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Reliable Sources

Will George Bush Be as Thin-Skinned As His Predecessor? Did the Media Make too Much of Linda Chavez's Illegal Immigrant Houseguest?

Aired January 13, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Bill Clinton's eight-year dysfunctional relationship with the press: We'll analyze it with three veteran White House correspondents.

The Linda Chavez nomination: Did journalists make too much of an illegal immigrant houseguest?

And the president-elect: Will George Bush be as thin-skinned as his predecessor?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb.

We begin with a president who loved being on center stage, was often in trouble, and always on television.


KURTZ (voice-over): His administration came to Washington with a war room mentality left over from the '92 campaign. Bill Clinton had taken a pounding from the press on Gennifer Flowers and the draft.

His first days in office weren't any easier. The media honeymoon never happened.

Early controversy surfaced over gays in the military and cabinet nominees Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood. Even successful nominees like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sparked tension between the president and the press following a question in the Rose Garden from Brit Hume.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have long since given up the thought that I could disaview (ph) some of you of turning any substantive decision into anything but political process. How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me.

KURTZ: There were other flashes of Clinton's famous temper.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just wanted to know if you were going to keep your word, sir.

CLINTON: I never gave my word on that. You go back and see what I said when I was asked that question. That's what I said. Don't talk to me. Go back and see what I said.

What did I say? What word did I give, sir?

KURTZ: Clinton often preferred communicating with the public through town hall meetings and formats like "LARRY KING LIVE." But the rise of the 24-hour news cycle increased competition and left reporters hungry for news. They would soon have it.

The distractions of Whitewater and Travelgate and the '96 fund- raising scandal gave way to the impeachment drama, a year-and-a-half- long whirlwind dominating the headlines and the airwaves.

The president went 11 months without a news conference. But he wasn't always the one under fire. The media's reputation plummeted during what seemed to many a singular obsession with sex and scandal.

The president eventually learned to deflect some of the questions with humor.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, Monica Lewinsky's life has been changed forever. Her family's life has been changed forever. I wonder how you feel about that, and what, if anything, you'd like to say to Monica Lewinsky at this minute.


CLINTON: That's good.


KURTZ: And through it all, Clinton was a media president, a man who loved the spotlight, who never seemed to stop talking, as he demonstrated on his farewell tour this week with a jab at the GOP.

CLINTON: They thought the election was over, the Republicans did. By the time it was over, our candidate had won the popular vote. And the only way they could win the election was to stop the voting in Florida.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, three hardworking White House correspondents who have covered the Clinton years, Ann Compton of ABC News, John Harris of "The Washington Post," and Bill Plante of CBS News.

Bill Plante, during the worst of times -- Whitewater, Paula Jones, fundraising, Monica, you name it -- how bad were relations between this president and the press?

BILL PLANTE, CBS NEWS: This president never liked the press from day one. He leaves office not liking us much, if any, better.

I can't say I blame him. But this isn't new. He, of course, never felt he was getting a fair shake for eight years. And in retrospect, I can't wait to see what he writes about it because he still doesn't believe that he's gotten a fair shake.

KURTZ: OK, John Harris, you write that the thing that drove President Clinton absolutely batty is when journalists would question his motives. How leaving aside his prickliness, did you and your ilk in the White House press corps do a little too much of that?

JOHN HARRIS, "WASHINGTON POST": That is modern journalism. And I think part of it is a function of the fact that there's CNN and MSNBC and so forth that...

KURTZ: Everybody here (INAUDIBLE) huge megaphone.

HARRIS: ... The president makes an announcement. That's out there. And so people in our line of work put much more emphasis on looking for the subtext of a story, the political motive behind it.

KURTZ: The secret meetings (INAUDIBLE)...

HARRIS: Yes. The process, how the decision was evolved. Do we do too much of it? I have to acknowledge that we probably do.

On the other hand, I do think political context is important. And I do think that it was inevitable and it is inevitable that we're going to write those kinds of stories.

I do think that's the root of what President Clinton didn't like about the press. We would never take his statements at face value.

