I was on the receiving end the other day of a harangue from Rahm Emanuel,
a top aide in the Clinton White House,
who is not impressed by the news media's coverage of President Bush.
"The Washington press corps has become like little puppy dogs,"
"You scratch them on the tummy and they roll right over."
His complaint had a note of self-pity -- How come you never gave us
a break? -- that was characteristic of the Clintonites.
But Emanuel was expressing a view I hear these days in virtually every conversation with any Democrat.
Are the national news media soft on Bush? The instinctive response of
any reporter is to deny it. But my rebuttals lately
have been wobbly. The truth is, this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge
uproars if they had occurred under Clinton. Take it from someone who made a living writing about those uproars.
The difference is not in journalists' attitudes toward Bush or their
willingness to report aggressively on him.
It is that nearly all the political and institutional forces that constitute Washington writ large have aligned to
make Bush's life more pleasant than Clinton's ever was, even at the start of his presidency.
There are many small reasons: Republicans and Democrats alike seem exhausted
from the negativity and scandal
of the Clinton era. The Bush team is mostly competent and well-focused, so it has given adversaries fewer handles to grab.
And even his opponents seem to think the new president is a likable enough fellow.
Above all, however, there is one big reason for Bush's easy ride: There
is no well-coordinated corps of aggrieved
and methodical people who start each day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president.
There was just such a gang ready for Clinton in 1993. Conservative interest
groups, commentators and congressional
investigators waged a remorseless campaign that they hoped would make life miserable for Clinton and vault themselves
to power. They succeeded in many ways. One of the most important was their ability to take all manner of presidential
miscues, misjudgments or controversial decisions and exploit them for maximum effect. Stories like the travel office firings
flamed for weeks instead of receding into yesterday's news. And they colored the prism through which many Americans,
not just conservative ideologues, viewed Clinton.
It is Bush's good fortune that the liberal equivalent of this conservative
coterie does not exist. Take the recent emergency
landing of a U.S. surveillance plane in China. Imagine how conservatives would have reacted had Clinton insisted that
detained military personnel were not actually hostages, and then cut a deal to get the people (but not the plane) home
by offering two "very sorrys" to the Chinese, while also saying that he had not apologized.
What is being hailed as Bush's shrewd diplomacy would have been savaged as "Slick Willie" contortions.
Try to recall this major news story during Clinton's first 100 days:
Under pressure from Western senators, the president
capitulated on a minor part of his 1993 budget deal, grazing fees on ranchers using federal lands. A barrage of coverage
had an unmistakable subtext: Clinton was weak and excessively political and caved to special interests. Bush has made
numerous similar concessions on items far more central to the agenda he campaigned on, such as deemphasizing vouchers
in his education plan and conceding that his tax cut will be some $350 billion smaller than he proposed.
For the most part these repositionings are being cast as shrewd rather than servile.
Do you suppose there would have been an uproar under Clinton if Democrats
had been rewarding donors with special
closed-door briefings by Cabinet secretaries? The New York Times reported the other day that GOP donors received just
such a briefing with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson as thanks for their efforts. Far from an uproar,
the story has had only a faint echo. Clinton's "donor maintenance" coffees led to a year of congressional inquiries.
Bush and aides boast that the days of an obsessively political White
House ended with Clinton. Thomas B. Edsall,
my Post colleague, wrote in a story last month that generated little comment that Bush political advisers are conferring
regularly with Catholic leaders in anticipation of the 2004 election. That revelation under Clinton would have prompted
waves of coverage about a president addicted to the permanent campaign.
What's going on here? It is not that reporters have been charmed by
Bush. It is not that Democrats are nicer, more decent
people than Republicans. The difference is that the GOP conservatives' zeal to undermine Clinton -- and the techniques they
used to do it -- flowed from special historical circumstances. For a generation before Clinton, conservatives believed they would never get a fair shake from the establishment news media -- "an effete corps of impudent snobs," in Spiro Agnew's words.
One response of the conservatives was to create new voices of their
own: think tanks, columnists, magazines, radio programs.
