Enter your email to join
Ken Auletta's KattaList today!

Hosted By Topica
hosted by TOPICA
: : Article

annals of communications
The New Yorker - November 18, 1996

inside story

Why did both candidates despise the press?

by ken auletta

When the 1996 Presidential race ended--when the last bridge to the twenty-first century had been proposed and the last "He's a liberal, he's a liberal" had been uttered--the press called it an awful, dispiriting campaign. President Clinton and Bob Dole, many wrote, were negative and cynical and had become slaves to the latest poll.

From behind the lines of the two campaigns, the press was viewed in similarly unflattering terms. Michael McCurry, the White House press secretary, and John Buckley, Dole's communications director, saw the press as negative and cynical and infatuated with poll numbers. They regarded the press as one adversary in a daily three-front war.

In battling each other, McCurry and Buckley used the traditional weapons of a modern campaign, such as sneak attacks. Against the press, they relied more on seduction, employing humor, fact sheets, gentle rebukes, charm, hot food, cold beer, access. But even as Buckley and McCurry tried to cajole the press they found themselves caught up in a third struggle--with the candidates themselves. Among the things that Dole and Clinton have in common is a deep loathing for the press, a tendency to generalize about "them," and this created special problems for Buckley and McCurry.

Clinton "likes Mike personally, but he treats him as a necessary evil," a senior White House aide confided recently. "He sees him as an agent of the press. He lectures him about sticking up for the press." Whenever Dole granted an interview and it came off poorly, he blamed Buckley and his staff for encouraging him to do it. In the final weeks of the campaign, Dole could not contain his hatred of the media. Pushing aside texts prepared by his staff, he ad-libbed attacks on "the elite liberal press," especially the New York Times.

During the past two months, McCurry and Buckley spoke to me about the frustrations they experienced in their jobs and about the men who employed them. Although McCurry, unlike Buckley, was confident of victory in a campaign that lacked suspense from start to finish, there were few moments of joy for either man.

THROUGHOUT the campaign, McCurry worried less about Dole than about what he called "an atom bomb"--perhaps a Whitewater-related explosion or a press storm over some new character issue that would cause a majority of voters, who had already told pollsters that they didn't trust Clinton, to take the next step and decide not to vote for him.

Clinton's strategy was to float above the fray by "being Presidential and campaigning as President," said Donald Baer, a former lawyer, reporter, and editor with U.S. News & World Report, who is now the White House communications director. No more jogging in shorts, and no more pit stops at McDonald's.

"One of the lessons we learned is that even when the message was strained through the filter of skeptical press coverage, the public heard it," Baer said. "What we learned was the corollary of Michael Deaver's old rule that all that mattered was the picture, and you could turn down the sound. We realized that you had to turn up the sound. Deaver was wrong. The substance mattered. If the headline was 'CLINTON PANDERS ON EDUCATION,' the public heard 'CLINTON SUPPORTS COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIPS.' "

In this campaign, Clinton displayed a restraint that he had not shown before. It no doubt helped, White House aides say, that Ann Devroy, of the Washington Post--the most aggressive, the most feared, and possibly the best White House reporter--was seriously ill and on the sidelines throughout the campaign. Although Clinton himself made few overtures, his fractious relations with the White House press corps improved.

Meanwhile, the Dole campaign often scheduled--and then cancelled--interviews with the local press. Dole complained that his message was not getting out, but he repeatedly turned down chances for press coverage. Although Dole's camp, like Clinton's, believed that the three network nightly newscasts were the most important medium, reaching thirty-two million viewers each day, in September Dole or his staff spurned every offer that Jeff Zucker, the executive producer of NBC's "Today" show and the network's political producer for the campaign, made to have Dole appear on an NBC news program. "It says something about a campaign at this stage, that either the candidate's comfort level is not there or his staff is incompetent," Glenn Kessler, of Newsday, said. "His staff should be able to say, 'Do the interviews.' "

But Buckley and the Dole staff knew very well that Dole didn't want to do the interviews. He was so enraged at what he thought was the media's eagerness to catch him making a mistake that he was unwilling to risk the exposure. He was a man who, in Buckley's words, "likes to move in his own orbit." Buckley would send Dole memos suggesting interviews, with "yes" or "no" boxes next to each name. "Often they would come back with question marks," said Buckley, who grew to admire Dole but became frustrated as the question marks accumulated. In early September, Buckley told me, "There is still a candidate belief that you keep reporters far away."

By the second week in October, relations between Dole and the press had become more relaxed. The detente, pushed by Buckley, who was not close to Dole, was the result of a recommendation by Margaret Tutwiler, a senior adviser to the campaign, who had been enlisted to travel with Dole and help evaluate his press strategy. She told friends she was appalled that the campaign was not availing itself of relatively safe press opportunities: inviting local reporters onto his plane the day before he visited their city, so that he would get a story in the local media the day he arrived; hooking up with local drive-time radio talk shows; and granting interviews to local TV anchors. She blamed inexperience for these failings.