We were always looking for what's the plot behind it, what's the political motivation behind it? And all politicians are irritated by that kind of thing. I think Clinton hated it more than most.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Ann, the press has a way of giving itself an acquittal in its rich profundity. Now you've been around. And you've seen a number of presidents come through the White House. Putting aside the quality of presidents, what make you of the quality of journalists who are covering the president?

ANN COMPTON, ABC NEWS: It really depends so much on the issues you have out there and these external items outside of the presidency that come in. George Bush had the Berlin Wall fall down. And then he had a Persian Gulf War.

And when you have a big, major story moving like that and reporters chasing what -- certainly not good news, but good, meaty stories like that and not focusing on the personal indiscretions so much changes it totally.

KALB: I'm thinking of quality that is preparation for the stories in covering the complicated stories that come out of the White House. Sometimes I think the White House press corps features vaudevillians, journalistic vaudevillians, who are staging and performing for the cameras.

COMPTON: Isn't everything staged now? Even the substance, even where you go and do your homework about something. We are such a visual society. And we're a society now that looks for conflict and for personality. It's a -- Bill Clinton came along at a time when maybe he fit the times where maybe the worst thing for Bill Clinton is if he were ignored at times when he wasn't relevant.

KURTZ: Bill Plante, you say that President Clinton -- and we should add now Senator Hillary Clinton -- were both convinced from the '92 campaign on that the press kind of had it in for them, wasn't giving them a fair shake. Could it be argued that in the age of prosecutorial journalism that there was something to that, not personal, but that the press is scandal hungry and voracious and some would say a bit arrogant?

Was there a clash there? Or were those values?

PLANTE: It could easily be argued that the press nit picks and that different people in the press are going after different angles of the story and that one or more of them is bound to annoy any president, even if it's not President Clinton and now Senator Clinton.

But you also have to allow that that's a byproduct of the 24-hour news cycle. The more time there is to fill news, the more inane things are going to be said. But some of them are fair. Some of them are not fair.

KURTZ: But, of course, the impeachment saga, John Harris, was not nitpicking, nor the product of 24-hour news, nor the product of a political clash in Washington. But despite the media's obsession with that story, the public, it must be said, rallied behind Bill Clinton. And the media sunk further in public esteem. So couldn't it be said that in that episode that Clinton really beat the press as well as the Republicans?

HARRIS: I really don't accept that even if I'm prepared to acknowledge in some places that we're too focused on scandal or too focused on process. As you point out, a president lying to, or being accused of lying to, a grand jury, carrying on a relationship that is clearly and by his own acknowledgement grossly inappropriate, that's going to be a big story. There's no way to skin that.

And the fact that President Clinton survives doesn't mean that he beat the press. I honestly don't think it was a motive of the press to say, "OK, let's bring this president down."

It's an enormous story. It's going to be covered. It was.

KALB: How did the president's visit to MTV and discussing his underwear -- boxer or shorts, et cetera -- how did that affect coverage of the media? Did the media sink to kind of lower depths at that point, that everything was fair play in covering the president, John?

HARRIS: Well, of course, that question wasn't asked by a member of the media. But I think it's an important point in that the public doesn't make distinctions between the responsible question that Bill Plante or Ann Compton asks and the inane question that somebody from some other network might ask, or that a student on MTV might ask.

In the public's mind, we're all the media. So "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" really, in average viewers' minds aren't any different, readers' minds aren't any different than say "Drudge Report." That's just a reality.

COMPTON: Bill Clinton also would go out of his way to find forms like that. He wanted to do a news conference on TV. He wanted to de- imperialize the presidency, much more human, a young staff. I'll tell you, he wanted to open himself up to exactly those other kinds of points of view to get away from the White House press corps.

HARRIS: Well, in the beginning he did. And he succeeded in that. But I think over time he learned that he needed to be much more disciplined, that it was not the same as being Arkansas governor. The people had expectations for the president. So he did put himself I think less frequently in those kind of undignified situations.

PLANTE: He did all those town hall forums in the early part of his campaign in '92 and then in the presidency until one day in North Carolina some woman, a civilian uncoached by anyone as far as we know, got up and dressed him down from up one side and down the other. And he was furious. I think that's the last town hall meeting we ever did.

