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Reliable Sources

A Tale of Three Presidents: Reagan, Clinton, and Bush

Aired February 10, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: A tale of three presidents. George W. Bush: How long can the honeymoon go on? Bill Clinton: The media furor continues. Ronald Reagan: bathed in nostalgia as he turns 90. Are journalists playing favorites? And the White House gunman: Did television go overboard after a minor incident?

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

No less than three presidents in the news this week: one running the country, one just gone, and one enjoying the warm glow of birthday tributes.


(voice-over): For the incumbent, a third week under his belt, and the coverage and commentary are still remarkably upbeat.


GEORGE WILL, ABC NEWS: It's called the charm offensive. It's the self-created honeymoon on the part of the president.


KURTZ: Behind door number two: a former president still taking hits.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: The former first couple said tonight they are returning $28,000 in gifts they took when they left the White House.


KURTZ: And president number three, Ronald Reagan, out of sight, but lionized on his birthday.


DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: Only three presidents of the United States have lived to the age of 90.



TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: For so many, he remains a positive force in American life.



LARRY KING, HOST: For whatever it matters, give him our best.


KING: And to you.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now: Doyle McManus, Washington Bureau Chief of the "Los Angeles Times; Karen Tumulty, senior correspondent of "Time" magazine; and Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for the "Washington Post" and the author of "Smash Mouth: Two Years in the Gutter with Al Gore and George W. Bush."

Doyle McManus, coverage of President Bush: He meets with Democrats. He socializes with Ted Kennedy, he gives out nicknames. He's a bipartisan love machine, says "The New York Times." Why is the press swooning over George W.?

DOYLE MCMANUS, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, Howie, it's just the simple milk of human kindness. You telling me you don't believe that? No, look.

KURTZ: What's your second answer?

MCMANUS: Every president -- every president gets some kind of honeymoon. And part of it is practical. One thing, he hasn't been in office long enough to make any major mistakes. Secondly, those of us in this profession are going to be dealing with these people for four years, maybe eight. It's not going to kill us to give them the benefit of the doubt in their first couple of weeks on the job.

KURTZ: Well, Karen Tumulty, Bush's performance has been pretty steady in his initial three-week debut. But what happened to the cynical, skeptical, adversarial watchdogs of the president? Have they been turning into puppy dogs?

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME": Oh, Howie, it's a setup.


TUMULTY: Actually, I think that the fact that Bush has so quickly turned everything that we were taking as conventional wisdom four weeks ago -- starting with tax cuts -- on its head. And as we watched the people we expected to be his adversaries roll over and wait to have their ears scratched, the media sort of follows along. That's where the


KURTZ: These would be the Democrats you're referring to.


BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Dana, our friend Doyle talked about the milk of human kindness. When does this journalistic milk begin to curdle?

DANA MILBANK, "WASHINGTON POST": I think it's beginning to sour already. There's a lot of seething underneath -- grumbling. But what's happening now is there's so much news to come out. He's got to roll out each element of his program. But in a few more weeks, we're done with that. And then what happens? That's when this sort of resentment that we're being manipulated into just writing or covering the daily story that they want.

KALB: Dana, you're a new guy in the White House press corp. So when you lean back and take a look at your colleagues there, what comes to mind in your first report card that you offer the men and women you're working with there? Be brave and speak out loud.

MILBANK: Well, they're the same people I was working with on the campaign trail and they're the ones I'm with every day. So I might not be as forthcoming as you like.

KALB: That's a surprise for you.

MILBANK: And I -- but I'm in my -- it's not surprising at all. And I'm part of this myself. We are stuck, in a way -- as we were saying earlier. There are just -- there's so much -- there's so much news coming out that we have to cover from them. And we're going to have to rely on them for a long period of time.

But what's happening here is, you're finding that they're not treating reporters particularly well in terms of access. So they're losing the ability to guide us, you know. They cannot reward and punish people if they're treating everybody equally.