But there was another explanation for Dole's seemingly irrational press policy, and it remained a closely held campaign secret. Dole had learned in early September that Charles Babcock, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, was pursuing a charge that in the late nineteen-sixties, when Dole was married to his first wife, he had had an affair. Babcock, it seemed, had interviewed the woman, who had confirmed the story. All at once, Dole--not Clinton--was fretting about "bimbo eruptions."

Dole and his second wife, Elizabeth, became apoplectic. In September, Mrs. Dole phoned Donald Graham, the Post's publisher; Mari Will, who is the wife of the columnist George Will and had been Dole's press secretary during the 1988 campaign, got in touch with the Post's executive editor, Leonard Downie, Jr. Both women urged the newspaper to respect Dole's privacy. As long as Dole was uncertain whether the Post intended to publish the story, the situation "totally froze his willingness to submit to television interviews," a senior campaign aide said. "It was like the sword of Damocles. He never knew whether the day he granted the interview would be the day the Post broke the story." Dole feared a media frenzy that would doom his candidacy. So, for much of September--and then again in late October--he erected a wall between himself and the press.

Because Dole's motivations were not known to the press or the public, the campaign often assumed baffling contours; at times, no one was more mystified than the beat reporters who were covering the candidate. Blaine Harden, who followed Dole for the Washington Post, and who has been a foreign correspondent, told me in October, "I've never been around one of these strange things before. My experience of elections is Eastern Europe and Africa, where campaigns are about what the candidates truly believe, and not these nuanced, poll-driven, photo-op things." In Croatia, he said, "Franjo Tudjman, a demagogue, holds press conferences. There are open questions from the foreign press: 'Are you a dictator? Why are you subverting the Constitution?' The last Dole press conference"--other than the one at which he announced his retirement from the Senate--"was in the Florida primary, in March."

MIKE MCCURRY and John Buckley, adversaries in the Presidential campaign, were, as it happened, also friends. They had got acquainted in the late eighties, when each was the spokesman for his party organization, and during the early nineties they had become better acquainted at the Washington public-relations firm then known as Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery. Each was a senior vice-president there, with McCurry concentrating on clients like MTV, and Buckley on clients like I.B.M. "I helped recruit Mike," Buckley said.

Buckley was well known to reporters. A nephew of William F. Buckley, Jr., he was a former reporter and music critic for the counterculture SoHo Weekly News and the author of two novels. He had been deputy press secretary in Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign, press secretary to Representative Jack Kemp, and, in 1989, director of communications for the National Republican Congressional Committee. McCurry, who had worked for Democratic Presidential contenders since 1984, opposed Clinton in the 1992 primaries as press secretary for Senator Bob Kerrey, of Nebraska. He then became the State Department's official spokesman, and Clinton brought him to the White House in January of 1995--replacing Dee Dee Myers, who had replaced George Stephanopoulos. The change was dramatic, Laurence McQuillan, the Reuters White House correspondent, recalled. "When George Stephanopoulos was press secretary, we would bring complaints to him, and George would sit there chewing bubble gum and blowing bubbles, slouched in his chair," McQuillan said. "It seemed like a deliberate sign that he wanted the meeting to get over. McCurry is one hundred and eighty degrees different. He seems to enjoy reporters, and it creates a different response."

During this year's campaign, Buckley and McCurry kept up their friendship, speaking from time to time. In October, when a former college roommate revealed that Buckley had smoked marijuana as a student at Hampshire College, in the late seventies, a small media tempest ensued. McCurry, who had once confessed to smoking pot while a student at Princeton, in the mid-seventies, stood on the podium of the White House briefing room and complained that Buckley had "been done an injustice."

The two men, according to Ken Lerer, their supervisor at the public-relations firm, "have almost identical personalities"--calm and self-effacing. They are close in age: McCurry is forty-two, Buckley is thirty-nine. Each has battled the establishment wing of his party--McCurry, when he worked for Senator John Glenn, in 1984, opposed liberals like Walter Mondale, and Buckley, as a Kemp supporter, opposed traditional Republicans like George Bush. Both voted for Clinton in 1992. And among reporters who need straight answers both are unusually popular. "They've actually been a pleasure to deal with," NBC's Jeff Zucker said.

Considering that the President has had such a triumphant year, it seems odd that he (like Dole) should have felt such Nixonian rage toward reporters. Stephanopoulos, the senior adviser to Clinton, who has been by his side since 1991 and displays the same rancor, traces Clinton's hostility to the 1992 primaries, when Gennifer Flowers told a supermarket tabloid that she had had a twelve-year affair with Clinton while he was governor of Arkansas. "He's had more attention to his past and his personal life than any other public official ever, from an unflattering light, based on sources that are suspect but are treated as credible," Stephanopoulos said. "You'd be upset, too."

