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Full-Court Press on Budget Traps Regional Media : Politics: The White House shows a willingness to talk to almost any news outlet in its effort to push the President's program.

August 05, 1993|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

Washington — When the White House faxed an invitation to Tony King at country music station KRMD in Shreveport, La., King tossed it into the trash and thought that would be that.

He couldn't have been more wrong. A few days later, the KRMD news director found himself in the slightly musty elegance of the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, listening to a succession of Administration heavyweights telling him why Louisiana desperately needs the President's economic plan.

Washington was in the throes of its final budget debate and the White House had rounded up radio news directors, local television talent and newspaper editorial writers from all corners of the bayou state for a "Louisiana Day" press offensive. The Administration needed to get out the word to undecided lawmakers, so King-who ordinarily might have difficulty getting the White House to return his calls-got treatment usually reserved for senators and foreign potentates.

In succession, he met with Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman, Chief of Staff Thomas F. (Mack) McLarty, presidential adviser David Gergen and White House political aide James Carville. And even President Clinton, himself-for a full 20 minutes.


The event was one of a series of such days designed by the White House to drive home its economic gospel to states whose senators are considered swing votes when the Senate votes on the economic plan Friday. In recent weeks Clinton and top Cabinet and White House officials have spent dozens of hours gabbing with regional reporters-in person, on the phone, through satellite hookups.

The goal is to blanket the targeted areas and the assumption is that reporters who do not regularly cover the White House might be more likely to convey the Administration's message without what it perceives as unfavorable interpretation.

King showed up nattily dressed, in an outfit complete with floral suspenders, and clutching a camera. He made good use of it, snapping pictures of Bentsen and himself at the podium. And he joked that if he couldn't get a shot of himself with the President he would pay $4 to be shot with a cardboard cut-out of Clinton on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

"It was a treat," said King, who, as his station's sole journalist, writes all its news copy about politics, traffic accidents, farm developments and everything else. He jokes that he even "cleans out the bathroom."

Naturally, the White House was more than obliging with Louisiana TV stations as well. Louisiana TV film crews dotted the North Lawn, doing station promotions, stand-ups and live interviews with important personages.

The two dozen-odd Louisianans who showed up were somewhat bewildered by the intensity of the White House pressure on them to attend. King said that he was told, essentially: "We won't take no for an answer." Other news organizations said that they were bombarded with calls.

Frank May, editorial page editor for the Shreveport Times, heard the same pitch-after the White House had pressured him Friday to take part in a conference call with Laura D'Andrea Tyson, who chairs the President's Council of Economic Advisers. As May recounts it, his phone rang and a voice from the White House asked for one of his fellow editorial writers. When told the other writer was not present, the caller responded: "You'll do." So he heard Tyson talk about the plan's benefits for his state.

The paper does not always get such a response from Washington. It has been trying to arrange an interview with Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, so far without success.

Still, the main question on the minds of the Louisianans was why the White House had devoted such attention to them-there no longer was any doubt how Louisiana lawmakers would vote on the budget plan.


When the White House began laying plans for the day last week, it was unclear how two Democrats, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston and Rep. W.J. (Billy) Tauzin, would cast their votes. Since then, the lawmakers have made it clear that they will vote against the measure, as did Rep. Cleo Fields, whose district is strongly Democratic but includes energy interests unhappy with the Administration's planned gasoline tax.

White House officials acknowledged that the session was scheduled before the vote line-up was clear. But they said that they needed to get out their message to help support those who have backed the plan-notably, Sen. John B. Breaux, a one-time fence-sitter.

And, said White House political director Joan Baggett: "There's always a chance of conversion."

May and King agreed that the briefings were a little contrived, repetitious and essentially unsurprising. "They weren't kidding anyone, and they knew they weren't kidding anyone," said May.

King, for one, seemed to have no regrets-except, perhaps, that he had not driven a harder bargain before succumbing to the White House pressure to show up.

"I should have made them send Air Force One," he said.

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