Clinton tunes out the networks
WASHINGTON -- The press conference was just seconds old, but as we slowly filed out of the White House's ornate East Room, the talk of scandal filled the air.
"I can't believe it," one correspondent said. "It is without precedent."
"You're right, no president has ever done it before," another said. "Not in modern times."
"And it was no accident," a third said. "Things like that don't happen by accident."
The reporters were not talking about Bill Clinton's alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky. That does not shock them.
What had just stunned them, however, what really had staggered them was what Bill Clinton had just done in front of the whole world. Or rather what he had not done.
For the first time in anyone's recollection, a president of the United States had not called on a single television reporter during a press conference.
True, Wolf Blitzer had stood up in the front row and asked a question. But Clinton had not called on Blitzer. He had actually called on a guy two rows behind him. But Blitzer just stood up and began talking. (Which is why he gets the big bucks.)
I was seated in the second row right behind the famous TV faces: Claire Shipman of NBC, Sam Donaldson of ABC, Scott Pelley of CBS and Blitzer.
The networks were carrying the press conference live, and before it began, the correspondents were mentally rehearsing their questions.
They would get called upon, they knew that. That is why the White House always places them in the front row.
The first question always goes to Helen Thomas of UPI, and the second always goes to Terry Hunt of the Associated Press, and after that, it's a bit of a scramble, but the network people always get called on.
After all, next to the president himself, they are the stars of the news.
The sidewalk along Pennsylvania Avenue on the north side of the White House is always filled with tourists, no matter what time of year it is. Most of the tourists gather in the center of the block, across from the entrance to the White House where the cars pull up. And, cameras in hand, they strain for a glimpse of some dignitary or perhaps even the president.
Not these days. These days, the tourists gather far down the block, opposite what used to be called the "Hair and Teeth Zone" and now is called "Camp Monica."
The tourists peer through the wrought-iron fence over at a patch of lawn (now bare and often muddy) where the TV crews have set up their cameras and lights so the correspondents can do their stand-ups with the White House in the background.
"Sam!" the tourists yell at Sam Donaldson, the most famous of the current faces. "Give us an autograph, Sam!"
But now, Sam was inside the East Room of the White House, where only a few months before the Clintons had held their annual holiday party for the press and the reporters had gone from table to table snarfing down the free food and gulping down the free drinks.
Now, the tables were long gone, and chairs had been set up beneath the enormous crystal chandeliers. Two lecterns (British Prime Minister Tony Blair was joining Clinton at the press conference) had been set up in front of the huge double doors that open to a long corridor that Clinton likes to walk down because it makes such a good picture for TV.
The reporters were allowed in about 20 minutes before air time, and they rushed to their assigned seats. The White House is in charge of where the reporters sit, and some print and radio reporters believe they can tell whether the White House is angry or happy with them by what seat they are assigned.
The TV people don't have to worry. They always get front-row seats. And they get those seats so they can be called on easily.
Except this time.
This time, Clinton called on Helen Thomas. Then, he called on Terry Hunt. Then, he called on the reporter from Reuters. Then, a radio reporter.
In the front row, the TV reporters were getting nervous. What the hell was going on here?
Then, Clinton called on another radio reporter. And then, he called on a print reporter. Then, he took a question from another reporter who wasn't from TV.
Wolf Blitzer did manage to jump up and jump in, but the president had not called on him.
So was the White House sending a message?
You bet it was.
Clinton and his spokesman, Mike McCurry, prepare for hours before each press conference. They know what the reporters are likely to ask and which reporters are likely to ask what. They also know how badly reporters want to be called on (especially by name) and how it impresses their bosses.
The White House knows the networks expect their stars to be called on so they can "perform" for the television audience.
But the White House is not happy with television these days. It is not happy with the rumors, innuendoes and leaks that the networks have been breathlessly rushing onto the air.
The White House is tired of the feeding frenzy. It is tired of getting beaten up.
But Bill Clinton will make no late-night phone calls to TV executives to complain about it as Richard Nixon once did. This would only give TV more ammunition.
No, instead, Bill Clinton will do what the TV networks hate more than a complaint. He will do what they hate more than anything:
He will ignore
2/5/98: The flight of the Beast: America's love-hate relationship with scandal
2/3/98: Speaking Clintonese
1/29/98: What the president has going for him
1/27/98: Judgment call: how Americans view President Clinton
1/22/98: Bimbo eruptions past and present
1/20/98: Feeding the beast: Paula Jones gets the full O.J.
1/15/98: Let's get it over with: it's time to deal with Saddam, already
1/13/98: Sonny Bono is dead, let the good times roll
1/8/98: Carribbean Cheesecake: First couple has cake, eats cake
1/6/98: PO'ed: a suspected druggie jumps through the employment hoops
1/1/98: Cures for that holiday hangover
12/30/97: Buy stuff now
12/25/97: Peace to all squirrelkind
12/23/97: Home for the Holidays: Where John Hinckley, never convicted, will not be
12/18/97: Bill's B-list Bacchanalia: Press and politicos get cozy, to a point
12/16/97: All dressed up... (White House flack Mike McCurry speculates on his next career)