A more complex explanation is offered by McCurry. "His view of the press is that there is a unique political culture in Washington, defined by establishment figures in the press and figures in Washington, and those figures have never been able to accept him for what he is," McCurry said. "That is why from the minute he arrived here they tried to destroy him."

McCurry's observation evokes memories of Lyndon B. Johnson. But Clinton is by far the more sophisticated of the two, for Johnson was always sensitive about his rural background, especially when he was in the company of Ivy Leaguers. Clinton, as a Rhodes Scholar and a Yale Law School graduate, has built a network of establishment friends. Yet, according to McCurry, Clinton sees Whitewater and Gennifer Flowers and all the assaults on his character as arising from Washington's contemptuous attitude toward his Arkansas origins. "He feels he's been rejected by Washington society," McCurry said. "The press belongs to an axis that he has not been able to charm."

Perhaps because he maintained a comfortable lead over Dole throughout the campaign, Clinton kept his anger camouflaged. Dole did not. In three previous bids for national office, Dole thought that the press had caricatured him as Mean Bob. As his campaign limped into October, advisers were still livid over what they saw as reporters' anti-Republican bias. Buckley swam against this current. When he was asked whether he agreed that the press was biased, he answered, "I can't allow myself to believe it's true, because it distorts my ability to get my job done. My job is to persuade reporters of the rightness of my cause. If I go in persuaded that they are persuaded by their liberalism, I hurt my cause."

MCCURRY and Buckley are personally fond of many reporters, but they also share a sometimes savage view of the press. Both know that the press is not so much ideologically biased as simply in favor of conflict, that too often

reporters prefer a quick headline to a deeper understanding. McCurry and Buckley cite some familiar complaints: that all too often the lighter burden of proof that is acceptable among tabloid newspapers and television has become acceptable in the mainstream press as well, and that reporters are too cynical, too conspiracy-minded, and too caught up in polls and punditry, and therefore skimp on coverage of what the candidates say. Both, however, make a fresh claim: reporters and editors have allowed news to surrender to opinion.

"The hard-news lead and story has been replaced by the analytical story," McCurry said in mid-September. Because editors are aware that by morning their readers will have already learned from television and radio what the candidates did the day before, McCurry explained, they demand more "context," which can be a synonym for attitude or opinion. "My guess is that one-third to one-half of every story written about the campaign reflects some level of analysis," McCurry said. "Look at the New York Times and the Washington Post."

That same day, John Buckley, sitting in his office at Dole campaign headquarters in Washington, echoed McCurry's lament. "The margins have widened for political coverage," he said. "The way it should work is: Cover what he did, what he said, but don't lead with the context and the interpretation. I may be naive, but I believe that a Presidential candidate has the right to deliver a message."

McCurry complained about the adoption by "Ivy League and upper-income reporters" of a more cynical, and even "bratty" attitude, which leads to a more adversarial relationship. Buckley attributed the preoccupation with process, polls, and handlers to Theodore H. White's first campaign book, "The Making of the President 1960," which grafted a dramatic narrative onto campaigns. Robert Lichter, a co-director, with his wife, Linda, of the nonprofit Center for Media and Public Affairs, in Washington, traces the trend toward opinionated reporting to the 1988 Bush campaign, when the press felt that it was being manipulated by photo opportunities.

Throughout the campaign, both sides complained of press bias. In May, Buckley wrote to Joseph Lelyveld, the Times' executive editor, saying, "I think it's important to bring to your attention concerns we have about the Times' coverage of Senator Dole's candidacy. I do so with respect, and in the spirit of a ballplayer stating, early in the game, that he thinks the ump's strike zone may be a bit too narrow." The letter went on to discuss the previous day's front-page coverage of the two candidates, which he thought was skewed toward Clinton.

Lelyveld called Buckley after receiving the letter. "His response was 'We blew it,' " Buckley said. "It was totally gracious." Lelyveld invited Buckley to get in touch with him directly if he had any subsequent complaints about Times coverage. Lelyveld told me recently, "We dropped the ball that day. We had been snookered that day. We took Clinton a little too seriously and Dole not seriously enough."

Nevertheless, over the next few months, Buckley said, the Times concentrated on Dole's mishaps, leaving his speeches "virtually uncovered." The Times reported on the candidate, but, Buckley complained, "always in the context of 'How's he doing?' " And the Times, he believed, "drives the news coverage" of other reporters. He protested often, not to Lelyveld but to the Times' Washington editor, Andrew Rosenthal, and to the two principal reporters on the Dole campaign, Adam Nagourney and Katharine Q. Seelye.

