Clinton, the TV president, still likes getting his hands inky

Like many past chief executives, he relies heavily on papers as his main source of news - but doesn't always like what he reads.

One of the bigger flaps of the Kennedy Presidency had nothing to do with the Bay of Pigs or movie stars.

It had to do with a newspaper.

In a disgruntled moment in 1962, Mr. Kennedy cancelled the White House's subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune - an act that made news itself, much to his chagrin,and deprived the first lady of some of her favorite fashion coverage.

Until the paper could be reinstated, staffers had to sneak copies to the embarrassed president,according to Theodore Sorensen, special counsel to the president, in his book "Kennedy."

Presidents have long had a love-hate relationship with newspapers. Lyndon Johnson followed the media closely and was also known to cancel subscriptions. Former White House staffers say you can often tell by the mood of a commander in chief if he's read the papers before arriving at the office - if he hasn't already called and shared his views before the sun is up.

It seems no matter what technology comes along -radio, television, the Internet - presidents still like getting their hands inky, learning what the country thinks of them.

President Clinton says it's an issue of time. "Because of my schedule, usually my only source of news is the newspaper," he recently told a gathering of the nation's newspaper editors here. "I'm sort of a troglodyte media person -I actually sit down and read the papers."

Today, say scholars, even though the relationship between journalists and presidents is less intimate than in the past, we know more about presidential personal habits because they talk more about them.

"More and more, the presidency has become transparent," notes Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential scholar at Towson University in Baltimore.

Clinton told the editors he can't fit TV into his schedule. "Normally, I'm not home at the time of the evening news, but I watch CNN a lot because I can get it anytime of the day or night."

Some observers note the irony of his comments -that a president who is on TV as much as he is and seems so savvy to its uses isn't even watching. But others say the explosion of cable channels means the president appearing on TV doesn't have the power it once did (interviews with Leonardo DiCaprio aside).

Gone are the days when a presidential speech preempted other programming on the Big Three networks and people stopped what they were doing to watch.

"It is ironic that the end result [of the channel proliferation] is that he doesn't have to pay attention either," says Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton press secretary.

The number of people reporting on the president has also exploded. During Franklin Roosevelt's time, about 75 journalists were accredited to cover the White House. Now, the number hovers around 1,700. Presidents are kept abreast of all the coverage by their staffs through briefings, weighty packets of press clippings, and news summaries.

Keeping track of who is saying what is no small affair in the nation's capital, where the media plays a special role.

"In Washington, unlike any other place in the world, the news media is the way the president communicates with the government, and the way it communicates with him," says Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to Presidents Bush and Reagan. The media is the government's primary interoffice messaging system, he notes, saying, "when the president wants to send a message to Congress, he doesn't e-mail 535 people."

Actually, Clinton doesn't generally e-mail anyone. Last week, during a speech in California about closing the digital divide, he said he has used the Internet for ordering gifts, but that's about it.

"I don't use it much for e-mail," he told a questioner. "When I want to talk to my daughter, for example, I get on the phone and call her. If you work for the government, you don't use e-mail very much, unless you want it all in the newspapers."

The Web wasn't a big player in the Bush presidency, either -he relied on the papers and the TV. He was often up at 5 a.m. reading a stack of newspapers, and an hour later would call his still sleepy press secretary to ask questions (an approach Kennedy was known for as well).

"He was really a news junkie," says Mr. Fitzwater, recipient of those early morning calls from Mr. Bush. "There wasn't much he missed."

Proof of that is in Bush's collection of letters published last year, "All the Best, George Bush." Among his references to media is this memo he wrote to Fitzwater: "CNN uses a picture of me that is printed backwards (hair parted on right). Can you get them to use another. It's the little one up in the right corner of the screen when my name is used. (It's weird -weirder than I really am!) Thanks."

Kennedy, a former journalist who became a member of the National Press Club when he was president, once summed up what he -and probably most presidents who are voracious readers -felt about the press: "I am reading it more and enjoying it less," he said, adding, "We are going to live together for a period, and then go our separate ways."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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