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Pressed for time.

One week in the Clinton White House and you get the sense that the press corps and the press office deserve each other

Friday, July 16: I arrive in Washington mid-morning and call around to arrange interviews for a series of stories for the Los Angeles Times examining media coverage of the Clinton administration. My first calls are to George Stephanopoulos and David Gergen, both senior advisors to Clinton, and to Mark Gearan, the White House director of communications.

None of the three is in his office.

I leave messages and make a few other calls. No one is available. This is the first full day back in Washington for the president and most of the people I want to talk to; his top aides and the reporters who regularly cover him have all just returned from the G-7 economic summit in Tokyo and from a visit to the flood-ravaged Midwest. They're all understandably busy.

I arrange for temporary press credentials and go to the White House press room to see who's around. I see a few familiar faces and introduce myself to several reporters I want to interview next week. I also attend Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers' daily briefing for the White House press corps. The briefing is scheduled for 11:30 a.m.

It starts at 1:13 p.m.

That's typical, I'm told. Nothing at the White House ever starts on time. Clinton is habitually late. So is Gergen. Together, they are setting Guinness Book of World Records standards for tardiness. "Clinton has no concept of the traditional middle-class virtue of not keeping other people waiting," Ann Devroy, a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, tells me. "He is extraordinarily self-absorbed."

I later discover that this helps explain why the press corps was so antagonistic to the Clinton administration in its early months: Clinton's "self-absorption" and the reporters' self-importance collided to produce unprecedentedly hostile feelings and unprecedentedly hostile coverage for a new president so early in his term. There are other factors in the equation as well, of course: Clinton's own missteps and miscalculations, the post-vietnam, post-Watergate cynicism of the press, the tabloidization of the mainstream media. Yet another collision was causing a lot of the friction, this one between Bill Clinton's dilatory decision-making and the media's demand for instant, incremental news. He thinks aloud and his aides pass on the (seemingly) definitive word on this program or that appointment; reporters rush into print and on the air with the scoop - then the president changes his mind and pisses everyone off.

Pissed off is what many White House reporters were before Gergen rode to the rescue in late spring with enough political savvy and ego balm to begin turning things around.

Myers survives today's briefing skirmishes and when she's done, I introduce myself and we arrange an interview for next Wednesday. Gergen and Stephanopoulos are supposed to give a joint "background briefing" later that afternoon on the president's policy on gays in the military. I decide to attend and buttonhole them afterward.

The briefing is scheduled to start "between 3 and 4" o'clock.

It starts at 5:07.

"Gergen time," the reporter sitting next to me mutters.

When the briefing is over, I grab Gergen and tell him I'd like to interview him next week for my story. "Sure," he says. "Call Diana [Gergen's assistant]. She'll set it up." I go back to my hotel and call Diana. She's on the other line. I leave a message. She doesn't call back. Neither does Stephanopoulos or Gearan. I realize that the president's staff is busy running the country and that my story is not - and should not - be a priority, but a little common courtesy wouldn't hurt.

MONDAY, JULY 19: Myers' daily briefing, originally scheduled for 11:30 a.m., is rescheduled for 12:30 p.m. (It actually starts at 12:45.) I use the morning to conduct a couple of interviews and make a few phone calls.

One of my first calls is to Diana. She's on the other line. I call Gearan. He's not in. I try Stephanopoulos' assistant, Heather Beckel. She says she doesn't have the president's schedule yet so she can't figure out Stephanopoulos' schedule well enough to give me an appointment. That's reasonable. But that's what she said the last time I wanted to interview Stephanopoulos and then she didn't call me back. I didn't get the interview until I found a way around Heather just five hours before I was scheduled to leave Washington. But Stephanopoulos had agreed to talk again when I came back, so I'm willing to wait a couple of days.

Meanwhile, I go to the daily White House press briefing. At this one, reporters devote most of their energy to trying, unsuccessfully, to induce Myers to say more than she's prepared to say about the president's plans to meet with Attorney General Janet Reno to discuss the fate of William Sessions, the FBI director. It's clear that Clinton is going to fire Sessions. But just as clearly, Myers doesn't want to say so yet. Nevertheless, reporters keep questioning her about the issue. Seven different times she has to say essentially the same thing: "We'll have more to say about the situation after the president has spoken with Janet Reno."

I ask several reporters why they're so determined to wring a definitive statement out of Myers at 1 o'clock when they'll have official word from the president himself around 4 o'clock. For radio and TV reporters, an hour and a half can make a difference, says Helen Thomas, White House correpondent for United Press International. A difference to whom? Do viewers, listeners, and readers really care if they hear about the dismissal of the FBI director three hours later?

"I spend enormous amounts of mental energy to break a story that, three days later, no one cares who got it first," concedes John King, Thomas' counterpart at the Associated Press. "Could I do better journalism if I didn't, every now and then, have to go with reckless abandon to get it five minutes before everybody else? Yeah, I could... It's probably childish, but I get a kick when CNN has to interrupt programming to say, |According to the Associated Press, Clinton is going to...'"

When I ask Myers why she thinks reporters badger her so much, she says, "Some people just like to give you a hard time, and it's not necessarily connected to a news cycle. It's driven by the absolute faith that we will not tell them the truth."

TUESDAY, JULY 20: Between interviews with various reporters and White House sources, I twice call Diana in Gergen's office. She's in a meeting the first time, on another line the second time. I call Gearan. He's not in.