Lelyveld insisted, "I'm really proud of our campaign coverage," and he defended the trend toward more contextual reporting. "We're not a headline service," he told me. "We used to spend a lot of time in hotel ballrooms covering the speeches of candidates. . . . We've converted our space to more enterprising reporting." He acknowledged that having fewer strictures posed a risk that opinion could infiltrate news columns, then added, "But the risk is under very great control. I think we're very straight." Reporters, who like to think of themselves as members of a profession, rebel against the idea that they are stenographers. Jeff Fager, the executive producer of CBS Evening News, said, "If we don't go out and report that Clinton is talking about campaign-finance reform and that the record shows he did almost nothing in his four years for campaign-finance reform, we are not doing our jobs."

THE Clinton advisers privately agreed that a majority of the reporters who cover Washington are at least moderately liberal, but they felt no less beleaguered than the Dole camp, claiming that the press had given excessive emphasis to Clinton's personal life and Whitewater and other so-called ethical lapses. "We are, I believe, held to higher standards on a range of issues than Dole," Stephanopoulos said, arguing, for example, that Clinton's fund-raising was continually placed under a microscope while Dole's was not.

Reporters write "within paradigms," the Presidential assistant Rahm Emanuel said. "Bob Dole said he took positions in the primary that he totally disagreed with. Nobody picked that up. The reason nobody picked it up is that the paradigm is that 'Bob Dole is a principled person, who only operates on principle.' Had Bill Clinton taken similar positions, I think reporters would have grabbed on to it."

It was another sort of paradigm--a belief among many reporters that the President has something to hide--that led to one of McCurry's more surreal encounters with the press, on the morning of September 12th. Dole had called for Clinton to release not just summaries of his medical exams but the complete records. And, sure enough, at a regular briefing, in Fresno, California, McCurry was asked a total of thirty-six questions about Clinton's health and only fifteen about Iraq, which the United States had just bombed and was poised to bomb again. The exchanges showed McCurry's good humor and patience, as well as his exasperation.

During the briefing, McCurry repeated that Clinton had made his doctors available to reporters and had released more detailed medical summaries than either of his two predecessors. Even Presidents, he said, deserved a zone of privacy and dignity.

"So there's nothing in any of these medical records that a normal person might consider embarrassing to the President?" one reporter asked.

"I wouldn't say that," McCurry responded, unwittingly arousing suspicion. Some tests had to be summarized by physicians, because laymen wouldn't understand the charts. And "all of us undergo tests that I'm not sure that any of us would want to have spread out and printed on the front page of the newspaper."

Reporters' imaginations ran wild. What tests? Could he characterize a test that might be embarrassing? McCurry deflected the questions, urging the reporters to "just think for a minute."

According to the White House transcript, the following exchange erupted:

Q: Does he have a sexually transmitted disease? I mean, what is--

Q: Jesus!

MR. MCCURRY: Good God, do you really want to ask that question?

Q: No, I'm just asking what is embarrassing.

Had the President demanded that his medical records be sealed? No, McCurry answered. Clinton had instructed his staff to tell reporters "what they need to know."

"But that's not the same thing, Mike," a reporter said.

"The astonishing question--did you answer that, or say that it's inappropriate to be asked?" one semi-baffled reporter asked.

"If there was anything related to a disease or health condition the President had, it would have been accurately and timely reported to you," McCurry countered.

"So you're saying that he's in perfect health and--"

"No, I did not say that," McCurry protested. He was trying to indicate that no one is in perfect health, but instead he fuelled suspicion that he was hiding something.

Again, he was asked if in the past four years Clinton had had a sexually transmitted disease. After gasping again, McCurry said, "It's obvious he has not, because that would have been reported at the time he had his annual medical exam."

Since he would have disclosed the fact if Clinton had had such a disease, a reporter persisted, "What level of privacy are you trying to protect?" What chart was he worried about releasing? None, McCurry answered. The briefing continued:

Q: Mike, you seem to be saying that even . . . taking a test for HIV, or some other sexually transmitted disease, is in and of itself embarrassing.

MR. MCCURRY: Look, I'm trying to keep some level of dignity here. I'm talking about things like rectal exams, O.K. Do you want to have all those things spread out to here? . . . You guys are really bored. It's hard to know that there is a campaign under way here.

A month later, on October 11th, McCurry was worried that the atomic blast he had dreaded might be coming. That morning, the Times carried a story by Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton exploring President Clinton's ties to James Riady, an Indonesian businessman who had known Clinton since 1977, when Riady was working as an interne at an investment bank in Little Rock. He was the son of a billionaire who founded the Lippo Group, a Hong Kong- and Jakarta-based multinational financial and real-estate empire. The Times reported that Indonesia's Ambassador had asked Riady to help "arrange a rare meeting" with the President, and that the Riadys were a source of campaign cash for Clinton. A Los Angeles Times story two weeks earlier had explained how a former Lippo executive, John Huang, who was the vice-chairman of the Democratic Party's finance committee and a recent high-ranking trade official in Clinton's Commerce Department, had illegally solicited a two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar contribution from a South Korean magnate, which was returned only after the reporter started asking questions.

