"As we approach the end of the 20th century, the traditional adversarial relationship between the media and the presidency has deteriorated into something ugly: a mutual cynicism that interferes with the ability and willingness of both sides to educate the country."
The words are from "Feeding the Beast," by Ken Walsh, recently published by Random House; a book based on a decade as White House correspondent for U.S. News and World Report magazine.
A veteran reporter, Walsh covered Colorado politics for The Associated Press and later for The Denver Post during the 1970s and '80s and in l986 went east to become part of the beast - the beltway term that describes the small army of print, TV and radio journalists who chronicle the day-to-day doings of the White House.
To call it a rough-and-tumble arena is to say bears sleep in the woods. In 1992, James Carville, then Bill Clinton's campaign chief, said: "Feed the beast or the beast will eat you. Give him a cheeseburger or he'll eat your leg." And so, said another Clinton aide, "we cooked up a lot of cheeseburgers."
Walsh's White House duty spans the latter part of the Reagan era, all of the George Bush years and the tenure of Bill Clinton to date. It is an adventure in confrontation between government and the media with an eerie resemblance to a modern action movie - one noisy clash after another, with very little plot and even less hope or hint of a happy ending.
It is also an old story, says Walsh. From the beginning of the nation, presidents have complained about the press. They have always tried to keep their cards near their vests, and reporters have tried just as hard to get a look at them.
Over the years, tactics and strategies changed, the most notable upheaval beginning with emergence of TV in the 1970s as the most widely seen news medium, and although this occurred before Ronald Reagan, it was he who turned it most effectively to his purposes.
The purposes were the time-honored ones - manipulation of the press - and he and his top aides stage-managed the press corps, meeting for genial chats with reporters but seldom delivering any real news. Coming on Reagan's heels, George Bush operated similarly but lacked Reagan's dramatic ability to make people feel pretty good about pretty little.
When Clinton succeeded Bush in 1992, what little consistency there was in White House press relations sank quickly into a swamp of mistrust, misunderstanding and hostility. Reflecting their bosses' attitude, Clintonites avoided the press corps, remapped traditional turf and tried to bypass the beast by courting regional media and stonewalling mainstream Washington news groups.
When the beast growled, Bill and Hillary growled back, Hillary often louder than Bill, and both complained that (a) the media were out to get them and (b) apart from policy matters, the Clintons' lives were none of the media's business.
The press corps refused to see it that way, and after the Clintons found it too expensive and time-consuming to take their agenda to the regional media, they became resigned to battling the beast on their own doorstep.
The fray was fierce and remains so. Various staff changes and small concessions from the warring factions eased it somewhat, but it remains a classic standoff, the bitterest ideological battle in the history of presidential coverage. The Clintons don't trust the media, says Walsh, and the media don't trust them, adding that each side has valid reasons. He concedes the media have a shark's appetite for blood but notes also that the Clintons' path is sprinkled with droplets.
Sadly, Walsh writes, insights into the Clintons, as a family remain in the "zone of privacy" that the president uses "to describe areas of their lives they wouldn't let anyone understand. A president and first lady are entitled to some privacy, but this first couple overdid it, and as a result they were easily caricatured. No one knew what to believe about them."
And they still don't.
Jack Kisling's observations on life - The Post.
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.