“You’re just rude because your ratings are sagging,” Kinsolving shot later at Davis.
Under the ground rules, the briefing was to begin with 20 minutes of remarks by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who would leave the gathering without taking questions. The facts and figures of the plan would be dispensed by a senior Administration official, who would “speak on background,” meaning he would not be identified by name.
But even those basic rules of play were subjected to high-decibel mob negotiation.
“How come The First Lady wouldn’t take questions from us,” a radio host asked at one point. “Did she take them from the networks? I can’t imagine Ted Koppel sitting there and not being allowed to take a question?”
“Uh, I think she did take questions,” an Administration official conceded. “I remember Connie Chung asked a question.”
And there was grousing that the briefers had not produced any copies of the plan.
“For those of us who flew half way across the country for this, why haven’t we got details instead of a pep talk,” one host demanded of a senior Administration official.
“I’ll be as specific as you want. That’s why I’m here,” he tried.
“How about copies of the plan?” someone else shouted.
“Yeah! Yeah,” the crowd chimed in.
The final plan isn’t finished yet, the official said.
In the course of more than two hours, the Administration’s high level schmooze seemed to soothe the sometimes savage throats of the assembled. By the time he arrived for the final part of the briefing, an hour late, the President enjoyed a hearty standing ovation.
The day was another step in the young Administration’s recognition of what one of its strategists called “the crucial role talk shows play now in shaping public opinion.”
During this summer’s debate over the Administration’s budget plan, the President did several radio talk shows by phone. But Tuesday marked the first time in memory the White House invited radio talk show hosts to a full background briefing.
The President, the First Lady, the vice president’s wife, Tipper Gore, Shalala, White House counselor David Gergen and other top senior Administration officials were among the briefers for the 125 talk show hosts.
On Thursday, 40 of the hosts will do their shows from the White House lawn.