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Overeager Press Misled by Clinton's Decision Style : Media: Journalists feel betrayed when they report 'news' that is only a meandering step before he really decides.

COVERING CLINTON: Did Media Rush to Judgment or Merely Reflect Reality? Last in a three-part series

September 17, 1993|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Politicians and journalists often speak of a presidential candidate's "coattails"--the ability to carry many of the party's other candidates to victory. But a new President's coattails also carry many reporters with him--straight to the White House.

Media executives often give their prestigious White House beat to reporters who covered the winning presidential candidate's campaign; editors figure that they should take advantage of the access and insights their reporters gathered during long, expensive months on the campaign trail.

In Bill Clinton's case, this campaign experience has proved especially valuable, in large measure because of the new President's quixotic decision-making process and the insights that reporters accustomed to that process can bring to covering him.

"I predicted six months (before it happened) . . . that he was going to do what he did . . . on gays in the military," says Gwen Ifill, who covered the Clinton campaign and is a White House correspondent for the New York Times. "He never intended it to be the subject on which his entire Administration turned. . . . It's not that he doesn't in his heart believe in this cause . . . it's that he's a political animal. . . . It was a perfect Clintonian compromise."

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum of the Wall Street Journal, who has also covered the Clinton campaign and the White House, says: "You almost have to come up with a new language to describe how he operates."

Decision-making is an excruciating process for Clinton, and he almost invariably seems determined to delay a final decision for as long as possible. He likes to ponder publicly all his options, consult people, make a decision, consult anew, change his mind, then change it again. And again. He's a veritable symphony of equivocation.

"This has led to a perception of weakness and indecisiveness," says Andrea Mitchell, White House correspondent for NBC News.

To avoid giving that impression unfairly, Mitchell says, "we reporters have a certain obligation to be more careful covering this President than his predecessors."

In the Reagan White House, Mitchell says, when the President's top three staff people said something was going to happen, reporters could rely on it because "that's what they were going to dictate to him." But with Clinton, the three top staff members could tell a reporter something and it could still be wrong because Clinton makes up his own mind and he could change it several times after telling them what he was "definitely" going to do.

Once, when he was governor of Arkansas, Clinton had trouble making up his mind whether to veto a college aid bill that had been passed by the Legislature. He went back and forth for the full five days he was allotted, then late on the fifth day, vetoed it and directed an aide to slip it under the door of the House clerk's office.

Then, as the New York Times later reported, he telephoned Arkansas college presidents to tell them what he had done--and they persuaded him to change his mind.

A trooper in his security detail went back to the clerk's office, poked a coat hanger under the door and pulled the bill back out so Clinton could change his "Disapproved" to "Approved."

Reporters unfamiliar with this decision-making process, relying on aides who hear Clinton at any point in his meandering intellectual stroll toward a decision, think they know what he is going to do, so they print or broadcast it. Then they feel betrayed--and they accuse him of waffling--when he does something completely different.

That is as good an explanation as any for what happened with Clinton's selection of Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the U.S. Supreme Court after the names of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and federal Judge Stephen G. Breyer had been bruited about as near-certain nominees.

"You didn't have to be a genius to get a (White House) source to talk to you about . . . Breyer," Mitchell says.

The sources talked. The media quoted them. And the sources and the media were all wrong. So the media accused Clinton of "wavering" and "vacillating" and "zigzagging"--and of "hanging Babbitt and Breyer out to dry."

The Journal's Birnbaum says he "wasn't quite prepared for the personal disappointment" he felt when Clinton picked Ginsburg instead of Babbitt or Breyer.

Birnbaum says he was not disappointed because he favored any candidate--he didn't--but because "you think . . . that there was decision, that it was done, and then it's completely undone, seemingly whimsically."

Birnbaum, a respected reporter who has written a number of insightful stories about Clinton, says he tried to keep his disappointment from coloring his Ginsburg coverage, but the second paragraph of the Journal's story on the appointment, of which Birnbaum was the co-author, began: "After weeks of vacillation and highly public contemplation of other candidates, Mr. Clinton. . . ."

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