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President's Island In a Storm of Cynicism

On a recent trip across the country I was struck by the many cynical comments I heard about government. I came home with the impression that just about all Americans feel that most of their political leaders are inept, that they are receiving more pay than they deserve, and that they are less than honest. And the people I talked to seemed to be just as cynical about the press.

I thought of this the other day while being entertained with others of the White House press by the president at his annual picnic for the media on the White House South Lawn. Once again Mr. Clinton was proving himself to be the Master Entertainer.

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This year he had brought in a carnival from the top professional circuit, equipped with a midway of games and big rides, including a giant ferris wheel. Under a big tent we helped ourselves from an extensive buffet of delicious food.

I enjoyed myself immensely at the "fair," as this year's picnic was called. Further, there's nothing wrong, as I see it, with a president hosting a friendly get-together with people he has to deal with every day and with whom he has many differences. Why not bury the hatchet, at least for a few hours? And there's nothing wrong with journalists partaking of this hospitality as long as they remember to keep at arms length from the president when they go back to writing or talking about Clinton's performance on his job.

But I must say that when the next day I told a businessman-friend about the carnival, his first question was just what I expected: "Who paid for it?"

And, after talking to a few more non-journalist friends - and getting the same "Who paid for it?" question - I concluded that much of the public would probably be of the opinion that journalists rubbing shoulders with a president under such grand and expensive circumstances fits right in with their concept of an excessive-spending government.

What I thought about most while at the "fair" was how in this imaginative carnival setting we all had been transported to a make-believe island.

Indeed, our White House "queen" of reporters, Helen Thomas, pronounced the occasion just that: "It's magic."

All of us in the press, plus the president, the first lady, and some aides, were doubtless enjoying a respite from reality on this little isle of serenity and joy.

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And outside of that isle?

Well, for the president, the "real world" was not that serene. He was soon to be heading for a nine-day trip to China that was already clouded in controversy. Should he honor a country with such a terrible human-rights record with a visit? The Republicans said "no."

Many influential Democrats were against the trip, too. But Clinton persisted in going, maintaining it was an opportunity for improving relations with this giant of a country and for persuading the Chinese leaders to better their record on human rights.

Then also in the "outside world" there was Ken Starr and much of this same press, both snapping at the heels of the Clintons.

And in that same world, in which so much public cynicism is being stirred up, there's a Congress that continues to feed widespread antagonism among the voters toward government by failing to provide campaign-spending reform or sorely needed curbs on Big Tobacco.

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