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The Press and a Thin-Skinned President

Sometimes you wait years to find out about people - including presidents.

In the late 1980s, when George Bush was president, I received a phone call from his press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, who was sitting next to his boss on Air Force One, high above the South somewhere.

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"Sorry," Mr. Fitzwater said, "But the president won't be able to make that breakfast he has scheduled with your group."

Fitzwater told me only that "Something has come up."

At the time, I thought it was an emergency that had "come up." President Bush had returned to the White House within a few hours after the call. But he didn't announce anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, no information ever surfaced that gave me the slightest clue as to what had interfered with that Monitor breakfast. Invitations to reporters had already gone out, and we had to act quickly to call everything off.

It remained a puzzlement over the years - until just the other day, that is, when Fitzwater, now retired, was a guest at a Monitor lunch. In response to my questioning, he finally told us the reason for the cancellation.

During the flight that day, Fitzwater had handed the president a list of the journalists who were to attend the breakfast. Some of reporters listed, Mr. Bush noticed, were those who had written some critical articles about him. "Why should I go in and talk to them?" Bush asked. Then he ordered Fitzwater to "call it off."

Bush had been to a Monitor breakfast when he was US ambassador to the UN, so I had had every expectation that he would come again. But it wasn't to be.

The Fitzwater explanation, however, reveals more than why Bush missed a get-together with the press. It's indicative of how thin-skinned the president was when it came to what the press had to say about him.

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A contrasting example: Ronald Reagan had our group in for four breakfasts at the White House; he also had met with us twice when he was a governor - once in Washington and once at a governors' conference.

Ours is a civil group. But the questioning can be - and should be - very tough, if "tough" means an insistent and persistent effort to get answers. But President Reagan would just sit there at the head of the table and respond with a smile. He always seemed to be enjoying himself.

Once, when the reporters had been giving him an especially hard time, I found a moment (maybe the bacon and eggs were being passed), to whisper to Reagan, "Hey, our gang is giving it to you hard and heavy this morning, Mr. President."

Reagan laughed and said, "This is nothing compared with the going-over I used to get at the Friars Club."

Reagan added that he saw it simply as the press doing its job. It was clear he didn't take the questioning or the critical stories that sometimes followed the meetings personally. He could shrug his shoulders at criticism - while Bush, Reagan's successor, was never able to do that.

Indeed, Bush - an amiable fellow with everyone else except the press - remains to this day unhappy with the fourth estate. He always says complimentary things about President Clinton and just about everyone else. But he departed from this sunny approach the other day when he complained that the press is always writing about "negative things."

AS a member of the press, my opinion can reasonably be viewed as a slanted one. But I'm convinced that a public servant suffers politically if he is too sensitive to criticism from journalists. He has to know it goes with the job.

And I think that a president who sits down with members of the press - some of whom may be critical of his performance - benefits from the experience. It's his opportunity to correct inaccuracies or faulty opinions. He also might pick up some useful information.

I think Reagan dealt with the press better than did Bush. I have to note, too, (there might be a slight connection) that Reagan, not Bush, became a two-term president.

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