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Dire Judgments on Clinton Started Just Days Into Term : Media: Competition among analysts and President's risky agenda played roles in drumbeat of early criticism.

COVERING CLINTON. Did Media Rush to Judgement or Merely Reflect Reality? Second of three parts


Twelve days after President Clinton took office--with only 1,448 days left in his term--Sam Donaldson of ABC News was on a weekend talk show, saying, "This week we can talk about, 'Is the presidency over?' "

That same day, a Page 1 story in the Los Angeles Times warned, "The President must tighten his grip or risk disaster."

Later that week, a Page 1 story in the New York Times said, "The President desperately needs a victory, as soon as possible."

Desperation and disaster in the first two weeks of a four-year term? Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, has seen a lot of harsh media criticism of Presidents in her 28 years in Washington journalism, but never, she says, has she seen an administration "pronounced dead" so early.

A burgeoning cottage industry in analysis and opinion-mongering, especially on TV talk shows, spurred this new phenomenon, as did Clinton's own large ambitions. Although there is substantial evidence that the public thought Clinton deserved more time to prove himself, the widespread predictions of a doomed presidency continued for several months.

Each time the President's deficit-reduction package went before Congress, the pundits warned that its defeat would destroy Clinton.

On the night in late May that the House was to vote on the original deficit-reduction plan, Roger Mudd of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" asked longtime Washington columnist Elizabeth Drew, "What is riding on the vote this evening?"

"Nothing less than the Clinton presidency," she replied.

"Really?" Mudd asked.

"I don't deal in overstatement," she said.

Of course not.

Amid flaps over Clinton's "$200 haircut," the firing of the White House travel office staff, the now-you-see-them, now-you-don't high-level appointments and the assorted policy reversals and defeats--forecasts of Clinton's imminent political demise intensified.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Albert Hunt, then Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, said "I'm not sure he's going to recover from the problems of his presidency." Time magazine published a tiny photo of Clinton on its cover, beneath the large-type words "The Incredible Shrinking President." Inside the magazine, a reporter with presumably psychic powers wrote that Clinton "saw his presidency pass before his eyes" when his chief of staff told him two Democratic congressmen had decided to vote against his deficit-reduction plan.

Clinton had suffered several setbacks, some of them quite serious, but wasn't this rush to judgment premature? Didn't it amount to "infanticide," asked Marvin Kalb, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources." Wasn't Clinton entitled to a few mistakes while learning a new and dauntingly complex job?

After all, Clinton was not the only national leader who was stumbling. In Italy and Japan, scandal rocked governments and swept heads of state from office. In France, the Socialist Party of President Francois Mitterand was badly beaten at the polls. In Canada, Brian Mulroney stepped down as prime minister. In Germany and Great Britain, opinion surveys showed all-time low ratings for the heads of state.

"We are witnessing a crisis of representative democracy," Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, told the Wall Street Journal in early July.

That's one reason that many journalists were uncomfortable with their colleagues' determined haste to give Clinton his last rites. They didn't want to praise Clinton, but they didn't want to bury him yet either. They wanted a little context, a little perspective.

Robert Kaiser, managing editor of the Washington Post, had that in mind when he decided to change the headline on the lead story in the Post's widely read Style section between editions May 27.

The first-edition headline said, "Just Another Failed Presidency? If History Is a Guide, Clinton May Be a Lame Duck Already."

Kaiser thought that judgment a bit premature, and he worried that it "sounded too much like political analysis" for a Style story. He wanted something "more flip," more like the story itself, which he thought was "quite good."

The new headline: "Another Failed Presidency, Already? Sure, It's Early. But What's That Sound of No Hands Clapping?"

Reporters on the Post's national staff "hated" the story, Kaiser says. Even with the changed language, White House correspondent Ann Devroy says she was "freaked" by the headline.

"I thought it was terrible," she says. "It is just wrong . . . ridiculous."

Others in the media use exactly the same word-- ridiculous-- to describe their colleagues' terminal diagnoses of the Clinton presidency.

Paul Richter, White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, says the new Administration's many stumbles did "raise doubts about the guy, and I think it was legitimate to explore all that and to comment on that, (but) we way overshot in doing that.

"Even the most bitter Republican foes would say, 'I really don't like what he's doing . . . but, Jesus, the guy just got there; he's barely unpacked his bag.' "

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