With manic-depressive media, presidential honeymoons are history

Jonathan Alter

February 03, 1993|By Jonathan Alter

IN HIS book "Chaos," an account of recent scientific advances, James Gleick writes that "a physicist could not truly understand turbulence or complexity unless he understood pendulums."

The same can be said of politics. Bill Clinton's debut certainly looks like chaos.

Before his first week was over, official Washington, bolstered by the radio static it interprets as the voice of the people, was already writing him off as a klutz and a naif, Jimmy Carter II Gets Taken to the Cleaners.

But beneath the turbulence, as scientists are finding in all complex systems, lies a deeper, stranger sense of order.

The news cycle is now so short -- the oscillation of opinion so intense -- that Mr. Clinton's stumble may actually have set him up for future surges.

What goes down must come up. And down and up and down and up until we're all dizzy.

With a manic-depressive media, honeymoons are history. The same need for an ever-new narrative that led the press to favor change (and thus Bill Clinton) during the campaign now demands that he be savaged -- at least for a few days.

He was a hero on Election Day, a goat during his early disorganized transition, a hero at the Little Rock economic conference, a goat during the week before taking office, a hero at the inauguration, a goat during the fights over Zoe Baird and gays in the military.

In each case, there may have been sound reasons to reach those judgments but little acknowledgment of their evanescence.

"Clinton faces a policy defeat from which his presidency might never recover," editorialized the Daily Oklahoman last week. Paging the pundit police. At last count it was one week down and 208 to go.

Yes, showy Senate hearings have been scheduled, which guarantees the gays in the military drama a long TV run; Republicans who didn't exploit the issue during the campaign will make hay with it now in their direct-mail solicitations.

But the ever-hungry media beast will soon need a comeback story to sate its appetite.

Mr. Clinton will be on top again before long, because the nature of journalism requires it.

On the other hand, if the pummeling continues, American politics might witness something truly new: a liberal backlash against the media. Annoyance with the press for piling on the president has been a staple of Republican politics for at least a quarter century.

When they were out of power, Democrats traditionally took the opposite tack: If they criticized the media at all, it was for being too docile, not too aggressive. No more. The new attitude within the Clinton camp seems to be that much of the press is stupid and obnoxious.

At the inaugural gala, a tape was shown of well-known pundits pronouncing Mr. Clinton politically dead last year.

The producer and Gloater-in-Chief was Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, whose contempt for the press (fueled by recent charges that a character in Bloodworth-Thomason's sitcom "Hearts Afire" is a ripoff of the life of journalist Georgie Anne Geyer) can't help but affect her best friends, the Clintons.

After the experiences of early last year, the president doesn't need much training as a press critic. It's a good bet that right now he is privately complaining that Sam Nunn isn't taking his fair share of heat from the media for sabotaging him.

The bad blood there has been underreported. Senator Nunn, who conveys the expression of a man who still can't understand why Mr. Clinton is president and he isn't, deserted Mr. Clinton when the candidate needed him most -- just before last March's critical Georgia primary.

Then, in September, he embarrassed his party's nominee by introducing his own budget plan. Mr. Nunn sincerely disagrees with the president on the gays issue, but going public as angrily as he did is what lit the match on the story.

The oxygen was provided by the people. Under chaos theory, "air resistance" affects pendulum swings in unpredictable and irregular ways. In other words, talk radio has become what scientists call "friction."

The most familiar sound in Washington last week was a busy signal, as more calls poured in than at any time since the shooting of Ronald Reagan.

The news cycle has become a powerful loop: Voters see an easy-to-grasp story like Nannygate or gays in the military on the news, then they call in to Washington and their local talk shows, then they see all the TV stories about them calling in -- and the process begins again.

But the harder they call, the harder they fall. The more intense the reaction, the more quickly it passes. Remember the huge level of interest during the Gulf War? Poof.

All of those war opponents who were supposed to have been trapped on the wrong side of overwhelming popular opinion got off without a scratch. And legions of check bouncers survived.

Already, the TV image of the receptionist answering a busy phone in a congressional office has become a visual cliche. Vox pop means people are caring again, and they have to care in order to bring change.

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