October 11th, a Friday, was what McCurry called "a slow news day," which could heighten interest in the Riady story. The night before, he had prepped himself on the Riady-Clinton tie and on the Clinton Administration's attitude toward the Indonesian regime. The day the story broke, McCurry said to me, "I came to work today thinking, Will Indonesia become a frenzy and will the press decide to hang me out to dry? Sometimes the press does that just to remind us that we're hired help."

Since September, the press has reported that Huang was in hiding, that the South Korean magnate had seemingly disappeared, that Vice-President Al Gore had attended a fund-raiser in a Buddhist temple which was orchestrated by Huang. McCurry and the President's handlers tried to change the subject or confuse the issue by attacking Republicans, by producing new negative TV ads charging the Dole campaign with corruption, and by ignoring reporters' shouted questions.

The issue wounded Clinton, but it did not become what McCurry feared. "It did not go thermonuclear," he said. "It stayed conventional." This made Republicans all the more certain that there was a press double standard. "They don't put any anti-Clinton stories in the New York Times," Dole cried on October 24th, even though the Times had broken the Whitewater story and was now pursuing the

Riady connection. Polls showed that this story, like Whitewater, was not registering with the public. John Buckley knew this, but he maintained that the press treated influence-peddling in the Clinton Administration as "separate, discrete events" rather than as part of a pattern. "The press is not tying it together," he told me.

In the final weeks of the campaign, it was Dole who fretted about a major surprise. Two weeks before Election Day, he learned that the tabloid press was investigating a rumor of yet another decades-old affair. Dole began to worry, as he had worried in September, that his own character as the pro-family-values candidate was about to be shredded. He was convinced that the tabloids could put pressure on America's mainstream press to run with the story, as had happened in 1992 with Gennifer Flowers' charges. Suddenly, in mid-October, Dole once again began declining interviews, including even relatively safe appearances on "Larry King Live" and "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." And he increased his attacks on the media, imploring voters to "rise up" against them.

As it turned out, the Village Voice published parts of the story in its October 29th and November 5th issues, while the mainstream press all but ignored the allegations. Dole's assault on the press in the closing days of the campaign was decoded by a top campaign strategist: "We are really saying to the New York Times and the rest of the media, 'If you follow the National Enquirer and the Village Voice, you are out to get me.' It was a preemptive strike."

JOURNALISTS seemed to admire the efficiency of the Clinton machine even as they mistrusted it. "They feed the beast better than the Dole campaign," the New York Post correspondent Thomas Galvin observed. An army of Clinton aides regularly showered reporters with briefing materials: any time reporters joined the campaign somewhere or were expected to explain legislation signed by Clinton, they found they had the information at their fingertips. McCurry and the campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart mingled easily with reporters, conducted regular briefings, and allowed the reporters plenty of time to file their stories. By hanging around reporters, Clinton's aides learned what stories reporters were working on. McCurry liked to say, "I'm in sales, not product development."

McCurry's office made a sale on September 16th, when the White House tried to upstage Dole in announcing an anticrime effort--and largely succeeded. Television pictures that night showed the President surrounded by policemen in their blue uniforms as he was endorsed by the nation's largest police union.

On the press plane, most reporters saw one thing clearly: Clinton "was about to kick Dole's ass," as one of them put it. That afternoon, I asked Bill Plante, the CBS White House correspondent, if he felt trapped by Clinton's handlers. "For the most part, we set the agenda rather than let them set the agenda," he said. After a pause, he added, "I don't mean that to sound arrogant, but we follow what we think news is. Generally, we develop our own take on it. So I don't feel trapped."

Television coverage of the crime issue was considered "good" by the Clinton staff. A daily memorandum circulated by the campaign aide Mary L. Smith to McCurry and seventeen other senior officials reported that on the three network newscasts Clinton had received nine minutes and sixteen seconds of "good" coverage and only two minutes and fifty seconds of "bad" coverage. Many newspapers, notably the Times and the Washington Post, packaged the Clinton and Dole crime initiatives as a single story. Mike McCurry was pleased, thinking that the campaigns got a fifty-fifty split in the coverage. John Buckley, for his part, admitted that the Dole campaign had been set back by "the symbolism of the cops" endorsing Clinton and hurt by combined coverage of the two stories.

