EVER since President Clinton complained publicly that the press was picking on him, there has been a softening of media criticism. Column after column of self-analysis has appeared, asking: ``Have we been bashing Clinton too hard?'' Invariably, the writer concludes: ``Yes.''
The columnists and radio and TV commentators involved in this analysis are self-styled liberals. Conservative columnists and commentators naturally aren't bothered a bit by the way they've been letting Clinton have it.
Why have liberal journalists, particularly in Washington where so many are based, been so rough on Mr. Clinton, when in many ways he mirrors their ideology? Washington Post pundit Jonathan Yardley has an interesting but questionable explanation. He says the liberal Washington press corps that fell in love with John F. Kennedy and his legend has turned on Clinton because he hasn't lived up to the expectations he stirred of a return of Camelot.
I think these journalists never trusted Clinton but had hoped for the best. And when he didn't measure up, they hit him hard.
But whatever the reason for Clinton-bashing from the left, I am convinced that it is letting up. For example: Radio talk-show hosts in the Washington area have been going out of their way of late to discuss the possibility that ``Clinton bashing'' has been going on in the media. Their guests invariably are experts on the media or liberal journalists who contend that the press has been unfairly whacking the president. One White House reporter put it this way: ``Clinton does have problems. But his heart is in the right place. He really cares for the poor and disadvantaged and wants to help them.''
Also, there now are stories emerging that run counter to the conventional wisdom that Clinton has had a faulty performance in dealing with foreign affairs. A headline the other day read ``Clinton's Secret Successes,'' followed by ``In Ireland and Latvia, the President Gets on Track.'' In another column a writer points out that we should be celebrating the victories abroad - particularly the end of the cold war - and that the president should underscore his role in the continuing healing process in Europe.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes: ``The press is starting to have second thoughts about how it has treated Clinton. His argument that press criticism has been excessively personal - and often unfair - is starting to get a receptive hearing, especially by those journalists Clinton has telephoned or those who have met socially with him, most recently on Martha's Vineyard.''
The big question is whether this apparent softening of press attitudes among influential liberal journalists will last. I say ``no,'' unless the president is able to show, through his actions, that he has a firm hold on the presidency - particularly in his handling of foreign affairs. Will events in Haiti help or hurt in this regard?
Also, the liberal press is not a monolithic entity. Nor do I believe that the ``schmoozing'' of liberal journalists by the president is going to permanently reshape their attitudes. I think this new ``let's be fair to Clinton'' approach among some members of the media will be quite ephemeral.
My best readings of press attitudes toward Clinton come from the many informal pre-breakfast conversations I have with those who cover the president. Mr. Yardley writes of Clinton styling his manner and his rhetoric after Kennedy. True. But no reporters I know - so many of them self-styled liberals in this Washington center of liberalism - were ever taken in by that. In fact, they have always laughed at these pretensions. And during the campaign I heard these same reporters often referring to Clinton as ``Slick Willy,'' a name that the Arkansas press had tacked onto their governor.
I think that reporters, liberals and conservatives alike, have been slow to trust this president. That's a base feeling that, in my opinion, is going to undermine the change in heart that now is being evidenced among some members of the media.