Waiting Breathlessly in Little Rock

December 06, 1992|By JOHN FAIRHALL

Little Rock, Ark. -- Recently, Harry Hronas, who owns a house across the street across from Bill Clinton's mansion, was confronted by a network television crew that wanted him to talk for two minutes, no more, no less, about one of the compelling issues of our times.

What does he think about Socks, the Clinton family cat? Mr. Hronas, marveling at the breadth of journalistic curiosity, gamely tried to respond, though his comments never did air, he says.

What's surprising about his experience is not that he was asked such a question, but that his answer wasn't broadcast. Journalists stationed here since the election have been starved for news, like cabinet appointments, which Mr. Clinton only now seems ready to make.

As with any vacuum, the news void must be filled. The extremes to which the media will go are known all too well by the Clintons, who were so upset to see a picture of their pet hoisted in the air by a photographer that they issued a warning: Hands off.

That did the trick, sparing Socks from who knows what kind of further indignities. (Though photographers, still free to take pictures, reportedly tried to tempt him into camera range with food treats.)

But Mr. Clinton really has himself to blame. He and his burgeoning team of advisers conduct transition business behind closed doors. As a result, journalists pounce like hungry dogs on the smallest morsels of activity.

Hence the ritual that occurs outside the Arkansas governor's mansion each day Mr. Clinton is in town. Reporters, photographers and television crews stand watch from dawn to darkness waiting for the next leader of the free world to venture out and utter something significant.

Bill Dickinson, a Little Rock hair stylist who has seen this media brigade at work, isn't envious. "I'd be bored to death," he says.

He might be more respectful. What he would find intolerable is in fact a major news-gathering activity in Little Rock, second only to the briefings Clinton communications director George Stephanopoulis provides Monday through Friday. On some days, particularly weekends, mansion-watching has been the only source of news about Mr. Clinton that the world has received.

This might come as a surprise to those people (editors and producers) who think that their eyes and ears here are working furiously, justifying all the expense-account dinners that journalists claim as their due after each day in "The Rock," as they semi-affectionately refer to this city of 175,000 on the banks of the muddy Arkansas River.

Some might be further surprised to dis- cover that their employees participate in a "pool" system that allows most of them to avoid even mansion duty while still reaping its benefits. The group that Mr. Dickinson has observed is a small, but representative fraction of the scores of print, radio and TV journalists in town. Pool members file reports during the day by telephone to Mr. Clinton's press office, which distributes them to other journalists at the cavernous room reserved for the media downtown.

Each day a new group of journalists forms a pool. The morning group is in turn replaced at mid-day by another, an arrangement participants find necessary to limit the tedium: On some days, a night watchman at a cemetery sees more action than the mansion pool. This is because Mr. Clinton is no longer the talk-every-minute, campaign-all-day candidate. Election transformed this loquacious man into the political equivalent of a silent film star, at least up until now.

Thank goodness he jogs most days. While that is hardly news, it provides fresh film and photos for the pool trailing along in vans.

Sometimes Mr. Clinton lingers to chat, filling tape recorders with mostly innocuous comments that would be ignored if they fell out of someone else's mouth. Yet because he is president-elect, the pool takes great care to record every sound for colleagues who, if they have found nothing else worth reporting, are eager to splice the pool report into a story and get off to dinner.

Many times, however, the pool pickings are so slim they require tremendous imagi- nation to inflate them into news. The first pool report Wednesday, for example, was shorter than the Gettysburg Address: "Governor Clinton did not go jogging today. [Advisers] Robert Reich and Nancy Soderberg were seen going into the mansion. Other than that, all quiet on the Southern front."

Try turning that into a story.

Though desperate reporters shout questions to Mr. Clinton when they see him, he doesn't usually reward them with much, forcing poolers to fill their reports with terse description, or "color," as this sort of detail is termed: "Clinton left the governor's mansion at 7:17 a.m. with a four-car motorcade and reached the YMCA at fTC 7:21 a.m. He was wearing a black Clinton/Gore baseball cap and a black sweatshirt. Asked how he felt, he responded, 'fine, thanks.' "

As exasperating as this kind of response is to the news media, Mr. Clinton finds the pool system equally irritating. He wants his privacy, while reporters want access to the next president.

Fortunately, Mr. Clinton's aides promise plenty of action in the days ahead, appointments and an economic conference Dec. 14 and 15, which should diminish the importance of pool reports.

That's good news for journalists, and for Socks, who can resume hunting mice without fear of photographers scaring off his prey.

John Fairhall is a correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

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