Again, one reason Dole lost this particular battle was that Clinton's team was more attuned to the media. McCurry conducted at least one daily briefing, because, he explained, "I usually take the temperature of the press to see if they're anxious." Sometimes he found the press anxious about matters that were other than weighty. On the afternoon of the anticrime announcement, for example, McCurry entered a pressroom in Cincinnati, stood on a podium, and asked for questions. There were none, which was unusual, prompting McCurry to joke, "O.K. Brain-dead." Off to the side a moment later, McCurry attributed the dearth of questions to an upcoming Clinton campaign trip. "No one wants to make today too complicated because tomorrow they start a four-day trip, and they want to get home and pack tonight," he remarked, his tone a mixture of affection and resignation.

By contrast, the press held the Dole operation in contempt. Early in his campaign, Dole had made a mistake by instituting a two-tier press system. A select group of reporters from CNN, the networks, the newsweeklies, and a handful of major newspapers were allowed to ride in the back of Dole's 727. The rest of the press corps was orphaned on another airplane--dubbed the Bullship--with no senior aides in attendance. This arrangement produced resentment. Dole's press secretary, Nelson Warfield, told me in October, "There's a lot of feeling, with justification, of inequitable treatment."

Until early October, the most senior Dole official on the separate press plane was usually Charley Cooper, who is in his twenties. Few briefings had been held on the plane and few materials distributed, and reporters moaned about not having enough time to file stories. Warfield saw it as his job to stay close to Dole, and doing so meant that he was less available to reporters.

The days of the boys on the bus--when politicians and reporters felt relaxed enough around one another to schmooze off the record--were gone. "People who are younger than I am are more intense, more serious," said the Boston Globe political reporter Curtis Wilkie, who has been covering Presidential campaigns for two decades. "They are less forgiving. They don't have a good time, and they don't allow politicians to have a good time." And an old-school politician like Bob Dole no doubt found this change of tone hard to get used to. When he was interviewed, he often meandered or got testy. Last summer, when he tried to finesse the abortion controversy within the Republican Party, his ineloquent, verb-free lingo, combined with the news-hungry press pack's eagerness to catch the candidate making a gaffe, ensnared him in further controversy. When, on June 17th, he joked to reporters on the plane that a compromise was a "piece of cake," various newspapers led their coverage with it, suggesting, as Katharine Q. Seelye wrote in the Times, that perhaps "he was making an effort to appease the abortion opponents whom he alienated last week."

Looking back on the summer, Buckley thinks that for Dole the coverage of the abortion controversy was a significant moment in the campaign. "He had an epiphany the time he went to the back of the plane," Buckley said. "It became a front-page story. The reporters on his plane were younger and had no clock ticking beyond November 5th. And they had a tendency to play Gotcha! So Dole's traditional Republican distrust of the press came out."

After that, "the curtain came down," Buckley said, unapologetically. It was the only way, he said, to escape the "tar baby" that Dole's gaffes had become--for example, his saying first that he wanted to overturn the assault-weapons ban in the Senate, then refusing to say whether as President he would do so, and shifting again by hinting that he would keep it. He had stubbornly resisted when Peter Jennings, of ABC, and then others pressed him to say whether or not he believed tobacco was addictive: he insisted that it was for some and not for others, and then he blamed "the liberal media" for trying to make him look silly.

By mid-July, Dole was no longer associating with reporters. He did not grant the traditional pre-Convention interviews to the newsweeklies, and he did not offer "exclusive" interviews to the local press on his visits around the country.

Bringing down the curtain meant that Dole's gaffes were fewer, and the press's Gotcha! game ended. But in a larger sense Dole failed because he had wasted much of the summer, doing little to combat a mind set that was developing in the press, which manifested itself in a campaign narrative that allowed reporters to portray the hapless Dole versus the Clinton juggernaut.

On July 20th, Dole permitted a peek into his own thinking in a rare interview with Blaine Harden. Explaining why he had stopped chatting with the press, Dole said, "I'd like to go back and have fun and have little cracks here and there. But they are going to be misunderstood. . . . There isn't an ounce of humor in the back of that plane. . . . I like to talk to the media. In the Senate, you can banter back and forth. Nobody takes it seriously. . . . But here when you say it somebody is going to write it. I don't know, maybe it's because they don't know me."

Dole's press secretary, Warfield, recalled, "Twice I tried to arrange for Dole to go to the back of the plane" and speak informally to reporters--an account confirmed by journalists. Twice, though, a handful of reporters objected. "Yes, we can do it off the record," a Times reporter said the second time, "unless he makes news." For the candidate, the risk exceeded the reward, even though both he and the press suffered a penalty.

