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Inside the Belly of the Beast : NONFICTION : FEEDING THE BEAST: The White House Versus the Press. By Kenneth T. Walsh (Random House: $25, 340 pp.) : THE SYSTEM: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point. By Haynes Johnson and David Broder (Little, Brown $25.95, 688 pp.)

July 21, 1996|Larry Bensky | Larry Bensky is national affairs correspondent for Pacifica radio and teaches mass communications at Cal State Hayward

Why would anyone want a job like this?

"Picture long stretches of boredom and tedium, often under cramped, uncomfortable conditions," U.S. News and World Report House correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh writes of his working conditions. "Being escorted, or herded, everywhere by self-important young aides. Waiting, always waiting . . . 18-hour days . . . catching influenza . . . stomach flu. Countless useless interviews. Long periods away from home. Being manipulated by everyone in sight."

Why? Because you, along with a few dozen of your fellow reportorial toilers, get to wear the most impressive plastic ID in U.S. journalism, that's why. And as an added inducement, you get paid more than just about anyone in your profession. In addition, you occasionally may take pride in the fact that the president of the United States has learned your name and confides in you. Which, along with the ceremonies you get to witness from behind a rope, make you feel you're a part of history.

If that isn't enough to make you go to sleep happy, then you won't want to be a White House correspondent. Certainly there's little in Walsh's "Feeding the Beast" that indicates that he is anything less than content with what he's been doing for the past 10 years.

And, by the standards of his profession, Walsh would have to be considered a success, although his breakthrough stories have been few: Informing the public that George Bush hated broccoli to the point of banning it from the White House menu, disclosing that Bush's Chief of Staff John Sununu took personal pleasure jaunts at government expense. That's about it for Walsh's scoops.

The Sununu story, Walsh makes clear, was at least as much a matter of revenge on Bush's irascible chief of staff as it was "independent" reporting. And here, almost unintentionally, the author exemplifies an aspect of Washington journalism he would otherwise decry: access equals acquiescence.

If the White House's press operatives (or those in Congress, for that matter) make nice to the reporter, the reporter will tend to let those politicians slide no matter how vulgar or vile he or she may believe their politics to be. But behave toward reporters with an approach of "exclusion laced with paranoia," which is what Walsh believes Ronald Reagan's press operation to have been, or be "slippery, dismissive and condescending," as Walsh characterizes the Clinton media machine, and you're in for some payback.

This trading of access for acquiescence is the usually unspoken quid pro quo of top Washington reporters. Walsh is unusual in letting us see how it molds him.

Not that he's unfair in his reporting--just admittedly biased against people who make his job difficult. And this admitted bias helps us to evaluate his work on subjects like the Clintons and his fellow reporters.

"Feeding the Beast" is a name-and-event-studded chronicle of Walsh's 10 years waiting for news to be caused by Reagan, Bush and Clinton. As such, it is a good read for those who can't get enough of "inside" Washington books.

But Walsh is particularly useful in providing analysis of "the beast" itself--why journalism has changed under the pressure of the evolving, and expanding, electronic media. And how there now needs to be a return to good reporting, especially for print media, which more and more are saddled with a catch-up role with public opinion.

As Walsh points out, there now also needs to be a sense of understanding the phenomenon a reporter is covering and a sense of understanding how and why one does one's job. And here, Walsh is better than most, even if one tends to wonder at his softness on those--like Dan Quayle--who have obviously overfed his beast.

Readers will especially appreciate Walsh's descriptions of the "teeter-totter" presidency of Clinton, which occupies most of his book. While it is not an especially pretty picture, it is a nuanced and believable one, especially the chapter on Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom Walsh finds to be "poignant . . . sad and solitary" as her best years and best efforts have been subsumed in the whirlwind of her husband's career. In her most notable effort to emerge from her husband's monumental shadow, as leader in the 1993 health care reform episode, she instead became a symbol of one of the major public policy shipwrecks of our era.

That catastrophe is exhaustively detailed in veteran Washington Post reporters and columnists Haynes Johnson and David Broder's "The System," one of the most thoroughly detailed studies of a single legislative issue ever written.

In a way which Hillary--and Bill--Clinton never seemed able to grasp, health care reform involved a seemingly impossible political conundrum. "The public strongly favored the concept of universal coverage," write Johnson and Broder. But "that support rapidly eroded if people thought they would be required to pay more taxes themselves."

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