Richard Reeves

Why Should Politicians Like Reporters?

NEW YORK -- I trust that no politician has ever used the a-word to describe me. Why would they when I, frequently, call them fools, charlatans, liars, thieves and goniffs? I once, on the cover of New York magazine, called the president of the United States "Bozo the Clown."

I am amazed and amused at the shock of literate people who think that there is something unnatural or even wrong with George W. Bush letting it be known, accidentally standing too close to a microphone, that he considers a certain New York Times reporter to be a "major league a...hole." Unless you are shocked by the word itself, or have never heard it before, I would think most people should understand that there would actually be something wrong with Bush if he didn't feel that way.

John F. Kennedy long ago defined the role of modern political reporters when he told his people that he liked reporters -- actually worked as one himself -- and thought they were fun and useful to have around, but that you had to understand that at the end of the day, the press and politicians must go their separate ways.

The best recent discourse on the subject, at least in my experience, was a conversation I had a few months ago with President Bill Clinton's former press secretary, DeeDee Myers.

I asked her whether Clinton liked reporters.

She answered with one word: "No."

I responded with one word: "Why?"

"Doesn't trust 'em," she answered.

"I think he believes that reporters are observers and not doers, that they don't risk their own reputations to do the hard things," she continued. "I've heard him talk about it. He was out there taking the risks, putting his ass" -- that word gets around -- "on the line, trying to make the world a better place, and they were sitting on the sidelines taking potshots, criticizing his motives, criticizing his decisions, criticizing his decision-making process."

She added, too, that her old boss was surprised when she married a New York Times reporter, Todd Purdum. "He's not ever been comfortable around Todd," she said. "It wasn't just some guy from outside the family; it was some guy from the other side."

We are the other side -- and ingrates, too. Bill Clinton has been generous to me over the years, and his wife and mine have worked together on a couple of do-good things. I rewarded that kindness by writing a small book called "How Bill Clinton Disappointed America." So it goes.

Reporters are generally simple souls. There was a good newspaper movie a couple of years ago called "The Paper." In one scene, in a bar, a ruined city commissioner with a gun confronts a Jimmy Breslin/Mike Barnicle type and asks why the columnist investigated him, attacked him, destroyed his life. The columnist said: "You didn't return my phone calls."

Newspapermen everywhere laughed. That was the real answer.

Ask John McCain. He won over the press by giving them what they most want, access. In the darkest primary days of Al Gore -- a former reporter for the Nashville Tennessean -- he stopped talking to the press, and political reporters went after him like a chain saw in a national forest. Bush, until he got caught saying what he really feels, was doing fine chatting up the traveling press corps. Dick Cheney, Gore's running mate, has been avoiding the national press by flying around in a jet too small to carry reporters. He'll pay a price.

That's the way it should be. We're there to shout if the emperor has no clothes. And, for better or worse, we have become more aggressive, more assertive, more negative than in the past.

We should not expect Bush or other politicians to like us. You see what we say about them in public. In private, it's worse. You should hear what the people who cover Bush say when there are no microphones around.

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