The President's Daily Diet of Bad News

TREASURY secretaries have come in frequently over the years to answer journalists' questions at Monitor breakfasts. But not Nicholas F. Brady. So it was with some surprise that we heard from a Brady aide that the secretary would like to talk to our group on July 30.

That was the morning the Commerce Department would issue new figures on the economy's growth rate. Indeed, we were told the secretary wanted to have our breakfast session start an hour later than usual so he could discuss these figures, which the government would disclose at 9:30 am.

Was there some good economic news on which Mr. Brady could build a thesis of "better times ahead"? As we all know, that wasn't the case. The growth rate for the period from April through June was a tiny 1.4 percent, less than half the rate of the first quarter.

Understandably, perhaps, the secretary didn't leap into the subject when the hands on my watch pointed to 9:30. Instead, at 9:40 a questioner drew out the figures and this rationale: That the economy was, indeed, slowly getting better and that it was normal to have some ups and downs.

The secretary may well be right: There is considerable evidence of a slowly recovering economy. On that particular day the stock market had surged forward, possibly sensing better times ahead. And Mr. Brady pointed to recent stock market bullishness as one index of an improving economy.

But Brady's words did little to control the damage from the growth figures. Lead headlines the next day were like this one from the Washington Post: "Recovery Sputtered in Spring."

The day before the Brady breakfast, a poll showed consumer confidence had taken a decided dip. So Brady was up against that negative disclosure, too, as he sought to somehow create some good economic news - news that might help President Bush in what appears to be an uphill battle to remain in office.

There is no doubt about it: The president is being smothered by bad news these days. Morning after morning he's looking bad in the papers. And then the evening TV news bangs him with something - often another poll showing Bill Clinton's lead getting bigger.

Even some syndicated columnists perceived as conservative are part of the chorus. George F. Will has called Bush "a figure of genuine pathos" and suggested that it should be the president, not Dan Quayle, who withdraws from the race.

So it goes. Bush can't do anything right. He talks to some MIA relatives and meets with jeers. To which he responds to one heckler: "Shut up and sit down." That response showed that the bashing he's getting from all directions is breaking through the president's usual equanimity.

Late last week, Bush was unable to squeeze good news out of the minuscule drop in the jobless rate - despite a press conference to try to put a positive twirl on it.

It's strange. It seems only a breath ago, just before the Democratic convention, that Mr. Clinton couldn't do anything right. For months he had been getting bad press - from his dealings with the draft during the Vietnam War and from charges of slippery operations as governor of Arkansas.

Before that were the stories about Clinton's extramarital relations. He seemed to be flunking the so-called "character issue." When he visited our breakfast group for the second time, shortly before the convention, some reporters were referring to him as "Slick Willie," a derisive name given to him by his Arkansas critics.

The media were eagerly looking for everything they could find to tear the Democratic candidate apart. Maybe it was the governor's acceptance speech at the convention that turned that around. Maybe it was the choice of Al Gore as running mate.

Anyway, the media got off Clinton's back, and now they all are on Bush's.

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