These voices tended to be in concert. The sense of grievance and insurgency that fueled the modern conservative movement
makes these activists more likely to network and promote a common message. This can be a powerful asset in political and policy
wars. Recall how conservative writer Bill Kristol, with a series of memos distributed widely on the right, successfully challenged a
key premise of the Clinton health care debate. We need to stop using the word "crisis," since this only helps Clinton, Kristol
enjoined his fellow travelers.
Conservatives became skilled in using the same news media they reviled.
In the early days -- well before Clinton's Whitewater
and sexual controversies reached full flower -- every misstep was pounded by the opposition and turned into a major event. The
storms of that first year whirred by in an indistinguishable blur: Zoe Baird, Waco, the Christophe haircut, the travel office, Somalia.
From the vantage point of the right, there were no small stories, only big ones; no complicated explanations, only ones that
illustrated Clinton's incompetence or venality. Bush's missteps -- contradictory statements about whether the White House was
closing the offices of women and AIDS, for instance -- are not being flogged as metaphors for his presidency.
Reporters and editors do not work like commentators. There are no newsroom
deliberations about how "soft" or "mean" to be on a
president. And we aim to make our own judgments about what's important, rather than respond in Pavlovian fashion to whatever
ideologues or interest groups are inveighing about. But there's no denying that we give more coverage to stories when someone is
shouting. For example, the toughest coverage Bush has gotten has been over decisions to suspend environmental rules issued by
Clinton, which infuriated liberals.
For the most part, Clinton's foes and their contemptuous views of him
were within the bounds of fair debate. But Democrats
are not likely to give as good as they got. They simply aren't as well organized. And they are not shouting as loudly.
Few liberal commentators see themselves self-consciously representing
an ideological movement the way many conservatives do.
The Brookings Institution tilts liberal but is not an ideological arsenal in the way the Heritage Foundation is. Who is the liberal
version of Rush Limbaugh, who so colorfully rallied opposition to Clinton? Nor is there an obvious Democratic version of Rep.
Dan Burton (R-Ind.), eager to aim the investigative apparatus of Congress at the White House. Bush is also catching a break
from his own side: Clinton's nomination of a gay man as ambassador to Luxembourg caused outrage on the right; Bush's
naming a gay AIDS czar was met largely with silence on Capitol Hill.
In Clinton's first term, Rep. Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) turned to Democrats
and said, "Your president is just not that
important to us." This underscores the irony that Bush, whose ascension was clouded by questions over whether he
really won, has been accorded more legitimacy by the opposition than Clinton was -- or than Gore would have had
he become president while losing the popular vote.
It also illustrates how Bush and his aides miss the point with their
constant boasting about how Bush has "changed the tone"
in Washington after the coarsening Clinton years. Clinton disgraced himself through his personal behavior and by then taking
flight from honor and accountability. But Washington's snarling public tone was caused more by his opponents; he was as
ready to meet with Republicans as Bush is with Democrats. Little of his rhetoric ever matched the vitriol that congressional Republicans aimed at him.
James Carville, one of the few Democrats to match conservative zeal
for combat, is frustrated by his party's timidity.
"There's a tendency not to get all gassed about things: People just don't have the energy for it now." He is even more
disdainful of the media for not reacting more aggressively to such things as Bush's discomfort at news conferences
and confusing statements on Taiwan that left aides on clean-up duty. "In the Clinton administration we worried the
president would open his zipper, and in the Bush administration, they worry the president will open his mouth," he said.
"The press finds it easier to cover sex than stupidity."
Bush is not stupid, but Carville's larger point has some truth to it.
Clinton's personal tale was so consuming that, over time,
covering him became as much about soap opera as about policy. The Washington press corps collectively may have fallen
a bit out of shape at the hard work of examining, exposing, and critiquing public officials as they go about making the
decisions that affect national life.
The Bush White House makes this task more difficult by being especially
disciplined in talking to the news media.
Over time, however, it is not possible to control a public message as tightly as Bush believes he can. Good for this
White House in avoiding the worst stumbles of the early Clinton administration; good for Washington in giving a
new president a break at the start. And those people eager to see this president face scrutiny can rest assured:
The opposition is sure to awaken.
John Harris writes about national politics for The Post and covered
the Clinton White House for six years.