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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Dee Dee Myers : Press Secretary to an Administration Full of Talkers

<i> Thomas B. Rosenstiel covers the media for The Times and is the author of "Strange Bedfellows: How Television and the Presidential Candidates Changed American Politics." (Hyperion Press)</i>

When the flame began turning up on the Whitewater mess, one small artifact of the story was the disappearance of the daily press briefing for White House reporters. Since March 2, the familiar face of the young woman with the blond shag haircut, the slow temper and sometimes unfortunate gift for the hip one-liner has been missing from the press-room podium.

Dee Dee Myers, the Valencia-bred presidential press secretary, has not been in hiding--but access has been controlled, mostly to one reporter at a time in her office. Unlike past Administrations, where tough-minded press secretaries were a primary fire wall during crises, in this White House, other high officials are as visible--and verbal--as Myers.

Myers’ current caution is different from times past. During the chaos over C. Lani Guinier’s nomination to head the Justice Department’s civil-rights division last June, one columnist questioned the Clinton Administration’s maturity and used Myers’ fondness for flip remarks as an example: “One of the things you lose when you get high office is the freedom to kid around with abandon.”

At 32, Margaret Jane (Dee Dee) Myers qualifies as a pioneer in U.S. politics. She is not only one of the youngest people to be a presidential press secretary, but also the first woman. In an Administration with more high-ranking women than any other, Myers is the second most visible female after the First Lady.

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For all this, Myers still fights for respect. She does not occupy the traditional spacious office of past press secretaries, but sits in a cramped space two doors down; her title is deputy assistant to the President, not full assistant like her predecessors. Such things make reporters worry that she lacks access and is winging it when describing policy.

The criticisms are typical of the job. Next to vice presidents, press secretaries are the Rodney Dangerfields of politics. The real difference between Myers and past press secretaries is that so many others in Bill Clinton’s Administration talk so freely. This is a White House with many spokesmen and no clear hierarchy.

Talking in her small office, the daughter of a Lockheed test pilot and Vietnam veteran still shows hints of the tomboy who grew up in a Republican, Catholic family just north of the San Fernando Valley. She is generous with her time and still candid.

Question: This is an Administration in which everyone seems to be a spokesman. What is your job?

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Answer: A lot of people in this Administration do have relationships with the press. A lot of peer relationships. People went to school together. They grew up together. They live in the same neighborhoods. They have the same interests . . . . In many ways that is helpful.

I am not sure that has a tremendous effect on my role. It has some effect clearly. My job is to be a spokesman--the spokesman, I suppose--for the President, for the White House, to do the daily briefings, to manage the press corps in terms of travel, day-to-day needs, access, interviews, all those issues. I am the primary contact person, but certainly not the only contact person.

Q: How has Whitewater changed what you do?

A: It has made it more difficult for a number of reasons. For one, it is distracting. And even though the President may be giving a speech on jobs, or meeting with a foreign leader, the press is still focused on Whitewater. So you are trying to push what the President is talking about and field the questions on Whitewater.

The second thing that makes it hard is there are so many questions we can’t answer--because we don’t have the information or because we need to let the special counsel do his job--that it often looks like you’re evading or not being direct, when, in fact, for one reason or another, you can’t give them the answer.

Probably the most frustrating part of it is having to prove the negative. Prove the Clintons didn’t do anything wrong. That is frustrating, especially when no one has accused him of any specific allegations of doing anything wrong.

Q: With the Whitewater controversy, do you agree with the argument that there is an almost institutional bias to tear down the presidency that has become part of the media culture?

A: There is an institutional cynicism that causes reporters to question everything the President says, and the motives of everything the President and his Administration try to accomplish.

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I think that is troubling. I don’t think anything is ever taken at face value. The press never accepts at face value that the President is taking a certain action because he wants to create jobs or because he believes that it is in the best interests of the American people or that he is genuinely committed to making life better for people. There is a relentless search for motives, bad actions, insincerity.

This is a generation weaned on Watergate, and there is no presumption of innocence and no presumption of good intentions. Instead, there is a presumption that, without relentless scrutiny, the government will misbehave.

The press plays an important role, and I think the press has to serve--and the White House press corps, in particular--has to serve as the institutional memory . . . . The press has seen some of this stuff before, and they know, and they can smell the difference between a cosmetic act and a real policy change. But sometimes I think it goes too far, and if you just look at this week--to compare Whitewater to Watergate is a travesty.

It is not to say we haven’t made mistakes that we shouldn’t be held accountable for, but to suggest that this is somehow equivalent to that is just unfortunate. It’s not the same. And all troubles are not the same. All mistakes are not impeachable offenses, and to suggest otherwise--there isn’t enough balance.

Q: A lot is made of your being young. Do you think at times you are too irreverent? Of the wrong generation for the Washington press corps?

A: I think coming into this job being young, being from Los Angeles--and, let’s face it, in Washington being from California is a negative--and being female, those things created a challenge for me. In some ways, I have had to work very hard and have to continue to work very hard to overcome that.

I think people want to believe that because you are young and from California and female, that you are not as serious . . . .

