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Fitzwater and the New Press Era

OUT of Vietnam and Watergate came a highly suspicious, often hostile press that for years seemed intent on bending if not breaking presidents. Reporters may never be as government-friendly as they once were some years ago, but it should be noted that the era of president-bashing seems to be over. The best reference point for viewing this shift is the presidential press briefings, where mild-mannered press secretary Marlin Fitzwater has done much to calm down the angry lions.

Oh, yes, there still can be moments of testiness and there still remains what is often called a ``healthy tension.'' But good-humored Mr. Fitzwater is an All-American soother. Today there is little of the prosecutorial type of questioning from reporters.

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Fitzwater's strength lies in his credibility. ``He tells the truth to us,'' one veteran of the press corps said the other day, an assessment I have received from others who meet regularly with Fitzwater at the White House briefings.

During President Reagan's second term, Fitzwater succeeded Larry Speakes, who never had been able to win the confidence of the working press. Speakes, at first, tried soft-voiced, sweet persuasion. Then he got tough. But nothing worked.

Much of his problem lay in the fact that so many of the reporters felt that Reagan was as they dubbed him, the Teflon president: a leader on whom charges of mistakes or ineffectiveness somehow would never stick. They saw in Speakes someone who was part of the problem - someone who was helping Reagan avoid responsibility, someone aiding the president's Teflon act.

Into that cauldron of suspicion stepped a man who, at that time, seemed rather awkward, even bashful. Instinctively, the reporters were drawn to Fitzwater. He was so lacking in pretention. He was refreshing.

Fitzwater told the press what he knew - or told them he didn't know if he didn't know. He somehow did the impossible: He won the confidence of reporters who were convinced that his boss, the president, was getting away with a lot of bumbling and ineffectiveness and, perhaps, a lot more.

Even during the peak of Iran-contra, when Reagan and others within his administration were under intense press scrutiny and suspicion, Fitzwater somehow maintained his credibility.

Now, relatively speaking, Fitzwater's job is a piece of cake. He has George Bush as the president he speaks for, and Bush has relieved Marlin of much of this load by speaking so much on his own.

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Bush is always speaking his mind, to the press and to the public. He's setting a record for the number of press conferences he has held - not to mention get-togethers he has had with individual reporters and groups of journalists.

So - and without taking anything away from Fitzwater - George Bush in many ways is his own press secretary. Of course, it is Fitzwater who encourages and sets up so much of Bush's continuum of communication. So it could be said that Bush's openness as president is an extension of the press secretary's act.

There was little in Bush's past performance in other government positions to tell us that he would become so accessible as president. Give him much of the credit for this, of course. But also give his press secretary, who helped shape and continues to encourage this openness, his share of the credit for this successful policy.

Marlin Fitzwater, with his cowboy hat and his bantering ways, may become someone with whom members of the press will remain friendly to the end of his stay on the job - and even afterward. Few recent press secretaries have been able to maintain that relationship - based on respect. Jody Powell of the Carter years was able to do this. So did Jerry terHorst. But Jerry's time on the Ford scene was more notable for its brevity.

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