TUMULTY: As somebody who was around for the last crew ...

KALB: You.

TUMULTY: ... the comparison between the way the Bush White House manages the media -- at least, thus far -- and the Clinton White House, is really -- there's a real contrast there. There have been two stories now that could have grown life and been problems for them. The first was the first-day announcement on abortion. The second was this flap this week over the closing of the AIDS office.


KURTZ: White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said it would be abolished. The next morning: Oh no, he misspoke. We're keeping the AIDS office.

TUMULTY: And the same with the office that Bill Clinton established on race relations. This White House cut that story off at one day. One news cycle, it was gone.

MCMANUS: And there's another example of that. And that was the nomination of Linda Chavez to be secretary of labor. That one lasted longer than these others -- three days -- but, boy, did they cut clean and cut her loose. It took Bill Clinton longer to deal with his attorney general problem with Zoe Baird and Lani Guinier.

KURTZ: What you're all saying is that this White House, at least initially, is pretty good at damage control, which is an important element of press management for an administration.

But I wonder, Doyle McManus, after the turmoil of the Clinton years for the press, and the chaos of the Florida recount, whether there isn't some feeling -- subconscious or otherwise -- on the part of journalists that: You know, maybe we ought to at least be seen as giving the new guy a chance.

MCMANUS: I think that's true. But, Howie, it is going to wear off. We're already beginning to see, for example, a legitimate wide- open debate on the tax cuts. You know, the Democrats, Tom Daschle got up there with a Lexus and a muffler, an old-fashioned, cheesy, media- staged event. But he got plenty of coverage for that, because, in fact, our role in the end is to eliminate both sides or all the sides of a debate. It's going to get there.

The question is: How soon does the honeymoon wear off?

KALB: Dana, what about how soon? For example, I've been reading some columns, and I think even some editorials, Dana, to the effect that nothing has been reconciled. The charm offensive is working, but there's been no exhibition on the president's part of ideological flexibility. That is not being reported as extensively as it should be.

MILBANK: No. And that's what I'm suggesting will begin to happen in a few weeks, when ...

KALB: Why's it been so slow?

MILBANK: Because the news offensive is now -- they're just hammering day after day with news. There's a story to write every day. There's not time for an investigation


KURTZ: Yeah, but it's four days -- four days of talking about the same tax cut.

MILBANK: They are variations on the same thing.

(CROSSTALK) KURTZ: ... families come out. The next day there's a different photo-op. The next day, they formally send it to the Hill. Journalists are usually impatient with that sort of thing.

MILBANK: I think journalists, if you speak to them privately, are seething underneath. And they're ...

KURTZ: Seething!

MILBANK: I think they're ...

KURTZ: Is there rage here?

MILBANK: Well, I wouldn't say it's rage. It's seething. Maybe it's simmering, but not boiling. But...


MCMANUS: There will be a point at which that this will boil over.

KALB: When does -- yes -- when does the seethe become public?

MILBANK: Well -- it happens -- you were correct that it was different. The Clinton people started off badly. But they started off in the same way of trying to keep the press at arm's length and trying to control things. And ultimately, that's not going to work any better for Bush any better than it worked for Clinton. It's just a matter of when.

KURTZ: There was one bit of unscripted drama at the White House this week, when a gunman was shot, waving a gun, fired off some shots way outside the White House. Boy, to watch the cable networks on that day -- hours and hours of non-stop coverage -- was a degree of intensity, you would think that there were tanks on the South Lawn.

Let's take a look at some of that.


KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're seeing the helicopters circle overhead. We're seeing officers continue to sort of patrol the grounds here at the White House.



NORAH O'DONNELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT: A white male, apprehended, shot once, and that he is not someone who is on the Secret Service's watch list.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shooting outside the White House today. The president never in danger at any point.


KURTZ: Karen Tumulty, what did you make of the intensity of that cable coverage?

