June 19, 1996
LENGTH: 962 words
Kenneth Walsh's "Feeding the Beast", the latest in a spate of books written about the politics of the press, is a comprehensive, if often cumbersome, chronicle of the three administrations Walsh has covered as a reporter for U.S. News and World Report.
The book tells us a lot of what we already know about the Reagan, Bush and Clinton presidencies, and shows how a White House can harm itself by damaging its relationship with the ever-hungry and omniscient press corps. In addition, Walsh humbly doles up anecdotes that illustrate that the press could use a dose of its own medicine once in a while.
The greatest misconception about the adversarial relationship that exists between the White House and its press corps is that it started with Watergate. To the contrary, Walsh documents this trend throughout early presidencies, showing that presidents have always feared, loathed and simultaneously attempted to coddle the press.
The Clinton White House has been its own worst enemy in its refusal to " feed the beast," Walsh contends. The theory is that if the beast isn't fed by you, it will eat you.
Unlike Ronald Reagan, the Clintonites attempted to diminish the media's access to the president, according to Walsh. Clinton aides have repeatedly kept journalists in the dark, not only about what was happening but when the president or his staff would be available to discuss it.
Badly bruised from the press coverage during the campaign, the Clintons felt they could shut the press out of their lives as first family. But " Feeding the Beast" shows that, while their staff remained uncooperative, the Clintons agonized in private about the way they were perceived in print.
Walsh identifies what ails presidents, and why and how they come to the conclusion that the press corps prints distortion and sometimes untruths. But Walsh also touches on the fact that while the White House beat is prestigious, well-paying and high-profile, it can also be filled with hours of boring waiting time, in which all reporters are given the same information and write essentially the same stories.
Walsh describes the White House beat in a decidedly unglamorous way:
"Being escorted, or herded, everywhere by self-important young aides. Waiting, always waiting, for the Great Man. Baggage calls at 5 a.m. Eighteen- hour days. Cold coffee in press filing centers. Catching influenza in stomach flu in Moscow. Countless useless interviews. Long periods away from home. Being manipulated by everyone in sight. Trying to explain to Mom why the president didn't call on you at his last news conference ... "
Walsh goes to some lengths to inform us that he was the first to break several stories about Bush, including his dislike for broccoli, and of Chief of Staff John Sununu's misuse of government planes and cars.
Walsh has not had as much luck with the Clinton administration. He has been forced to tread lightly with Bill and Hillary, because they are known to cut off interviews when questioning takes a sharp turn. When Walsh wrote a positive piece on Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, he reports he was teased by press corps colleagues.
Like most journalists, Walsh writes clearly and simply, but without a lot of grace. At times his narrative is dull. But he makes an important argument, and lends credibility to his thesis with accounts from his pressroom comrades.
Because of the symbiotic relationship politicians have with the press, both are always trying to break free. Politicians do it by spinning or shutting off the press, while the press does it by reporting as little good news and as much dirt as possible. The result is that the voting public loses in the end, Walsh says.
He created a pressroom, hired a press secretary and "served up a variety of off-the-record comments and salty remarks to delight and amuse journalists and make them feel like insiders," writes Walsh.
Ultimately, no matter how well an administration treats the press corps, those reporters remain under constant and burgeoning pressure to develop new and different angles to stories that were already told over the airwaves or wires the day or hour before they file.
Former Clinton White House Communications Director Mark Gearan, now director of the Peace Corps, tells how finding a wet bar in his office was a symbol for how much times had changed.
"I (imagine) that in other times the press folks would be invited in for after-deadline drinks with administration officials at the end of the news cycle. I used to wonder, when would I invite people in? Before the nightly news shows? After the nightly news? Before Crossfire? After Crossfire? Before Nightline? After Nightline? ... There's no end to the news cycle."
For that reason, as the news cycle grows longer, the beast grows larger and hungrier.
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.