KURTZ: Let's come back to the role of the media. John Harris has written that he once received a finger-wagging lecture from the president after he asked a seemingly innocuous budget question.

Did you ever feel a taste of the president's temper after asking about something that he didn't want to talk about?

COMPTON: Oh, yes. And, of course, it was Whitewater and the investigation. And we were in Kiev at a midnight stop on the way into Moscow, an unscheduled stop so he could stop and meet the president of Ukraine.

And I got a phone call from New York. I called New York just before. And they said, "You've got to ask if George Stephanopoulos is about to announce in Washington that the White House will accept an independent counsel."

Thanks loads. That's really what I want to talk about at midnight...

KURTZ: And you asked the question.

COMPTON: ... I did ask the question. But I began it by saying happy birthday to President Kuchma, his host. It took a little bit of edge off of it, about two minutes.

And I didn't feel the wrath the way my colleague Jim Miklaszewski of NBC did, who the day before had asked a series of questions. And as I remember, the president blew up and walked away.

PLANTE: Took his mic off, got up and left. KURTZ: He did that on occasion.

Brief time out. And when we come back, more on the press and Bill Clinton and what's ahead for George W.



CLINTON: In just eight years, I have given you enough material for 20 years. Let me say to all of you, I have loved these eight years.



John Harris, why does President Clinton continue to feel sorry for himself in terms of press coverage? Four years ago, he compared himself to Richard Jewel. And just recently, he took a swipe at Jeff Girth (ph) of "The New York Times" over the Whitewater and Wen Ho Lee stories. Still something bubbling there.

HARRIS: Well, he feels that -- and I agree with Bill, I can entirely understand why he feels this way -- that these were a major thorn that in some ways really limited him in his first time, the fact that there were these constant inquiries about things that took place before his presidency. So he has a lot of resentment and a lot of grievance about it.

KALB: But doesn't he have a point? Doesn't the president have a point feeling miffed about that?

PLANTE: Why, look, there are things he could have easily done to keep that from happening. All he would have had to do was disclose, for example, on Whitewater and avoided firing the Travel Office and various other things. But they were determined to do those things and to keep the information close.

It's an abject lesson in the fact that you cannot keep secrets in Washington. And if you do, it will cause you lots of problems.

KURTZ: Bill, as a senior statesman on the White House press corps, do you believe that to the extent that the daily combat got kind of personal between the two sides, that there was some resentment of Bill Clinton by journalists who were of his generation?

PLANTE: I think that you have to be honest and say that journalists, particularly those of his own generation, didn't like him very much, at least particularly after some of the more sordid things began to come out.

And they didn't like him primarily because they thought he was a liar. It hadn't so much to do with his character in any other way.

KURTZ: They felt they'd been misled. PLANTE: They thought they'd been misled.

KALB: Excuse me. Ann, after covering Clinton for eight years, would you do anything journalistically different?

COMPTON: I think one of the things we had to do, not so much covering the president himself but the staff, the incredible mobilization they would go through to throw facts and issues and announce issues over and over and over again, the kind of battle you had to do to keep back the flow of what the news they wanted out, the stories, the programs they wanted out. And then the digging you had to do to get in past that to people who at the end were close enough to Clinton to be of any value to you.

It was a relatively young -- I'll never forgive them for closing that doorway between the White House Press Office and the press secretary's office. It sounds so small. And it sounds so kind of selfish or pedantic to say this.

But if you physically -- they had the arrogance to say physically you don't need to come to the press secretary's office. And to me, that just set the whole tone for getting off to a very bad start at the very beginning, the first 100 days.

KURTZ: All right, let us not forget that for all of his problems with the press, Clinton and his White House had an extraordinary spin machine. It was very, very good at drawing attention to his small initiatives and getting out the Clinton message and using all kinds of media outlets in order to do that.

COMPTON: They use talk radio. There have been talk radio hosts out on the lawn. They give them telephones and bring cabinet people.

KURTZ: (INAUDIBLE) selected newspapers by playing them off against each other by giving them exclusive tidbits.

COMPTON: No question about it.

KURTZ: But let's turn now to the forty-third president, soon to be, John Harris. You have written that you believe that George W. Bush may be headed into a similarly rocky relationship with the White House press.

