How Early Is It Fair to Judge Performance?

February 07, 1993|By EVERETTE DENNIS

After the briefest of love-fests -- one would not call it a honeymoon -- the country seems to be witnessing an unraveling relationship between the president and the press.

In the days immediately after the election -- after a bruising campaign in which all three major candidates took their lumps from the press and at times decried what they said was savage treatment -- the mainstream news media sang Bill Clinton's praises, lionizing him as a savvy politician who, unlike George Bush, was not going to lose touch with the public.

The press followed Mr. Clinton to California, where he mixed it up with ordinary people and attended glittering Hollywood parties. And they dogged his jogs in Little Rock as he stopped for morning coffee at McDonald's. A well-orchestrated pre-inauguration trip to an inner-city Washington neighborhood yielded television images of an accessible new leader, establishing his own pace and public presence.

It seemed as if the campaign had not ended and that the press was caught up with excitement and expectation of the new presidency. But it didn't take long for throngs of reporters in Little Rock to grow weary of ceremonial events and image making, and they complained that not much was really happening.

Unlike other presidents, Mr. Clinton did not take a prolonged vacation out of public view, but instead orchestrated daily events from Little Rock -- from the economic summit to announcements about the transition team and the new cabinet. The more he and his aides offered, the more the press wanted, and, without much notice, what had been nearly fawning observation became analysis and criticism.

In almost unprecedented fashion, the media speculated about the composition of the Clinton government, taking the new president at his word and repeating his promise of a cabinet that would "look like America." After considerable speculation about just when the new cabinet would be complete -- an ahistorical exercise that failed to recognize that previous cabinets had not been buttoned up until January -- the president offered a self-imposed deadline and scrambled to fill out the ranking places in his administration in the midst of diverse demands from minority groups and women, all seeking their fair and expected share in the result.

Still, as the inauguration approached, the president and his people seemed to be setting the agenda as they scoped out the historic path from Charlottesville to Washington and orchestrated a series of dazzling inauguration events. And one might expect the president to call the tune as he presented his new administration to the country.

While much of the public rightly asks of the media, "Who elected you, anyway?" the vital role of the press in connecting the White House with the rest of the country is unquestioned. That connection can be strong or weak, impartial or biased, celebratory or critical. Typically some of us think the press is too intrusive, too savage in its treatment of the president, whoever he may be, while others say the media are not tough enough.

Under our constitutional scheme and through generations of court interpretations, the role of the media to report on and criticize government at all levels from the highest public official to the most humble is well established. But just how that should be done, in a fashion that assures fairness -- something virtually everybody agrees about, while differing on how to define the term -- invites debate.

Some commentators say there really should be a honeymoon period in which the press mainly describes and details what is happening, saving the more substantive evaluation until later. After all, they argue, it is unfair to expect a new administration to keep all its promises the day after the inauguration because virtually all actions and programs require time to persuade Congress and the people what needs to be done and why. Others say that instant assessment and criticism are essential to keeping a president from making mistakes and losing touch with the people.

In the early hours of the Clinton administration, much of the national press was fully conscious that many in the public wondered whether the new president would get a free ride and not be subjected to the tough tests that, for example, Presidents Carter and Bush got in their early days.

Just as in 1981 a wary press corps took pains not to be overly critical of Ronald Reagan, as there was much public sentiment that the press was liberal-leaning and essentially anti-Reagan, reporters and commentators in 1993 seem eager to prove their )) impartiality by being tough on Mr. Clinton, overcoming the early and accurate impression in the days after the election that they were too easy and too shallow in their assessments of him.

Presidents must work skillfully with the media, clearly articulating their goals and mission and explaining their programs and appointments.

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