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'Cottoning Up' To President Clinton

Does the press in Washington have a double standard? Does it zealously go after Republicans who have broken the rules while shutting its eyes to offenses or possible offenses committed by Democrats?

If you have been traveling outside the Beltway of late - as I have - you soon learn that there's a growing feeling among voters that the Washington press isn't even-handed in its treatment of public officials in general and presidents in particular.

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Most of the working press in Washington are Democrats and liberals. A number of polls over the years have shown this to be true. This point of view is bound to affect these reporters' stories, the kind of stories they pursue, and how hard they go after them. As a press-breakfast host I talk to hundreds of Washington reporters over the course of just a few years as they file into our Carlton Hotel meeting room and exchange greetings before we get started. Soon we are talking politics. From these conversations I have gleaned several impressions.

First, I find these top journalists - representing all of the major newspapers - fully professional. In their conversations they reveal no desire to "get" this or that politician. Instead, their target is always to "get the story," to "find out what is going on." If they lust for anything, it is to dig out and write a story that might win their paper or themselves a Pulitzer Prize. I've written this before - and I stick to my position.

The unhappiness with the press that one so often hears focuses on what is widely perceived as the media's favorable treatment of President Clinton. I received such complaints from people I met on my Florida vacation. And I saw expressions of this dissatisfaction from voters in the letters-to-the-editor columns of some Florida newspapers. "You guys let Bill Clinton off easy," was the way one oldster put it to me. "It's because you cotton up to him," he said.

Well, it's been my impression that from the very beginning - when presidential aspirant Bill Clinton met with the Washington press for the first time at one of our Monitor breakfasts - that these journalists never really have "cottoned up" to Mr. Clinton. They found him personable, bright, and, yes, a fellow who when he was selling himself - as he clearly was that morning - was very hard not to like.

But these reporters always seemed to be uneasy about Clinton - that morning and later. They had difficulty finding out where he really stood, what he really believed in. And the stories that surfaced about his fudging on the draft and womanizing only tended to reinforce their uncertainty as to whether he should be a presidential candidate.

Also, I've found through these frequent pre-breakfast conversations that most of the reporters were fond of Bob Dole. They thought he was a square-shooter with outstanding credentials to run the country. They still do.

What I'm saying is this:

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1. The media people I know are responsible journalists who seek to tell an honest, factual story. And I think that's what happened in the coverage of the Clinton-Dole contest. The good economy made Clinton unbeatable, and Mr. Dole was a very ineffective candidate. His age alone may have beaten him.

2. But even if personal feelings do affect stories a bit - seeping in despite a reporter's best efforts to keep them out - it is arguable that it should have been a pro-Dole and not a pro-Clinton slant that readers perceived.

I've now come back to a Washington that's awash with questions about the president's conduct. Had he handed out overnight stays and coffees at the White House as a means of raising political funds? More important: Had Clinton provided any quid pro quos to those who slept in the Lincoln bedroom or accepted other kinds of hospitality and then coughed up some big bucks?

I'm also finding a press that is all over the president like a swarm of mosquitoes - nagging him to provide explanations and digging hard to find their own answers. This is a press that is diligently going after the story and letting the chips fall where they may.

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