The Heat in That White House Kitchen

DAN QUAYLE possesses a sly wit no one seems to notice. He had everyone laughing at a Monitor breakfast recently, quipping, ``I noticed that Clinton said the other day he thought he was the most attacked person in history.''

Quayle took some liberty with the quote. President Clinton actually said, ``I've been subject to more assaults than any previous president.'' But Quayle's point was on the mark. The criticism he has taken since being named No. 2 on the ticket in 1988 has never let up. Mr. Clinton gets a respite now and then.

Actually, in December Clinton was pleased with the way life was treating him, including his relationship with the press. He has since been beset with questions about Whitewater, his personal conduct, and his foreign policy problems. That's why he apparently sees himself as being so abused these days.

Harry Truman had the perfect answer for presidents who feel under siege: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Yet in several interviews, first at his office in Kansas City, and later at his library in Independence, Mo., I found President Truman could heat up when he talked about how the press had, in his view, gotten something wrong about him.

Then there's the flawed view, even among some historians, that President Kennedy had a wonderful relationship with the media. True, he had a lot of pals in the press; and he did receive a very good press.

But Mr. Kennedy hated criticism of any kind, particularly the daily scalding he was getting from the New York Herald-Tribune, a paper he canceled. Other reporters told me of occasions when Kennedy had complained about what they had written about him.

Kennedy seemed rather thin-skinned during the presidential primaries. At one point he was unhappy about my coverage of the then-upcoming Wisconsin primary and let me know this in no uncertain words in a lengthy letter.

I had written that Wisconsin's Democratic governor, Gaylord Nelson, favored Sen. Hubert Humphrey and was upset over Kennedy's decision to challenge Humphrey there.

I had cited a number of leading Democrats who said that Kennedy would, by coming into that primary, stir up infighting and dissent among the Wisconsin Democrats - which would damage the party. Kennedy, in his letter, called me ``pro-Humphrey'' and said he was legally entitled to enter any primary he so desired.

That was a long time ago; Kennedy doubtless had a point. But I felt he overreacted.

With Kennedy, however, bygones were soon bygones. In a few weeks, after he had sent me this critical letter, he gave me an interview at the Milwaukee airport. We chatted after that on his private plane, the Columbine, as he was returning from Lincoln, Neb., after he had entered the state primary there.

President Nixon's unceasing criticism from the press has been well chronicled. Some criticism came from Nixon haters. A lot was brought on by Nixon.

The point is: Mr. Clinton is wrong to feel he is kicked around more by the media than any of his White House predecessors.

Moreover, it is my impression that most reporters are attracted to this usually cheerful, invariably garrulous, and always well-informed president. Columnists seem to be relatively friendly to Clinton and want to give him a chance to make the changes he has promised.

Clinton of late is getting his severest bashing from media observers and politicians who are finding him indecisive, particularly in shaping US foreign policy.

Some of this criticism is even coming from important Democrats in Congress.

If Clinton wants to stay in the kitchen, he must take the heat. Feeling sorry for oneself doesn't cut it in the White House.

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