While Reagan slept, so did media

Press overlooked flaws of the 'Teflon president' but goes hard on Clinton

February 07, 1999|By Jeff Cohen

THE NATIONAL press corps, inflamed by President Clinton's personal failings, has howled like a wolf pack at the White House for more than a year.

Things were a bit different during the Reagan era.

In her new book, "Reporting Live," former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl writes that she and other reporters suspected that Reagan was "sinking into senility" years before he left office. She writes that White House aides "covered up his condition" -- and journalists chose not to pursue it.

Stahl describes a particularly unsettling encounter with Reagan in the summer of 1986: her "final meeting" with the president, typically a chance to ask a few parting questions for a "going-away story." But White House press secretary Larry Speakes made her promise not to ask anything.

Although she'd covered Reagan for years, the glazed-eyed and fogged-up president "didn't seem to know who I was," writes Stahl. For several moments, as she talked to him in the Oval Office, a vacant Reagan barely seemed to realize that anyone else was in the room. Meanwhile, Speakes was literally shouting instructions to the president, reminding him to give Stahl White House souvenirs.

Panicking at the thought of having to report on the night's news that "the president of the United States is a doddering space cadet," Stahl was relieved that Reagan soon re-emerged into alertness, recognized her and chattered coherently with her husband, a screenwriter. "I had come that close to reporting that Reagan was senile," writes Stahl.

She wasn't the only reporter to hold back. Nor were her bosses at CBS the only ones to pressure journalists to soften their coverage of Reagan, both of his policies and his personal life.

But that was back then. Beginning 13 months ago, the president's personal sexual predilections became the country's top news story; 13 years ago, a matter as important to the public as the president's mental competence was deemed off limits.

The nation's press corps spent years either ignoring the issue or euphemizing it as "inattentiveness," "the age issue" or a lax "management style."

Some Americans might not remember the era when Teflon news coverage was afforded to a president who fell asleep at White House meetings and didn't recognize members of his Cabinet. Untethered by cue cards or a TelePrompter, he could ramble off into dark fogs of gibberish.

Today's media are quick to note that Clinton avoids news conferences for fear of having to answer questions about l'affaire Monica. Reagan broke records for the fewest news conferences. And for obvious reasons. In October 1987, at his first press conference in seven months, here's how President Reagan answered a question about whether taxes should be increased:

"The problem is the deficit is -- or should I say -- wait a minute, the spending, I should say, of gross national product, forgive me -- the spending, I should say, of gross national product, forgive me -- the spending is roughly 23 to 24 percent. So that it is in -- it what is increasing while the revenues are staying proportionately the same and what would be the proper amount they should, that we should be taking from the private sector."

That answer was no less coherent than his repeatedly befuddled responses: "The poverty rate has begun to decline, but it is still going up." Or his rousing "I'm all confused now" summation during the 1984 debate with Walter Mondale in Louisville, Ky.

At a disjointed 30-minute news conference in June 1986, the president served up consistently muddled answers (aides had to immediately "clarify" several of their boss' claims), but no reporter present was willing to ask publicly what was wrong. None was willing to say that the president had no clothes.

A top White House official privately marveled to the Los Angeles Times about "how easy the press was on [Reagan]," and said that reporters treat Reagan "almost reverentially."

This view of a tame, almost reverential press corps was shared by others in Reagan's public-relations team -- notwithstanding their often disingenuous complaints at the time about liberal bias. In "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency," author Mark Hertsgaard quotes Reagan communications director David Gergen as saying, "A lot of Teflon came from the press. They didn't want to go after him that toughly."

Today, such loopy public performances by a president might prompt nightly "White House in Crisis" specials on national television. Back then, establishment news outlets were in the habit of burying embarrassing personal facts about Reagan in stories adorned by misleading, cheery headlines.

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