Escaping Washington won't avoid the media ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's first experiment with taking the presidency on the road has received fairly good grades, from the public if not from the news media, where such trips are often viewed as an end run around a too aggressive White House press corps.

But Clinton has had little real reason to avoid the harpoons of the Washington-based reporters at this early stage in his administration. The flap over his attorney-general selections and their nanny problems, and his disagreement with the military over gay rights, have been early bumps in the road, but nothing to warrant heading for the hills.

Still, whenever a president ventures out into the hinterlands, the suspicion flourishes in Washington that he is ducking the supposedly fearsome White House press corps. And there is good historical reason for the notion.

Two of the most beleaguered of post-World War II presidents, Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Richard Nixon, high-tailed it out of Washington late in their White House tenures because circumstances really did get hot for them.

In the mid-1960s, Johnson was so embattled in Washington by protesters of his Vietnam War policy that he took not only to going out into the country for relief but also confined himself largely to U.S. military installations where security could be assured -- along with support of his war policy, or at least not overt criticism.

Nixon similarly encountered a bombardment of anti-war protest accompanied by hostile questioning from the White House press corps. The intensity grew in his second term as the Watergate affair unraveled and demands for his resignation or impeachment mushroomed. He too increasingly hit the road in search of more hospitable audiences that still treated a presidential visit like a royal coming.

Nixon had a communications director, former newspaper editor Herb Klein, who was a master at taking Nixon out of Washington to the boondocks for press conferences and interviews by local reporters who were not always well-schooled on the most pressing national issues. Meanwhile, Nixon would cold-shoulder the Washington press corps for months rather than undergo its grilling on what he knew and when he knew it about Watergate.

Clinton's motivation for going out of town appears to be more in the nature of maintaining the bond with voters that he achieved to a modest degree in the 1992 presidential campaign, and through that bond reinforcing his position with Congress, which always has one ear tuned to the grass roots.

The whole idea that a president can somehow dodge national scrutiny by leaving the hub of national news-gathering for someplace less in the spotlight has long since been rendered moot by the advances in communications technology. When Clinton went to Detroit the other night, the "town meeting" was televised not only to the other participating cities of Atlanta, Miami and Seattle but also to the whole nation via CNN and C-SPAN.

Also, voters out in the hinterlands no longer are as uninformed as many of them were in the days before satellite hookups, as questions in the Clinton town meeting indicated. Local stations no longer need rely on the major television networks to supply national news. Local reporters can be dispatched everywhere and their reports brought back to their hometowns instantaneously.

Taking the presidency on the road in good times as well as bad is simply a natural development as the technologies of communication make it easier. Half a century ago, there were no televised town meetings or press conferences, and presidents who met with the press were not to be quoted directly.

When President Dwight Eisenhower first permitted television cameras into his news conferences, they were not filmed live and transcripts had to be cleared by the White House press office. President John F. Kennedy in 1961 was the first to agree to live television coverage of his news conferences, and it was considered a tremendous gamble at the time.

The fear was always that a president might misspeak in public and cause some international crisis. Now it seems you can hardly keep presidents off the tube, whether in Washington or in Peoria, and the country is hardly the worse for it.

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