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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Dee Dee Myers : Press Secretary to an Administration Full of Talkers

March 20, 1994|Thomas B. Rosenstiel | Thomas B. Rosenstiel covers the media for The Times and is the author of "Strange Bedfellows: How Television and the Presidential Candidates Changed American Politics." (Hyperion Press)

WASHINGTON — When the flame began turning up on the Whitewater mess, one small artifact of the story was the disappearance of the daily press briefing for White House reporters. Since March 2, the familiar face of the young woman with the blond shag haircut, the slow temper and sometimes unfortunate gift for the hip one-liner has been missing from the press-room podium.

Dee Dee Myers, the Valencia-bred presidential press secretary, has not been in hiding--but access has been controlled, mostly to one reporter at a time in her office. Unlike past Administrations, where tough-minded press secretaries were a primary fire wall during crises, in this White House, other high officials are as visible--and verbal--as Myers.

Myers' current caution is different from times past. During the chaos over C. Lani Guinier's nomination to head the Justice Department's civil-rights division last June, one columnist questioned the Clinton Administration's maturity and used Myers' fondness for flip remarks as an example: "One of the things you lose when you get high office is the freedom to kid around with abandon."

At 32, Margaret Jane (Dee Dee) Myers qualifies as a pioneer in U.S. politics. She is not only one of the youngest people to be a presidential press secretary, but also the first woman. In an Administration with more high-ranking women than any other, Myers is the second most visible female after the First Lady.

For all this, Myers still fights for respect. She does not occupy the traditional spacious office of past press secretaries, but sits in a cramped space two doors down; her title is deputy assistant to the President, not full assistant like her predecessors. Such things make reporters worry that she lacks access and is winging it when describing policy.

The criticisms are typical of the job. Next to vice presidents, press secretaries are the Rodney Dangerfields of politics. The real difference between Myers and past press secretaries is that so many others in Bill Clinton's Administration talk so freely. This is a White House with many spokesmen and no clear hierarchy.

Talking in her small office, the daughter of a Lockheed test pilot and Vietnam veteran still shows hints of the tomboy who grew up in a Republican, Catholic family just north of the San Fernando Valley. She is generous with her time and still candid.

Question: This is an Administration in which everyone seems to be a spokesman. What is your job?

Answer: A lot of people in this Administration do have relationships with the press. A lot of peer relationships. People went to school together. They grew up together. They live in the same neighborhoods. They have the same interests . . . . In many ways that is helpful.

I am not sure that has a tremendous effect on my role. It has some effect clearly. My job is to be a spokesman--the spokesman, I suppose--for the President, for the White House, to do the daily briefings, to manage the press corps in terms of travel, day-to-day needs, access, interviews, all those issues. I am the primary contact person, but certainly not the only contact person.

Q: How has Whitewater changed what you do?

A: It has made it more difficult for a number of reasons. For one, it is distracting. And even though the President may be giving a speech on jobs, or meeting with a foreign leader, the press is still focused on Whitewater. So you are trying to push what the President is talking about and field the questions on Whitewater.

The second thing that makes it hard is there are so many questions we can't answer--because we don't have the information or because we need to let the special counsel do his job--that it often looks like you're evading or not being direct, when, in fact, for one reason or another, you can't give them the answer.

Probably the most frustrating part of it is having to prove the negative. Prove the Clintons didn't do anything wrong. That is frustrating, especially when no one has accused him of any specific allegations of doing anything wrong.

Q: With the Whitewater controversy, do you agree with the argument that there is an almost institutional bias to tear down the presidency that has become part of the media culture?

A: There is an institutional cynicism that causes reporters to question everything the President says, and the motives of everything the President and his Administration try to accomplish.

I think that is troubling. I don't think anything is ever taken at face value. The press never accepts at face value that the President is taking a certain action because he wants to create jobs or because he believes that it is in the best interests of the American people or that he is genuinely committed to making life better for people. There is a relentless search for motives, bad actions, insincerity.

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