TUMULTY: It was way too many 24-hour news channels chasing way too little news. It was a simple police story. There was no chance that this man was endangering the president, even getting within the White House.

KURTZ: Even getting inside the gate.

TUMULTY: The White House fence! But, you know, I think there's a real concern here. I usually believe that the media follows the news wherever it leads them. But given how many disturbed people there are in this country, this does seem like a real invitation for more of this sort of thing.

KALB: What you had here, Dana: an authentic self portrait of cable news. The broadcast stations gave it a few minutes. Cable gave it, as you're suggesting, Howie, hour after hour. That's the way cable covers it.

MILBANK: There's no alternative. I mean, working for a newspaper -- I worked for the "Washington Post." So that was just...

KALB: "The Times..."


MILBANK: Hand it to over the metro department. But because it was in the White House and you had 100 journalists sitting there, they all had a natural story to pounce on.

KURTZ: No. Time for just a phrase: "The New York Times" had that story for inside a paper for a few paragraphs, whereas, if I'm right, the "Washington Post" gave it a big banner.

MILBANK: Well, it was our home town. But I was pleased to see that the "New York Times'" White House correspondent was covering this police event.

MCMANUS: But let me jump in and say one nice thing about the cable networks. Look, when that story started, the original report was that the gunman might have fired some shots in the direction of the White House. That's happened before. That's legitimate news.


MCMANUS: We scrambled reporters. The newspapers the next day have the luxury of having 12 or 16 hours to mull it over and balance it. In this case, the great strength of cable news -- its immediacy, its ability to put you right on the spot -- is also a weakness.

There was one point where a CNN correspondent said to the anchor -- one of the smartest words said all day -- "Can you give us a couple of minutes to go do some reporting?" The problem is, reporting takes a little bit of time. You can't do reporting in the first 30 seconds.

KURTZ: And there were the initial mistakes: The gunman was 17. Well, it turns out he was 47. I think we have a consensus here.

And that's a good time to break.

Up next: Two former presidents get decidedly different treatment in the media this week.



Dana Milbank, while President Bush is getting pretty nice coverage, the Clinton scandals seem to be almost a full-time media industry. Now, you had a very newsworthy congressional hearing Thursday on the Marc Rich pardon and Clinton pal Denise Rich taking the Fifth. But beyond that, is the press trying to keep these stories alive because they're more interesting than covering the tax cut?

MILBANK: You know, the first question is related to your earlier question. And that is that part of the reason Bush's coverage looks so good is because everybody's busy beating up on President Clinton right now.

My theory is, he -- Clinton loves this. He invites this. If you look at his presidency, he was always at his best when he was fighting back from something. So he can't get out of the cycle.

KURTZ: You're suggesting that he's so addicted to the spotlight that he's actually reveling in having the stuffing kicked out of him by the media?

MILBANK: As long as we spell his name right.

KALB: Karen, is there a kind of -- let me put it this way -- a sudden journalistic coverage on taking this very critical view of Clinton: this sordid finale, so to speak?

TUMULTY: Well, it's pretty sordid. And every time you think the story is...

KURTZ: You don't need courage to.

TUMULTY: Every time you think the story's about to die down, some other little thing comes out. And what I think we're seeing here is what the Clintons look like without the massive communications machine that they've had around them for the last eight years. And they got very good at damage control. And they don't have all that protection.

KURTZ: Doyle McManus, does Hillary Clinton's presence in the Senate mean that the Clinton news watch will never stop for at least six years, because now we have these other stories -- the follow-ups and the sidebars -- about the impact on her political career of the pardon controversy, the gifts and so on?

MCMANUS: Oh, you bet it does. I mean, Hillary Clinton is about the most famous member of the Senate in either party right now. There are people talking about her running for president in four years. That's probably an unlikely event, if you ask a political professional.

KURTZ: Probably, but that doesn't stop the talk.

