01/15/2004WASHINGTON -- The relationship between presidents and the press has never been simple. Presidents quite naturally, in one way or another, want sympathy and control over what is written and said about their administrations and policies.
President Eisenhower cheerfully and deliberately confused reporters. President Kennedy charmed them into seeing things his way. President Nixon tried to destroy them. President Reagan, even more cheerful than Eisenhower, waved them off or pretended not to know what they were asking him. President Carter tried to argue with them, and President Clinton dazzled them with footwork and complicated dialogues with himself. None of them, with the possible exception of Kennedy, actually liked correspondents, but even he told his men to remember that in the end politicians and the press always go their separate ways.
Right now they are both doing just that: The White House is going up and the press is going down.
But -- and this is new -- whatever they thought of the ladies and gentlemen of the press, past presidents all accepted a press role in the democracy. Questions, analysis and commentary -- annoying, of course -- were viewed as informing the public, obviously a legitimate part of democratic governance. The press had an essential role -- checks and balances, yelling that the emperors had no clothes and all that.
Not now. Not under George W. Bush's administration. And I am not just talking about ignoring phone calls from reporters or classifying every piece of paper they get their hands on. In a remarkable article in the current issue of The New Yorker, Ken Auletta, the resident don of the magazine's "Annals of Communication," has persuaded President Bush and his media men to articulate the straight skinny: They simply and sincerely, I think, state that they do not accept the "historic role of the press" as surrogate and watchdog of the people. As far as they are concerned, Auletta concludes, the press is simply another "special interest" trying to get something for nothing from government -- salable information in this case.
"You're making a huge assumption -- that you represent what the public thinks," the president told a reporter who asked him last summer about reports that he did not read newspapers. In case we did not understand what that meant, Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff, told Auletta: "They (the press) don't represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stand for election. ... I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function."
Karl Rove, the president's political director, spelled out the "special interest" perception, saying: "He (Bush) has a cagey respect for them -- the press. ... He understands that their job is to do a job. And that's not necessarily to report the news. It's to get a headline or get a story that will make people pay more attention to their magazine, newspaper or television more."
Some have described the president's relative isolation -- he has held 11 solo press conferences to date, compared with his father's 73 at the same point back in 1992 -- by calling it "Bush's problem with the press." That phrase is backward; it is the press that has a Bush problem. White House correspondents have been reduced to stenographers taking dictation from the press office; their real gripe is that there is not enough dictation. Pathetic, but true.
Many correspondents have dealt with that situation by taking it easy on the men in power now, trying to win them over by showing how nice they can be in print or on the air. They don't get it. The White House is way ahead of them. Bush has figured out that buttering up the press does not guarantee good coverage; quite the opposite.
The press still thinks that buttering up the White House -- particularly in coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan policy -- will get them more favored treatment. Wrong! All the White House press corps is getting from the people they cover is amused and deserved contempt.