SOURCE: Gannett News Service
Two days after Bill Clinton won the presidency, campaign press secretary Dee Dee Myers went before reporters in the Little Rock, Ark., headquarters to give the first daily press briefing on the comings and goings of the president-elect.
What did Clinton do today, reporters asked? What did he and Russian President Boris Yeltsin talk about?
Meyers not only wouldn't divulge any Clinton phone conversations, she wouldn't even confirm that he and Yeltsin had talked.
But Yeltsin had told reporters in Moscow the two had talked, and the Associated Press already had been reporting on it. No dice. Myers stonewalled.
Dee Dee, a reporter finally asked, is this a sign of what's ahead: Will there be more glasnost out of Moscow than the incoming Clinton administration?
Unfortunately, writes Kenneth T. Walsh in "Feeding the Beast," the answer seems to be yes.
Myers made a major mistake that day. It was one Clinton campaign guru James Carville had warned against: "Feed the beast or the beast will eat you. . . . Give him a cheeseburger or he'll eat your leg," Carville said.
Meyers failed to feed the beast that is today's voracious national press. It's a beast, writes Walsh, senior White House correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, with a 24-hour-a-day appetite for information about the man sitting in the most powerful office in the world.
By refusing to throw a scrap to the beast on her first day as a presidential briefer, Myers unwittingly set a tone for the worst relations between a president and the White House press corps since Nixon. Walsh points out in this accurate, anecdote-laden, insider view of one of democracy's great love-hate relationships, that Myers (and the rest of the Clinton folks) never really did catch on to how to turn the situation around.
The worst instance of the Clinton staff's inability to be forthcoming about situations came in the summer of 1993 when Vince Foster committed suicide. In trying to protect the Clintons, aides ultimately fueled wild, raging conspiracy theories about Foster's death.
Walsh lays much of the Clinton administration's anti-press attitude at the feet of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former litigator who often treats her husband as a client. She tried to lay out a "zone of privacy" around herself that was unrealistic and only compounded the natural wariness and distrust that exists between press and president.
Walsh argues that the failure of the relationship has hurt the press as well as the presidency, which is diminished by overly critical and trivialized reporting on it. When he gets around to looking at his fellow reporters, he sees much that distresses him: Arrogance, self-indulgence, punditry run amok, a focus on the personal to the detriment of issues.
Driven by fierce competition in a deadline-a-minute world, Walsh, who is widely liked and respected by his peers, sees reporters turning to on-the-spot opinion and analysis. And the response isn't good: The public thinks the press is too subjective, scolding, high-handed and opinionated. As a result, they don't trust it.
"The backlash has already begun, and we journalists ignore it at our peril," Walsh warns.
Jeffrey Stinson, regional editor at Gannett News Service, covered the first year of the Clinton presidency for GNS.
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.