I'm reminded that when Bush's motives were challenged -- coming back to the question of motivation -- he can get a little prickly, and he can say things like, "Well, don't judge my heart." Is that part of what you think may produce some friction?

HARRIS: Yeah. Look, I mean, I feel like I know President Clinton and how he ticks pretty well. And I can't say that about George W. Bush. But just watching, I do see that effort to bristle at these kinds of inquiries and to assume the worst motives behind why they're being asked.

And I do see him nursing the illusion that he can control information in modern Washington. When he announced his Ashcroft nomination for attorney general, he said, "And you're going to not hear his advice unless I decide to tell you."

PLANTE: Exactly.

HARRIS: Well, maybe. But there's a lot of ways that information comes out. And when it does, how are they going to react?

KALB: Is there truth in that old saying "the more presidents change, the more things are the same?" I mean, will you bring the same point of view, the same prisms, the same -- let us use the word objectivity -- in microscopic examination of the next fellow coming into the White House, Ann?

COMPTON: Well, again, I think it depends on what you are...

KALB: Is there a shift in perception because a new fellow is coming in?

COMPTON: ... There is always the honeymoon. I don't know whether it lasts a week or 10 days or 100 days or 180 days. And there's always that kind of initial blush of "let's see what you can deliver, guy."

I'll tell you one thing. I think both Bushes -- Bush I and Bush II -- have much thinner skins when it comes to the press and dealing with the press and will have much shorter tolerances, much shorter patience.

PLANTE: I think Clinton is pretty thin skinned too.

KURTZ: Yeah, I was going to say, thinner skins compared to who? But during the 2000 campaign, George Bush cultivated some pretty good relations with a lot of the reporters covering him. Could that help him once he's in the Oval Office? Or does all that fade when you're the president?

PLANTE: It doesn't fade completely. He demonstrated on the campaign that he was adept at small talk and that he had a sense of humor. Now let's see if he can keep that sense of humor once the daily grind begins.

KURTZ: To pick up on Bernie's point, if they try to control information. They did a pretty good job during the cabinet selection. A lot of those did not leak out in advance. Will the press react in almost a knee-jerk fashion and say, "Wait a second. You've got to feed us. We need to know what's going on behind the scenes." Will we see a replay of some of that?

PLANTE: Anybody who said that to them would be stupid. What you do, of course, is cultivate the usual reliable sources, usually elsewhere in town. There are too many people, too many motives, and too many agendas in Washington for anything to stay secret. So you have to work at it if you're a reporter.

COMPTON: And some of the people working for George W. Bush that we've all covered in administrations past are some of the best leakers in Washington. KURTZ: Plus, you've got 535 people on Capitol Hill.

Well, when we come back, was Linda Chavez unfairly scrutinized by the press?



LINDA CHAVEZ, FORMER SECRETARY OF LABOR NOMINEE: I have decided that I am becoming a distraction. And therefore, I have asked President Bush to withdraw my name for secretary of labor.


KURTZ: Linda Chavez earlier this week. She also had harsh words for the press.


CHAVEZ: Because of the way in which the stories have played over the last few days, the fact that all of you have made I think a great deal more of this story than need be and have in my view not told the story of some of the people around me, I have decided that I am becoming a distraction.


KURTZ: Ann Compton, did the media make too much of an episode that seemed to be motivated by kindness? And after all, lots of people have hired illegal immigrants, including New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman?

COMPTON: Not too much when you could tell that the story she was giving the public, what little -- she didn't any public appearances -- what little of the story that she put out wasn't really the same that we were hearing back from the campaign. When you get a disconnect like that, it's poison.

PLANTE: She torpedoed herself. It had nothing to do with the press coverage of the illegal immigrant who lived in her home.

KALB: But what's interesting is the trend. "It's the media, stupid." Lay it off on the media. The media is an easy target to put the focus of blame on. Ultimately, as you're indicating, she finally stepped front and center and said, "This indeed is what happened."

This finding refuge blaming the media, is that so popular still, John?