The press felt imprisoned. One week this fall, as the press bus transported the Times White House correspondent Alison Mitchell from plane to filing center and on to a hotel in Chicago--another day in which she hadn't seen Clinton except on the TV monitor in the press filing center--she looked around at her colleagues on the bus and asked, "Is this an anachronism? If you can watch the guy on TV, if you can read his speeches pretty fast on the Internet, what are we here for? It's the old assassination watch. I'm not sure what we add. . . . In covering the President, I don't see anything different from what I see on TV."

MCCURRY and Buckley knew that the Presidential debates would be a critical source of information for voters, and both campaigns began planning--and even spinning--before the first words were spoken at the first debate, in Hartford, on Sunday, October 6th. On October 2nd, for example, Buckley's

8 A.M. meeting with his staff on the communications strategy for the debate outlined a detailed schedule: On Thursday, the Dole campaign would launch negative television ads "designed to set off news at the debate"; Friday, they would "engage local political reporters by announcing state debate-watching parties." Privately, Buckley said that on Saturday Dole would create news that would spill over into the debate by announcing his Cabinet choices, including Colin Powell and William Bennett. (Dole did not do this.) On the day of the debate, Buckley and his staff would be plugged into the database at the Republican National Committee, so as to be ready with an instant debate scorecard of misleading Clinton statements; they would also have a bevy of prominent Dole supporters ready to offer upbeat spin. "On Monday, we'll have the Big Mo press conference," said Buckley, describing their intention to claim total victory whether they achieved it or not.

Meanwhile, McCurry and Stephanopoulos were discussing a radical idea: "We're toying with the notion of no spin," McCurry said. He went on, "It's almost absurd what happens afterward: 'Our guy won!' " Maybe they would say nothing, and just invite reporters across the street for a beer.

In Hartford, conclusions about the first debate were in play even before Clinton and Dole took their places on the podiums. At twenty minutes before nine, the Clinton press office distributed to the hundreds of reporters gathered in the Hartford Civic Center what was labelled "Prebuttal: Dole vs. the Facts"--a six-page single-spaced memo that followed the formula "Dole might say the following, but these are the facts."

David Broder, the Washington Post veteran who has been covering campaigns for four decades, remarked that this was the first time he'd ever seen pre-debate spin. Some of the spinners seemed to hate it. Laura D'Andrea Tyson, Clinton's national economic adviser, looked bewildered by the sight of hordes of reporters, pads ready, charging at her fellow-spinners. I asked whether she was embarrassed to be in this position. "A little bit," she said.

At ten minutes past nine, Tabitha Soren, of MTV, walked up the center aisle toward a camera in the basement arena where reporters were gathered, taping a segment in which she told viewers about a debate she was not watching. She did this seventeen times, or until 9:45 P.M., before she and her producer were satisfied. At 9:50 P.M., a commotion occurred when Dole aides rushed from table to table with a single sheet of paper citing three Clinton misstatements of fact so far in the debate. Fifteen minutes before the debate ended, there was a buzz from behind the curtain leading to the rooms where the spinners were watching. Reporters swarmed behind the curtain and found the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour, and Dole's campaign manager, Scott Reed, moving forward.

"What's happening?" one reporter asked.

"They're spinning before the debate is over," another reporter answered, and notepads and microphones soon engulfed the two men. Just a few feet away, another swarm formed around the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Christopher Dodd. Buckley later credited his camp with being the first to get out fact sheets and to enter Spin Alley, while acknowledging that his opponents had more spinners and better signs. "As in so many things they do, it was a joke," he said. "A little bit crass."

Was it difficult for Buckley to smile and spin when, privately, he knew that his candidate was doomed? "This has not been a fun campaign since April," Buckley admitted. "Throughout the campaign, people felt, How do I get out of bed this morning?"

THE increasingly impersonal relations between the press and the candidates was worrisome to Buckley and McCurry, and, as the campaign wore on, McCurry was doing a lot of thinking about how to improve the often chilly relationship between the President and the press corps, in a second term. "If he gets reelected, that's the only reason I would really want to stay around here much longer--to work on that and to try and see if you could get his head in a different place about that," McCurry told me this fall, while rubbing his eyes in his White House office, halfway between the pressroom and the Oval Office. "There's an element in every President-- I know the Bushes felt that way, too. They felt that they were always being pounded."

McCurry has already suffered some wounds in this battle. When he tried to place Clinton in less formal settings with the press on Air Force One at the end of a long day in late 1995, Clinton, wearing jeans and relaxing with reporters, talked expansively about his own and his party's mistakes, and at one point he used the word "funk" to describe the anxiety of citizens regarding the economy. The next day, Clinton's philosophical musings were translated into Gotcha! headlines ("CLINTON PLANS TO LIFT PUBLIC OUT OF 'FUNK' "), and Clinton, like Dole, called a halt to such get-togethers.

