The Mood Swings of the Clinton Watchers

December 07, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- Does President Clinton stand his ground or is he a waffler? Where you stand may depend on what you read.

A good example is offered by last week's coverage of his attempts to clarify the significance of his recent visit with Salman Rushdie. Much of the Islamic world was outraged that President Clinton, unlike President Bush, had met with the writer, who has been hiding since 1989 from an Islamic death threat.

Three newspapers widely read in Washington gave the story page-one attention, including Mr. Clinton's reaffirmation of his stand for free speech and Mr. Rushdie's rights, while he and his aides also tried to play down the significance of the Rushdie meeting. It was too short to be really called a meeting, they said, despite the author's calling it a major event.

Newspapers gave noticeably different spin to their stories. The New York Times story (headlined '' 'No Disrespect' Meant to Islam, President Says'') made the president sound apologetic and waffling.

It went on to make this remarkable statement: ''By seeking today to emphasize the brief duration of the exchange, Mr. Clinton also seemed to display a similar hope to have it both ways.'' The remark is remarkable because it is unattributed. The Times is quoting itself.

Not to be outdone, the Times' editorialists weighed in the next day with a lead editorial, snidely headlined, ''Hold the Waffles, Please.'' It accused the president of vacillating needlessly in his support for Mr. Rushdie and free speech.

Not that President Clinton has reversed his support for either Mr. Rushdie or free speech. In fact, he flatly reaffirmed both. The waffling here is in the eye of the beholder.

The Washington Post's story (''Clinton Defends His Meeting With Rushdie'') described the president as firmly, almost defiantly standing his ground ''over the objections of some advisers'' so he could ''underscore the importance of free speech.''

The Los Angeles Times (''Clinton Tries to Calm Furor on Rushdie's Visit'') took a middle ground, quoting the president as denying any intention to offend Muslims, but also reaffirming ''our commitment to protecting the physical well-being and the right to speak of those with whom we may intensely disagree.''

I offer these examples to show how good newspapers can do a fine job of covering facts, yet come back with quite different versions of the truth.

Even when we attempt objectivity, we in the media tend to operate much like the proverbial five blind men trying to describe the whole elephant after feeling only a small part of it. Our lens is more often a prism.

All of which helps me to understand what Mr. Clinton was driving at in his recent jeremiad against the press in an interview with Rolling Stone:

''But, that is the press' fault, too, dammit,'' he exploded in response to the suggestion by interviewer William Greider that some of his supporters were disappointed that the president had shown too little backbone on important issues.

''I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president has in 20 years, with the possible exception of Reagan's first budget, and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press, and I am sick and tired of it, and you can put that in the damn article.''

It is significant that the president chose to single out the ''knee-jerk liberal press,'' as if he was bothered not a bit by Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal's editorial writers or other knee-jerk conservative media. It always hurts more to be criticized by those you expect to be your natural allies.

Whatever his motives, his remarks have touched off in the quiet days of the holiday season another of what tend to be periodic rounds of media soul-searching. We did it when George Bush urged voters to ''annoy the media'' by voting for him. We went through it again when a fuming Bill Clinton dressed down ABC-TV's Brit Hume for caring more about ''process'' than substance. (Maybe so, but process shapes policy.)

All politicians complain about their press, but the Clinton press has been marked by notably radical mood swings, from the extremes of last spring's ''Incredible Shrinking Presidency,'' as Time's cover put it, to the other extreme of savvy, arm-twisting, legislative skills worthy of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Sometimes the mood swings occur on the same day, as the different interpretations of the Rushdie statement indicate. It is hard for Mr. Clinton to present a focused presidency to the world when the media view him through more of a prism than a lens, but he appears to be learning the job by doing it.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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