HARRIS: Well, I mean, it's certainly a common tactic. But this one, I have to agree with my colleagues, this story wasn't really that interesting. It seemed pretty straightforward that when you have contradictions like she did in her story that it's just not a tenable nomination. And certainly, the Bush people realized that, despite what Linda Chavez said. There was no effort to tackle her and say, "No, please stay and fight."

KURTZ: But I would remind all of you that this story was broken by ABC News. And before that, it wasn't a controversy. It was something that was kicked off by the media.

And journalists, it seemed to me, were more interested in all the little details -- the hiring of this woman a decade ago -- that in Chavez's controversial views on affirmative action and minimum wage and that sort of thing.

COMPTON: That's always the way, though. The public watches these people and judges their character not so much on their positions and views. John Ashcroft has some that are very controversial coming up. And Bush is out there defending those.

But people are looking for those personal characteristics. And there is no question that Linda Chavez, as soon as that story came out, she'd been trying to sink it for days before. She'd been on the phone. She knew what cover was coming.

And it was very easy to turn around and say, "Gee, it wasn't me. It was just the way it was played." But the Bush campaign sure didn't, or the Bush reelection sure didn't try to paint it in that kind of terms.

KALB: Ann, but that was not just a little bit of a fringe of a story. After all, the secretary of labor, implementation of labor laws, et cetera, et cetera. So it is not a bit of trivia on the sidelines.

COMPTON: No, no, it had exactly to do with what her job would be. And that's when these get in trouble when there's some personal indiscretion and it's tied to what their job is going to be.

KURTZ: Bill Plante, does the press also have a sort of hypersensitive nose when it comes to hypocrisy because they're reminded that Linda Chavez had criticized Zoie Baird, Clinton's first nominee for attorney general, who also had employed -- not exactly the same situation -- but an illegal immigrant as a nanny.

PLANTE: That was a fact that would be difficult to leave out of any story. It's simply too rich.

KURTZ: And so do you think that helped drive the story, that she'd been critical of someone else?

PLANTE: That and the whole assemblage of facts, and her stance on various labor issues, she seemed an unlikely nominee for the labor post in the eyes of most but conservatives who were pulling for her.

COMPTON: One more fatal flaw. She'd been a television commentator and had quite a videotape trail to track.

KURTZ: Paper trail and video trail, you're right.

Ann Compton, Bill Plante, John Harris, thank you very much for joining us.

When we return, the press and presidents past in Bernie's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page."


KALB: Call it love-hate. Call it combative. Call it adversarial. What I'm getting at is the usual description of the relationship between the president and the press, any president, any press.


KALB (voice-over): And it goes all the way back to George Washington. But we have only a minute-and-a-half, so let's hurry through the calendar and isolate some examples of no love lost between the White House and the fourth estate.

FDR, the only president elected four times once inscribed a photograph: "To the White House press, from their victim."

First ladies have also weighed in. When the journalists covering her husband once asked Jackie Kennedy, "What do you feed the family dog?" she had a one-word reply: "Reporters."

And then there's Richard Nixon famously sparring with a press even before he got to the White House.


RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.


KALB: It was Teddy Roosevelt who, in a moment of weakness, showed a soft spot. He invited reporters in out of the rain one day and gave them their own room with a view in the vicinity of the Oval Office. Since then, it's been on-the-spot, nonstop reporting on one administration after another, and nonstop tensions.

Everything escalated with the introduction of TV during Ike's presidency. But it was JFK who introduced the real breakthrough by going live before the cameras and engaging in Q-and-A combat with reporters.

Let's skip a few decades and get to Bill Clinton. Reporters who have covered him have talked about Clinton's irritation, to put it charitably, over his press coverage. Here, for example, Clinton on the media: "I have fought more damn battles and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press. And I am sick and tired of it. And you can put that in the damn article."


KALB: So what's ahead for George W.? Well, he's already had his own duals with the media during the campaign. But if the past is prologue, that's small stuff compared to what's ahead when he takes over the White House.

KURTZ: The subject perhaps of next week's show. Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll be on for an hour looking at President-elect Bush's cabinetmaking problems, Linda Chavez gone, John Ashcroft in trouble, Don Rumsfeld riding high. The full gang is on for that and much more right here next on CNN.



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