For the American voter, the campaign of 1996 was oddly distant--and distancing. In its last weeks, polls dominated the coverage, yet the gap between the candidates yawned so wide that there was less press reliance than in the past on reciting poll numbers. What the polls provided was a context for coverage. Omnipresent polls also meant endless stories about the "stumbling" Dole campaign, which drowned Dole's message. Dole planned to devote the final days of September to advancing his economic plan, starting with a speech in Detroit, but that speech, and its theme, received scant press notice. Instead, the press focus was on judging Dole's performance.

In seeking a ceasefire between the media and the candidates, what would the campaign operatives like to say to the press? "I don't think I'm a credible carrier of that message," Stephanopoulos answered, laughing. But he nevertheless continued, "It's very simple--be reporters, not psychologists. Yes, we spin. Yes, like everyone else, we're not perfect. But it wouldn't hurt to give elected officials a little bit more of the benefit of the doubt. And, in return, maybe we can do the same. Maybe that's the way you deescalate the spin cycle."

Christina Martin, Dole's deputy press secretary, was both complaining and pleading when she said, in October, that what bugged her about the press was a "lack of empathy." She went on, "Members of the press always plead with us to understand their lives. Every once in a while they need to turn around and think about the candidates' lives and what they're asking. Things such as acknowledging a certain right to privacy . . . and allowing a certain degree of spontaneity in these candidates' lives--allowing them the flexibility to go home thirty minutes early without reflecting on their health or their state of mind or the condition of the campaign's health. . . . Not everything--every movement, every breath--has a deeper meaning to it."

Buckley believes that in the future reporters will continue to be quarantined, leaving them with even less understanding of the individuals they cover. If the press doesn't end the humorless "gotcha atmosphere" it's created and begin to cut the candidate "a millimetre of slack," he said, then the candidates' "only response will be to slap on a bulletproof vest and try to communicate over the heads of reporters or through them."

McCurry believes that the power of the press will inevitably decline as it becomes easier to circulate information. "There will be a decline of the old media's dominance," he said. "Things will be infinitely more complicated. We are in the twilight of the days where you can control information by giving it to a few newspapers." But such changes also mean that handlers like McCurry will lose their ability to control, say, rumors. "So," McCurry concluded, unhappily, "rumors and access to information lessen our power and lessen the power of the dominant news organizations."

As technology speeds the news cycle, press secretaries routinely brief the wire services and the radio reporters the night before, in order "to get the story moving overnight," McCurry said. "We basically don't let Presidents make announcements anymore." Or if he tells reporters in the morning what the President plans to announce at 2 P.M., that story will circulate immediately and not only go over the wires but be heard on the radio and on the all-news cable channels, leaving print and nightly news editors to think of the 2 P.M. announcement as old news.

Similarly, McCurry sometimes goes out to the briefing room to slow the news cycle, as he did to stall a rumor that Iraq had fired missiles at American planes in September, or that terrorists had blown up T.W.A. Flight 800 in July. Two enemies of good reporting--thoughtlessness and lack of time--will loom larger. "Everyone feels the pressure for shorthand, everything is about politics," the CNN White House correspondent Claire Shipman said. "That's a convenient way to avoid substance." Shipman, who has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University, was covering her first campaign. "Cynicism has been adopted as a way to be seen as fair, as a way to view both sides," she said. "In a larger sense, it's laziness. But no one on this beat is lazy. Everyone works very hard. But there is so much so quickly that there is no time."

ON Election Day, Buckley said that he couldn't imagine working on another campaign. "This is not an experience I'd chalk up as one of the happiest of my life," he told me. "It was very painful to go through a campaign where every day we had to roll a rock up another hill"--that is, try to make an impression on reporters whose frame of reference did not include candidates like Ronald Reagan, who came from behind to win the Presidency in 1980--"and every day it seemed that it rolled right back down again."

The day after the election, McCurry said that this was his last campaign as well. "This is it for me," he said. "I want to quit while I'm ahead." McCurry had one more campaign engaging him, however: his plan to bring about a truce between his client the President and his client the press. He was thrilled that Clinton had chatted with reporters on the way back from Little Rock on Air Force One last Wednesday. When Clinton was pressed about Huang and the Lippo Group and told reporters he'd like to wait until his Friday press conference to answer, the press relented, and McCurry could sense that Clinton was pleasantly surprised.

Will Clinton change his attitude about the press? "Intellectually, he knows it's the right thing to do," McCurry said. "But to do it well he has to feel it in his heart." The press secretary wasn't sure of the outcome, but he was sure that if the press remained hostile to Clinton the Republican majority in Congress would be emboldened to step up its attacks--an argument that ought to appeal to Clinton. "There's not going to be a press honeymoon," McCurry said. "But there's a brief opportunity here to reach a new relationship." (c)


© 1996-2002, Ken Auletta - all rights reserved
  headspinners facit