Q: How does being a woman create problems?

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A: Washington is still very much a male-oriented culture. Being from Los Angeles, I think it is less so there--there is less attachment to tradition, perhaps, there is more flexibility, more acceptance of change generally.

That is partly because of Hollywood. You can have a 30-year-old person running a multimillion-dollar studio who has two earrings and never puts on a tie. That doesn’t happen here. People in power tend to be older, tend to be male and tend to be fairly conventional. I don’t mean that in a critical way. It is just a fact.

I have tried to bring a sense of humor to the job, because I think it allows you to survive. Things can get pretty tense out there. Reporters have things they need to get done on any given day that you can’t give them. A lot of times, as you know, it can get pretty aggressive. And humor is a good way to defuse that, to keep it a little bit lighter . . . .

You do have to be careful. I think I have stepped over the line a few times. You learn from your mistakes. Sometimes, you hear something coming out of your mouth and you wish, right away, you hadn’t said it. But having a sense of humor has served me more than it has hurt me--just in the sense that it has allowed me to keep my sanity, or what was left of my sanity when I got here.

Q: When did you step over the line?

A: The one day that stands out was during the budget debate in the Senate. I shouldn’t even tell the story, but I kind of get a kick out of it, because I was terrified for a few hours.

It was going to be very close, and it had passed the House by one vote, and there were two or three holdouts, and one of them was (Sen.) Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). He had come over that morning and met privately with the President at the residence. At my briefing, someone asked me where they met; I said at the residence; what room, and I said, “The Bob Kerrey Room, formerly the Lincoln bedroom.”

As soon as I said it I thought, “Oh, my God, he hasn’t cast a vote yet. The vote is not until 8 p.m., after the news.” Sure enough, the quote ended up on NBC, and I was worried Kerrey was going to be furious and might change his vote back. So after the news, I went to the vice president--I was afraid to tell the President--and told him. He looked at me, paused and he burst out laughing. He said, “C’mon, we have to go tell the President.” So I told the President, and he thought it was funny. But I was petrified for several hours until Kerrey voted.

Q: One question raised about all press secretaries, and raised frequently in this White House, is whether Dee Dee Myers has enough access to the President to be effective.

A: The only person the press believes has enough access to satisfy all their needs is the President himself. I think it’s a fair question, and it is one that you have to prove every single day. I think it is very hard to change perceptions. There are some reporters who think I have an adequate amount of access and there are others who question it . . . .

I do talk to my predecessors from time to time. I talk to Marlin (Fitzwater, who worked for Ronald Reagan and George Bush), I talk to Jody Powell (who worked for Jimmy Carter), I talk to Ron Ziegler (who worked for Richard M. Nixon), and one of the things you talk about with other press secretaries is how hard you have to work to have the access. . . .

When you walk out to do a briefing, you can tell--from what is on CNN and on the wires, what is in the morning papers and from your first round of calls--you can tell what 70% of your questions are going to be. It is the other 30% you are not sure of that make you nervous. It could be something that a reporter is working on, or something off the wall, or what’s happening in some country you haven’t paid attention to in the last week. You try to be as prepared as you can. You learn to say, “I will get back to you,” rather than to try to wing it.

Q: One reason people ask that question is you don’t occupy the office that past press secretaries had and because you are a “deputy assistant” rather than “assistant” to the President.

A: I think that appearances do matter to the press in terms of establishing or reinforcing the idea that you have access. In terms of appearances, I think, those things have not been helpful. In terms of reality, it has mattered less.

I worked on the campaign from the early stages--I took this job in October of 1991--and traveled with the President every single day for over a year. It has helped me a tremendous amount. I know enough about his past from Arkansas, I have, I think, a very good relationship with him. I have the ability to walk in and ask him questions when I need to ask him questions. I see him several times a day on a number of issues. There is a good amount of trust between us.

It is incumbent on me to work as hard as I can to provide the information that reporters need to do their jobs. I don’t think any press secretary can ever satisfy every reporter. All you can do is work at it every day and . . . try to serve the President and the press and let the results speak for themselves. . . . .

Q: One criticism I heard when the Administration arrived, that I hear again, is people in this White House believe in the power of spin--or their ability to talk their way out of things--and that has hurt.

A: I have heard that analysis. It is true that we were very aggressive in the campaign, and that one of the things we did very well was to knock down misinformation and aggressively put forward positive information so that we tried to remain on the offensive. I think a little bit of that mentality we brought into the White House.

It is an oversimplification to say that we think we can spin our way out of problems. But I do think there is a sense that by being aggressive and by trying to knock down bad information or misinformation and replace it with positive information--particularly in an Administration that is doing so many things proactively--that I do think that, while not trying to talk their way out of things, there are people here who will try to talk reporters into, “No, no, no, the story shouldn’t be Whitewater. It should be that we have created more than 2 million jobs, more than Bush created in four years, we’ve done that in a year. We are going to create 8 million jobs.” There is a lot of aggressive enthusiasm. Sometimes, perhaps, that is misperceived . . . .


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