MCMANUS: But she is -- she is a great people story. You know, the other factor that's going on here is that Democrats, who rallied around Bill Clinton when he was their president and who was their leader -- no matter what the sin was, no matter what the peccadillo, they would come up with an explanation for why it wasn't as bad as it looked -- they're not there. They're not defending the guy. They're tired of carrying this guy's water. He's out there on his own for the first time.

KURTZ: Not to mention some liberal columnists who are oh-so -- feeling oh-so-betrayed about the guy they...

MCMANUS: Well, there are some people who are expiating past sins.

KURTZ: I see.

KALB: Dana, if she's such a great story -- Hillary -- I'm not seeing much about her as a great story in political terms, about what she's trying to achieve on the Hill. I see an awful lot of story linking her with the president and the final exit, the controversial finale. But I'm not seeing her as a great creative force for social good on the Hill. I don't see those stories.

MILBANK: Well, of course we like personality more than we like policy. That's -- I mean, that's what we do in terms of coverage. But neither has she exactly been a huge force for policy change just yet. I suppose she has an opportunity to do that, perhaps in the way that John McCain continues to get coverage based on the policy things he's doing. I don't think she's done anything of that profile.

KURTZ: She is, after all, a freshman senator who's been in office about a month. So, let's -- before we start writing the 2004 race, let's keep that in mind.

KALB: No, but I wanted to pick up Doyle's point about the prominence she's achieved. But the prominence has been sort of negative prominence, as it were.

KURTZ: Right. Or the aftershocks, really, of a controversial tenure as first lady.

MCMANUS: In fact, she's got a kind of a tightrope to walk, because other senators aren't going to be happy with her getting disproportionate attention. She's actually going to have to delay before she puts forth her first serious substantive proposal, because it's going to get a whole lot of attention. KURTZ: Let me turn now to Ronald Reagan.

And, Doyle, you work for a California newspaper. The man has just turned 90. He's in failing health. Many Americans regard him as a hero. It's certainly not a time to be nasty to him. But in all of these retrospectives, is there something of a whitewashing of the downside of the Reagan presidency?

MCMANUS: Well, there is in the sense that this doesn't really seem like the decent time to complain about the recession of 1982, which was a long time ago. But there's also another factor here on the positive side.

I've actually been talking to historians about the Reagan presidency because of -- because of all of this. And, in fact, he is being reassessed in a more positive light than he was at the time and particularly because of his contribution to ending the Cold War. He was seen at the time by many of his critics as a unidimensional hawk. Well, now people are seeing that his outreach to the Soviet Union had positive effects.

TUMULTY: But I think it -- there are a couple of other things, I think, that are going on here as a media phenomenon, though. One is that it helps us understand a story that's much closer to us right now, which is understanding the Bush presidency, which is such a -- it's from Ronald Reagan's playbook.

And there's also another factor. Let's face it: Anniversary journalism is just about the easiest kind for an editor and for reporters to do and plan. You can get these pieces set up in advance. You can get your interviews in line. And they're very easy to put together. And they're very viewer and reader friendly.

KALB: Dana, I think there's a critical point to be made in this discussion. And that's the distinction between celebrating a birthday and writing an obituary. Now, let's put the obituary story far off in the future as we possibly can. The birthday glow begs you the word -- I if may borrow of your's -- of nostalgia. The obituary does the real arithmetic on a man's political and diplomatic career. And I think, as you're suggesting, Iran Contra barely comes up and so forth. This is birthday time.

MILBANK: Yes, but I think this is sort of an isolated event in a larger pattern. We did the same thing with Nixon. And the same thing happened with the first President Bush. He left office with something like 30 percent popularity. And it surged into 70 or 80 percent by the time his son was running. I think it's just an American trait to gloss over the bad things in the past and only look at the good side of it. And I think we're merely reflecting that.

MCMANUS: And to be bipartisan about it, Jimmy Carter's standing is higher than it's ever been.


