For Press and Politicians, Power Is Playing the Game

Recent governors' meeting showed the symbiotic ways of politicians and media

IT may have been the ultimate post-breakfast, pre-lunch power meeting. Nobody ate anything. Not Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, not President Clinton, nor any of the governors from the United States gathered last week in a ballroom at the annual meeting of the National Governors' Association.

On one level it was a quasi-debate over health care reform between Senator Dole and Mr. Clinton. Dole, who put his usual sandpaper wit on hold during his speech, was gone by the time Clinton entered the ballroom, handshaking his way to the dais.

On another level this meeting was an extraordinary American display of how politics and the media exert power over each other. ``Only he deserves power who every day justifies it,'' Dag Hammarskjold once said.

And here in this ballroom, political power and media power came eye-to-eye, justifying their prowess to each other, and nobody blinked. In fact, even in their wariness of each other, they grinned, they scratched each other's backs, they used each other in a dance verified by the US Constitution.

Perhaps three dozen TV camera crews were there, dozens of still photographers, dozens of newspaper and magazine writers, dozens of radio reporters. All wanted to advance and report the latest incremental movement in the health-care debate, or crime or welfare. And C-Span broadcasted the proceedings live every day from a corner window overlooking a Boston street, interviewing politicians and media together and alternately.

In his health-care speech Dole used articles from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Herald, and specific coverage on C-Span, the David Brinkley program, and an NBC program in support of his conclusions.

``In the Wall Street Journal on July 8th,'' Dole told the governors and the media, there was an article about health care in Minnesota. ``Sequential reform is what they did,'' Dole said, arguing against implementing a health care plan that includes too much too fast. ``One step at a time. They didn't try to fix everything at once.''

When Dole finished and made his way from the ballroom, the press engulfed him. In the uncivilized crush around him, no less than 20 recording devices - microphones and tape recorders - were held inches from his face while 30 or 40 reporters, bathed in TV lights, peppered questions at him.

Later, the president's speech included references to the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe. At one point Clinton even held up a copy of a letter to the editor published in the Globe. And several times Clinton made reference to Jim Bryant of Beverly, Mass., a family man struggling to pay health-care costs. Mr. Bryant was the subject of a Globe article several months ago.

After his talk, while everyone in the ballroom watched quietly, each governor got a power handshake from Clinton, grinning and jovial as he moved. At one point he turned away from the governors to the press gathered in one corner. Again the uncivilzed crush of TV cameras and hand recorders.

To the man who has complained that he is the most criticized president in history, his gesture affirms that to ignore the clamoring reporters would be far worse. ``The relationship between a reporter and a president,'' said former White House correspondent Merriman Smith, ``is exactly the same as between a pitcher and a batter; they both are trying to keep each other away.'' But neither wants the game to end.

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