Gergen Mollifies the Press

PRESIDENTS aren't always happy when they meet with the press at their annual White House Christmas parties. One-term presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush seemed to have difficulty enjoying their final parties. Both were still showing post-election disappointment. And once, during Watergate, Richard Nixon wouldn't even come down to say hello.

But President and Hillary Rodham Clinton were radiant at their first White House Christmas party. If they had any anxiety over some Arkansas banking and investment deals, it did not show. Nor did they seem to be fazed by new charges about the president's alleged peccadillos.

The Clintons have made it clear that they feel good about the past and the future. What has buoyed the president and Mrs. Clinton is what is more and more being called the turnaround. That refers to the moment, seven months ago, when Mr. Clinton, his administration on the edge of failure, brought David Gergen to his side. Since that time the Gergen influence has been evident.

The president's prickly relationship with the media ended overnight. Most important, reporters writing about the president were given access to the people around Clinton who, until then, hadn't even been answering their phone calls. Also Clinton began to meet frequently with the press in group sessions and with individual reporters. Before that, he had mainly been bypassing the working press - communicating with the public via television.

The new tactic has given the president what is called a ``better press.'' This means that reporters who had been angry at him for making it difficult to ply their trade were happier with this relationship.

This does not mean that it brought about more complimentary stories about the president. That would be an unfair assessment. But as I've written before, reporters are also humans and, as such, react differently to good treatment than to bad. It is true that the president's so-called schmoozing with the media shaped a press that certainly was not going to overlook anything positive that Clinton did.

So the stage was set for a Clinton upsurge. But he still had to do something substantially creditable if he was to get credit for it. Mr. Gergen's influence, so widely perceived and commented on in Clinton's move to better his press relations, was also involved. Gergen, more than anyone else advising Clinton, told the president he must develop better relations with the Republicans in Congress and thereby mark up achievements through bipartisanship.

It was then, with Gergen prodding hard, that Clinton decided to go all out to get the North America Free Trade Agreement approved. He had said earlier that he favored it, with some changes. But he seemed to have been moving toward a placid backing of NAFTA, which never would have succeeded.

NAFTA was shaped by the Reagan and Bush administrations, and that assured Clinton of the bipartisan backing in Congress that the treaty needed.

Now the president has a tough crime bill that is the same kind of legislation that conservative Republicans have long been pushing. Out of this will likely come bipartisan-passed crime legislation - with Clinton getting much of the credit.

Since Gergen came aboard, Clinton has been on a roll. But if his administration runs into trouble, the press will, and should, give it the criticism it deserves.

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