MCMANUS: So Bill Clinton may have some hope yet. (CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Well, Jimmy Carter, of course, getting good reviews for his post presidency.

But I'm wondering, despite all what you've said about, you know, the kind of anniversary journalism that gets practiced -- particularly when someone's at an advanced age, is it inappropriate to bring up the HUD scandals, or Iran Contra, or James Watt? I mean, don't we run the danger of slipping into just an overly glossy view of the eight-year Reagan presidency?

MCMANUS: There may be that danger. And I think Bernie is right. When the obituaries are written, that will be the time to do history's balance sheet. But, you know, there is an element of decency here. The guy is ill. The guy's got Alzheimer's. This is -- it's unthinkable to try and subject him when he is in no shape to defend himself.

KURTZ: Right. And there's an awful lot of fondness among Americans for Ronald Reagan.

Doyle McManus, Karen Tumulty, Dana Milbank, thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back: a look at those insider books in Bernie's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: I want to take a moment to extend my profound sympathy...


(voice-over): ... to these future historians of America, of the Clinton era, to be exact. And what prompts this sudden compassion is this news report that there is still another book coming out about what it was really like to work with Bill and Hill.

"The Blumenthal Administration" is the headline of the "Washington Post" -- great sense of humor at the "Post" -- about how Sidney was running the government. And it quotes from what it describes as his book proposal, a first-hand account by one who was there at the center of the conflicts, politics, scandals and successes of the presidency.

So you've got to ask: What makes this book different from this one or this one or this one? You'd think the White House was actually a writing seminar with presidential aides scribbling away under their desks. And we haven't yet heard from him or from $8 million her. And none of these books will be written under oath.

The fact is, books like these erupt after all administrations. And they're usually self-serving, score-settling accounts driven more by ego than by substance. So where do these future historians go for objectivity, for the verbatim record of what really happened behind these doors at the time it happened and not at the time of the book contract?

Well, here you have another problem. Because over the years, big decision-makers in Washington have resisted putting their recommendations down on paper to try to avoid leaks and also to try to keep their names from being linked to policies that proved disastrous, as in the case of Vietnam. In Washington, this is known as CYA: covering your rear, the fine art of being there at the creation of policy, but without actually leaving any footprints.


KALB: Now, it's true, there's a lot of the Clinton story out there between the inauguration and the finale. Even so, future historians will have to see what else they can come up with to fill the gaps between tell-all books that spin and official verbatims that may be eagerly skewed by what they don't tell.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Back with more news and your e-mail in a moment.


KURTZ: Before we go, a few RELIABLE SOURCES media items.

ABC knows how to grab young viewers: very young.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Diane (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Al Michaels of the delivery room.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Beautiful little baby! And a girl!



KURTZ: "Good Morning America" aired five live births on Tuesday: a first, of sorts, for morning television.

Bernie Kalb's "Back Page" last week previewed Al Gore's career move to journalism teacher. Gore and Columbia Journalism School first put a gag on the students: no leaking allowed. Under heavy criticism, Columbia caved at week's end. Now class is on the record.

And in the "E-mail File": My question last week about whether journalists deliberately pumped up negative stories about the Clintons because reporters wanted to portray them as low-class Arkansas hicks started a ruckus.

Says one rocket from Michigan: "You're one of the best examples of what's wrong with the press: too many reporters with no class." And from Oregon: "I am a conservative and appreciate the fair reporting I witnessed on your show. P.S.: The reason the Clintons come across as white trash is because they are: no character, no culture, no class."

And from Waco, Texas: "I was interested in the question of Bernard Kalb about the Bush White House playing the press like a yo- yo. What did he say when the Clinton people were lying through their teeth?"

And finally, an e-mail from Riverdale, New York, titled, "It's the cameras , stupid!" "Your cameras are the umbilical cord to Bill. And you won't cut it and he knows it. You're the lemmings and he is the piper. You play his game and you're to blame. Don't you get it? We do."

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.



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