Get in Close, but Keep Your Distance, Too

A president who can, on occasion, be so warm and puppy-dog friendly can, at the same time, be a real problem for a person who writes about him. A journalist knows he has a responsibility to his readers to keep an arms-length distance from that politician. How else can objectivity be maintained?

Bill Clinton, when he wants to be, can be almost overpoweringly personable. I've been subjected to a lot of this from other great hand-shakers and friendly smilers in the business: Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, "Soapy" Williams, Gerry Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan - likable people who have tested my objectivity over the years.

But as I went through the receiving line at the annual Christmas press party at the White House a few nights ago, I came to a conclusion: No president has been better at "pressing the flesh" and "flashing the smile" than Bill Clinton.

So you don't care for Bill Clinton? You are suspicious about his personal life? You find him too liberal? Well, let me suggest something: If you meet Bill Clinton, you will have a hard time not warming to him. I can't define what he has that's special. He just makes you feel good - and makes you think he wants to be your friend. Get away from him fast if you don't want to be beguiled.

Just the other day, the Republican chairman of the House committee that is investigating Clinton, Dan Burton, called Clinton a "great politician." Burton seems convinced that Clinton is guilty of something and he's upset over the failure of the Clinton people to readily turn over documents. But Burton has seen the personality quality in Clinton that has brought him so much success politically.

I've had several friends in the press who never let themselves get close to public figures, particularly presidents or presidential candidates. They would avoid any setting where reporters socialized with politicians. They certainly wouldn't look kindly on "schmoozing" with the president and first lady at the White House.

And I say "hooray" for them - it's an admirable position. But I like what that great Monitor newsman, Richard L. Strout, once told me in 1956 when we were riding a bus along some snowy campaign trail during the Minnesota presidential primary. We were following Stevenson - or was it Kefauver? I forget.

But I do remember our conversation. Strout said I'd never be able to "put meat on the bones" of my stories if I didn't get to know the people I was writing about. He said he never missed an occasion to "get in close." That's the only way, he said, to find out what's really going on - the only way to sometimes pick up information that no one else has. He added that this was also the only way a reporter could "size up" a candidate - to make a judgment on whether the candidate would be up to the job he or she would be seeking.

Dick said something I've always remembered: "You've got to get close - but never so close but what you could still, if necessary, spit in their eye." Then he added something like this: "That's a tough way of putting it - but you get the idea."

Yes, I got the idea. And I've found it quite a task. But I think a journalist can get close to a public figure and still maintain a proper, professional distance. You have to work at it. But I'm convinced it can be done.

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