SECTION: Metro; Part B; Page 1; Metro Desk
LENGTH: 968 words
When Ken Walsh was pumping jump shots and muscling for rebounds on our Denver Post basketball team in the early '80s, we called him "Dr. K," a homage to Julius Erving, the legendary Dr. J.
Our flattery notwithstanding, we begged Walsh not to give up his day job, which was covering politics for the Post. His good sense prevailed, and he stuck with journalism, eventually leaving Denver for Washington to cover Congress for U.S. News & World Report. In 1986, he shifted to the White House, reporting on the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton (Bush was his favorite).
Now, Random House has published my old buddy's first book, "Feeding the Beast," in which he describes the relationship between presidents and the press.
Take note: It is not a love story. What may surprise you, though, is that he blames both sides for the soured state of affairs.
Another surprise, especially for you Rush Limbaugh fans, is that Walsh debunks any notion that the White House press and the Clinton administration ever had a romance going. The Clintons came to office disliking and distrusting the press, and the battles began on Day One when a longtime pressroom, strategically located in the White House, was closed.
"This is an act of war!" Walsh quotes one longtime reporter as saying.
Clinton made it clear he wanted to circumvent the White House press corps whenever possible, Walsh writes. The new president thought many White House reporters were friends of Bush's and were upset he had lost the '92 election.
But if Bill disliked the press, Hillary despised it. "The first lady had developed a bitter and angry view of the media during the 1992 campaign," Walsh writes, largely because of coverage of her husband's alleged infidelities and the humiliation she was forced to undergo in publicly addressing it.
As her disdain for the press resulted in her shielding herself from it, the press grew more and more suspicious of her. Walsh recounts one incident where the first lady would agree to an interview with him only if the topics were limited to children's issues and education and if she weren't the cover photo. The magazine rejected her terms, and Walsh didn't get the interview.
Although the book contains many anecdotes about presidents and their advisors, it ultimately dwells on the thorny subject of the press itself. Walsh acknowledges the public's growing skepticism and outright dislike of the media, and, in many cases, sympathizes with it.
He tells an inside story of Clinton talking with advisor Paul Begala during one of the president's ebb tide phases with the press. Why, Clinton asked Begala, was he getting such lousy press? He told Begala that some of his advisors thought the press was only interested in rumors and lies. Surely, the president said to Begala, the press can't be that jaded and corrupt.
Walsh says Begala told the president that he couldn't give him any reassuring answer, that it wasn't fashionable to do positive stories on the presidency.
"Actually, the problem went much deeper," Walsh concludes. "Over the years, the press regulars had become cynical about any president and any politician, not merely Bill Clinton. From Vietnam to Watergate to Iran-Contra, the government had told too many lies to warrant trust. At least, this was how many journalists felt. Reporters, especially the White House press corps, had become an engine of anti-incumbency."
Walsh describes a meeting with Clinton at the White House in 1994 with two other journalists. ". . . On that hot, muggy night, Bill Clinton was a troubled man," Walsh writes. "Over cookies, soft drinks and hot tea on the patio behind the Oval Office, the president complained, sometimes angrily, that he was getting no credit for his accomplishments. His treatment was far worse, he argued, than what his immediate predecessors had suffered. He said he felt 'disabled' as president and was frustrated because he didn't know what to do about it."
Walsh recounted the event as "a revealing insight into a man under fire who felt helpless to change his fate." By the spring of 1995, Walsh writes, Clinton had quit watching the evening news with any regularity.
Events have conspired to improve Clinton's press coverage, but nagging questions about the state of the modern-day press remain, Walsh believes. "Starting with my covering the Bush administration, I have gradually come to believe that the media's cult of conflict and criticism has gone too far," Walsh writes. "Traditionally the American public has had a love-hate attitude about the press. By the mid-1990s, however, there was no love left. In fact, much of the public had come to hate the media, to distrust its motives and to tune out the news itself because it didn't seem relevant to their lives."
The presidency-press relationship has deteriorated to the extent that the public isn't served, Walsh believes. The White House spins, and the press corps baits--both at the expense of informing the public.
Among other faults, the press has lost perspective, Walsh says. "In holding up a mirror to America, journalists too often have filtered out the good and embellished the bad, resulting in a distorted image. A negative picture emerges, but not a fully truthful one, because the positive side of issues has been neglected."
Walsh has some pointed suggestions for his colleagues, and a lot of them won't like what he has to say.
But that's the Dr. K I remember from the old days: a guy who played hard and, most of all, took this business of journalism to heart.
Award-winning White House correspondent and presidential historian
Kenneth T. Walsh’s latest book,
Celebrity in Chief
A History of the Presidents and the culture of stardom
A comprehensive look at the history of America’s presidents
as “celebrities in chief”
since the beginning of the Republic.