the political press rolling over for George W. Bush? Democrats certainly
think so, or at least they think their
buddies ought to be worried about the appearance of pro-Bush bias.
"The Washington press corps has become like little puppy dogs,"
Clinton spin specialist Rahm Emanuel says. "You scratch them on
the tummy and they roll right over."
The Emanuel view was championed in a front-page piece in the Sunday
"Outlook" section, where Washington Post reporter John F.
Harris drew a tempest of conservative criticism by comparing Bush
II to Bill Clinton and suggesting Clinton had it oh, so much worse.
This, to any conservative who followed the Clinton years, is an
assertion to be greeted first with a laugh track, and then perhaps
later, a rebuttal.
There are two types of media analysis in Washington. The rare kind
immerses itself in the actual content of media coverage, collects
data and quotes over a long period of time, and then lays trends
out on the table, like the media's stubborn, long-standing refusal
to acknowledge that the scientific debate over global warming has
more than one side. That's measurable.
The second, everyday kind is demonstrated by Harris's Post
piece, filled with vague impressions and jumping to conclusions.
This reductionist school says: Bush 100-day polls are good, so reporters
must be puppy dogs with tickled tummies. But Harris, who admits
his article was spurred by a Rahm Emanuel phone call and then later
supported by the media theories of James Carville, reveals that
he is a mythmaker, not a media analyst. The myth is Clinton's long-standing
contention that no president in history had a tougher press than
he did, which is utterly ahistorical and unfounded. Everyday reductionist
media analysis suggests Clinton was impeached, so his press must
have been really bad.
But Harris isn't really writing about the press here. He's writing
about how forces outside the liberal media ruined Clinton's legacy:
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.
Notice Harris doesn't say the press made Clinton miserable. He's
implying that without conservatives, Clinton would have had it easy.
Harris's article only hints at being right on one count: left out
by liberal bias, conservatives created their own alternative to
the media-Democrat complex, from the rise of nationally syndicated
talk radio spurred by Rush Limbaugh, to the advent of the Internet
and the Drudge Report, from dogged investigative groups from Judicial
Watch to the Landmark Legal Foundation to thoroughgoing print analysis
by the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal editorial
page, and conservative opinion journals.
But Harris would be dead wrong to imply that the media was responsive
to these outlets, instead of deriding them as "Clinton haters" and
poring over their IRS forms and ridiculing their second marriages
and decrying their information as Internet gossip. The liberal media
only ultimately acknowledged the evidence of the conservative media
through a third party: official Washington, represented by federal
courts, independent counsels, the Department of Justice, and congressional
investigating committees. Some of those officials think Kenneth
Starr and Dan Burton were also pounded by the press as out-of-control
zealots. None of these factors kicked in during Clinton's first
year in office, which didn't have any ethical headaches to worry
about until late December, when the Troopergate stories and Jerry
Seper's stories on the office shenanigans after Vince Foster's death
pushed bimbo-phobic reporters into Whitewater.
Harris could have explained that some institutional arrangements
are different for Bush than for Clinton, most obviously, the decline
and fall of the independent counsel statute. Congressional investigations
didn't go very far until the Republicans won the majority. But Harris
would not explore the possibility that Bush may simply be less corrupt
Harris charged that Bush "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."
Harris has no list of the things Clinton did "with relative impunity,"
like rummage through FBI files, hand away missile secrets to his
Chinese campaign contributors, completely disassociate himself from
his business partners being convicted of multiple felonies, and
even possibly, get away from a rape charge.
But by far, Harris's most ridiculous argument is that Clinton may
have "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
But in an essay in the book
The Postmodern Presidency: Bill Clinton's Legacy in U.S. Politics,
the same John F. Harris explained how the Clinton White House pulled
off one of its biggest exercises in vitriol, blaming the Republicans
for the Oklahoma City bombing. While Clinton aides "indignantly
denounced cynical reporters" for suggesting political gain, Harris
recalled, when Dick Morris laid out his agendas from weekly political
meetings, "I saw how the strategy was laid out coldly just a week
after the tragedy: 'Temporary gain: boost in ratings,' read the
agenda for a meeting on the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.
'Permanent possible gain: sets up Extremist Issue vs. Republicans.'"
Harris concluded: "It makes one wonder about Clinton's admonition
that the public would be taken aback by the idealism of politics,
if only people had a chance to sit in on the meetings."
Harris's piece asserting a pro-Bush press is long on allegation,
but very short on documentation. It's the sort of piece which can
be dismissed with "bias is in the eye of the beholder." Only systematic
media analysis tends to crack that argument. Outside the bitter
White House bunker, where even pom-pom waving Margaret Carlson said
she was not trusted, the reality was the press in the Clinton years
was instinctively supportive and often apathetic. With those phone
calls coming from Rahm Emanuel and James Carville, reporters like
Harris preferred to ignore conservative charges against Clinton
except to note the "unusually virulent hatred" that came with them.