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"Clinton's Rough Start May Warn of Bumps Ahead," headlined the Los Angeles Times. The date of this front page story was February 1, but it might as well have been recycled from February of last year, when the "bumps" were Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging rather than Nannygate and the lavender menace to military morale.

The stampede to condemn Clinton as a failure when he'd been in office less than two weeks was breathtaking. Why fault Clinton for losing control of the gays-in-the-military issue when the media flurry started with the leak of a confidential memo reporting high level military opposition--presumably by an opponent of Clinton's new policy? Why the griping about his failure to accomplish a 100-day agenda of reconstruction within 100 hours after 12 unbroken years of Republican rule? And why not give Clinton even a modicum of the respect and, indeed, deference, afforded Ronald Reagan when he took office in 1981?

Were the reporters who gave Clinton up for lost in early February talking about the same president-elect whose mastery of the election campaign, they had recently informed us, was unprecedented in its brilliance? The same president-elect, that is, whose campaign, before it became brilliant, had been hopelessly beset by miscalculation in the days of Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging not long after the candidate had been declared anointed," if memory serves?

And if the press was so thoroughly deceived when they told us that the Man from Hope was destined to inaugurate a new era in American politics, what shall we make of them a few weeks later when he became the Boy Who Can't Cope, "embarrassingly unprepared for battle," in the words of the Los Angeles Times' Paul Richter, who must "tighten [his] ri or risk disaster."

You can get whiplash from reading Clinton reportage, as was the case during the campaign. When I wrote about campaign coverage in these pages ("Who's Afraid of the National Press," June 1992), 1 attributed the manic-depressive treatment of Clinton in part to the dynamics of overcompensation. Having risked losing independence with kindness, the press corps proceeds to prove its independence with a thousand cuts. Whomever reporters have built up, they have to prove they can also take down. The magnitude of the mania accounts for the depth of the subsequent depression--and thus the high temperature of the Gotcha! fever that greeted the gays-in-the-military issue, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood.

Clinton as president-elect and as president suffers from more than one media syndrome. The last time a Democrat strode out of the South on a rescue mission, in 1976, the press heralded Jimmy Carter as the Man from Plains walking on water to clean the bad, corrupt guys out of Washington. Carter had run as an outsider, but once in the White House he was quickly depicted as a drowning incompetent, excoriated for bringing his entourage of outsiders-Georgia rubes--to Washington. Clinton ran as an outsider, too, only to be excoriated for welcoming more battalions of insiders through the portals of power.

In either case, when the new president disappoints his minstrels, they are disposed to turn on him with alacrity because he is a Southerner and a Democrat. As former governors of Southern states, Carter and Clinton were, to a degree, automatic outsiders in Washington. Thus, in a certain sense, they were interlopers to a press corps that thinks of itself as the permanent headquarters of America's civilized, i.e. Northern, values.

Here, by contrast to Carter, Clinton has cultural advantages: He can wail on the sax, invite Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson to Washington, and read Walter Mosley, all of which win him reportorial points for hipness. Moreover, he's done his time in Washington. Georgetown is not a bad credential. Even more impressive, Clinton is comfortable in crowds and a master of unrehearsed television. So once the bumps are passed--if the bumps are passed--we should expect him to fare better than Carter did. All of these are pluses Clinton can count on in coming years, at least if he avoids a hostage crisis.

But why should reporters, most of them Democrats in their voting lives, lean harder on Democrats than on their natural nemeses? Why, by contrast, did they fall all over each other in their eagerness to spray Teflon on Ronald Reagan, especially in his early years redecorating the White House?

Compare, for example, coverage of President Reagan's first month in office with Clinton's. Leave aside Clinton's undeniable blunder in nominating Zoe Baird. Grant Reagan a technically smooth transition and wellscripted opening days in office. The release of the hostages from Tehran on Reagan's inauguration day also put the press in an uncritical feel-good mood. This helps explain the following shocking fact: Having read all the New York Times and Washington Post coverage of Reagan's first month, I found a grand total of two front page articles--both in the Times--containing any significant criticism of his policies, speeches, appointments or demeanor. On February 7, 1981, liberals were reported objecting to Reagan's use of statistics in his economic speech. On February 17, Rep. Jack Kemp (R.N.Y) was quoted as proposing that Reagan cut income taxes on the rich still more radically than he was planning. That was that.

By contrast, during Clinton's first month, the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times have been dominated by three kinds of stories: Clinton is about to make an announcement; Clinton has shot himself in his own agenda with gay soldiers or Zoe Baird or Kimba Wood; and Clinton faces terrible challenges in the rest of the world.

Except for perhaps the gay soldiers tempest, the second genre can legitimately be pinned on Clinton. But the third type of story is a curious one. Since when has an incoming president not faced tremendous challenges? In his first month, Reagan received virtually none of this sort of reminder. Did he not face challenges? Were there not stagnation, inflation, debt, unemployment and poverty at home? Were there not American-supported "low-intensity conflicts" in play in El Salvador, Cambodia, Angola and a dozen other places around the world? Were American-supported regimes not torturing in Argentina and massacring in Guatemala? Were these not challenges?

Or have Clinton and his team cunningly called attention to the weight of their burdens in order to set expectations low? If they had deduced that, whatever they say, American decline is not going to be arrested, and that there isn't that much that the United States can do to set the rest of the rickety world right, then if the challenges are made to look formidable enough, an inch of improvement might later come in for celebration.

One would be impressed by such micromanagerial trickiness, if such it were. But it seems unlikely that Clinton would want to advertise his impotence, at least so early. It isn't the right spirit in which to invite general sacrifice. And it doesn't seem consistent with his expansive rhetorical style. No, when they write about the rough world Clinton finds himself in, reporters are not simply taking cues from the White House.

Rather, the likelihood has to be entertained that reporters have stressed the challenges precisely because they are, disproportionately, Democrats. They are underwhelmed by Clinton's election plurality, and eager to prove they can be, in the lingo, "objective."

Moreover, for all their occupational cynicism, they are overloading the new president with pent-up hopes, expectations of new beginnings, breakthroughs, rebirths. At the same time, the cynical editors who write the headlines and decide which stories go on the front page, and the equally cynical producers who arrange the sequence of the evening news, are less likely to be Democrats--and publishers are less likely still. The wishful reporters and their higher-ups have a dovetailing interest: They're all riveted by the manic-depressive melodrama of new beginnings. The drama of national rebirth is a national mystique.

Public opinion increasingly suspects and loathes the press--and depends on it at the same time. The polls therefore tend to reproduce the manic-depressive cycle. Or is part of the public opting out of the loop? During the 1992 campaign, plenty of people voiced disgust at the media obsession with petty scandal. The media pack is barking again, with considerable effect, but perhaps fewer people are pricking up their ears.

Todd Gitlin is a columnist for the New York Observer and a professor of sociology and director of the mass communications program at the University of California, Berkeley. AJR News Aide Ellen Lyon assisted with research for this article.
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Title Annotation:the press's post-election rush to criticize Bill Clinton
Author:Gitlin, Todd
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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