I go to the White House to talk to members of the press corps. My credentials, which were supposed to be available daily at the West entrance, aren't there.

Late in the afternoon, I finally get through to Diana in Gergen's office. I explain that I'd like to see him any time that's convenient for him, up until 3 o'clock Friday afternoon. "I have a plane at 4:45 Friday," I say.

She says she'll get right back to me.

She doesn't.

I call back. I'm put on hold. After 20 minutes, I hang up and call back. Diana says I've got an interview with Gergen.

"It's 6:15 Friday," she says. I remind her I have a 4:45 plane to catch on Friday. She says she'll call me back.

Mean - while, Gearan and I miss each other on the phone. Then Heather calls and says Stephanopoulos can see me at 11 o'clock Thursday morning. Moments later, Diana says Gergen can see me at 3:30 Thursday afternoon.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 21: Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel, killed himself last night. The White House is in disarray. Myers' 11:30 briefing is canceled. Instead, Gearan and Thomas F. (Mack) McLarty, the president's chief of staff, will give a briefing on Foster's suicide at 1 o'clock.

I call the White House press office to make sure my credentials will be waiting for me. "Don't worry. We'll take care of it," one of the press aides says.

When I get to the West entrance, the Secret Service agents in charge say they have no record of any request for credentials for me. I phone in but no one there remembers my call from 15 minutes ago. Jeremie Gaines, the person in charge, is not there.

After another 15 minute wait, my credentials come through. When I tell Gaines what happened, he apologizes and says he'll do his best not to let it happen again. "But it happens 30 times a day," he says. "It's the Secret Service's fault. We send them the information."

I walk into the the White House press room for the 1 o'clock Gearan/McLarty briefing. It's been postponed to 3 o'clock. At 2 o'clock, I go to Myers' office for our previously scheduled appointment. Her assistant, Dave Leavy, the most helpful press aide I've met so far in the Clinton White House, tells me she's swamped and can't do it. "I should have called you," he says. "I'm sorry, but it's been crazy here." We reschedule for 4 or 4:30 the next day.

The 3 o'clock McLarty/Gearan briefing starts at 3:38. Both men seem shaken. And tight-lipped. In the weeks to come, the press will often seem ghoulishly insensitive and sensation-mongering in its pursuit of the Foster story. But today and for the next few days, it's the White House aides who makes me uncomfortable. They want to say as little as possible, even if it's misleading. When reporters ask if Foster had seemed depressed or upset, Gearan says repeatedly, "He never said anything that was out of the ordinary to his colleagues."

As more comes out in ensuing days about how depressed Foster clearly was - and as the media frantically chase the story in quest of some presumed (and presumed dastardly) White House secret - I will become increasingly convinced that Clinton's White House press aides and the White House press corps truly deserve each other. (After all, Curtis Wilkie of the Boston Globe once rightly described the White House press room as "the only day-care center in America Ronald Reagan hasn't abolished.")

THURSDAY, JULY 22: I call the press office to make sure my credentials will be waiting for me this time.

"We'll take care of it."

When I arrive, no credentials.

I tell the agent at the gate that the press office says it's the Secret Service's fault. He bristles.

"If they fax it to us, it's here; if they don't, it isn't."

When I'm finally cleared, I interview Stephanopoulos. The daily 11:30 briefing is again delayed - rescheduled to 1 p.m. (It actually starts at 1:32 p.m.).

After lunch, I see Gergen. Like Stephanopoulos, he's a good, lively interview. Almost as important, he's only 6 minutes late. No one believes me when I later tell them this. A mere 6 minutes late, I am assured, is an all-time punctuality record for him.

I head for Myers' office. She's busy. "Come back in 45 minutes." I go off to make a few calls. Meanwhile, Paul Begala, one of the president's top political advisors, wants to switch our Friday interview from 11 a.m. to lunch. Then Begala's office calls again, returning an earlier call of mine; Begala's partner, James Carville - the manager of Clinton's victorious campaign - wants to see me. We arrange to meet at 9 o'clock the next morning. I go back to Myers' office.

"Give us another 20 minutes."

It's 5 o'clock.

At 5:50, I'm ushered into Myers' office.

When I leave, Gearan's assistant grabs me. Gearan and I have missed each other on the phone several times and now he says Gearan is available. Bingo!

FRIDAY, JULY 23: I go to Carville's office at 9 a.m., as requested. "Typical James," his assistant tells me. "He won't be here 'til 10:30."

I leave Carville's office and call the White House to ask that my press credentials be waiting. "We'll take care of it," says a young press aide. When I get there, the Secret Service agent - who recognizes me by now - hits the keys on his computer and smiles.

"You're cleared - for the press conference in the OEB [Old Executive Office Building] at 11:15."

"I don't want to go to the OEB," I say. "I didn't ask to go to the OEB. I've never asked to go to the OEB. I just want to go to the press room, like I have every other day this week."

I call the press office and ask why they have screwed up my credentials every single goddamn day. No one knows what I'm talking about. But they say they'll take care of it. I tell the Secret Service agent to hold my credential when he gets it.

I hail a cab, figuring that by the time I'm through with Carville and Begala, the press office should have my credential snafu straightened out. When I return, it's four hours later. The Secret Service agent checks his computer and says, "I'm sorry, you're still only cleared for the OEB."
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Title Annotation:interviewing Clinton press advisors
Author:Shaw, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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