WASHINGTON — It seemed like a good question. William Cohen has worked with both the Republicans and the Democrats, most recently finishing a four-year stint as defense secretary to President Clinton.
Did he, I asked him at a recent Monitor breakfast, think the press was treating President Bush better than it did President Clinton during the beginning of his presidency? I said some people who had been in the Clinton camp were alleging that while the press had battered Mr. Clinton, it was now giving Mr. Bush a free ride.
Not so, said Mr. Cohen. He said that presidents usually are granted a honeymoon period when they first come into office, when the press eases off for a while. He thought Clinton as well as Bush had both been given the benefit of the press honeymoon.
And so do I. I was writing bullish stories about that hard-working, full-of-ideas, quite articulate new president: Bill Clinton. And I know that this was a perception of Clinton that was being portrayed by the media at the time. He got off to a good start with the press.
Certainly Clinton came into the presidency with the baggage of scandal. The "women stories" had followed him all along the campaign trail. But at the beginning of his presidency the media - or most of it - held off on its criticism of Clinton and gave him a chance to see what he could do.
No, the never-ending, highly critical stories about Clinton that absorbed the media came a little later on, as the president (and sometimes Mrs. Clinton) was subjected to one allegation after another - starting with Whitewatergate, continuing through several other "gates," and climaxing during Clinton's second term with Monicagate.
Now, having asserted that Clinton, as well as Bush, received a press honeymoon, I must concede that George W. has struck up a particularly warm relationship with most of those who cover him. They like this new president. They make fun of the way he pronounces words and the sometimes halting delivery of his speeches. But they like the way he takes this kidding.
Frankly, I think that George W. benefits a great deal from following a president who wallowed so deeply in scandal. I recall how kind the press was in its early coverage of Gerald Ford after he succeeded a president who had kept himself and the nation engulfed in Watergate for about two years.
The press, reflecting the mood of the American people, welcomed the personable Gerry Ford with a sigh of relief. I think that Bush is also benefiting from being a post-scandal president.
How long will George W.'s honeymoon with the press last? President Ford's honeymoon wore off quickly after he pardoned Richard Nixon. Reporters still liked Ford, but their stories became increasingly critical as his administration moved along. And much of the press was soon writing about a "bumbling" Ford who just wasn't smart enough to get things done. "An unfair rap," I wrote at the time. But it happened.
Actually, George W.'s honeymoon with the press had begun to fade a bit even before the media jumped all over him for his failure to keep Sen. Jim Jeffords from defecting. A report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an independent group run under the auspices of the Columbia School of Journalism, states: "...the press gave the new president high marks for competence in the early days, but that began to give way when Bush's budget plans were released and more of his policy positions became clearer, including such issues as global warming, water pollution, bankruptcy law, and mining cleanup."
And to the contention by former Clinton aides that Clinton failed to receive the friendly treatment from the press during his early days in the presidency that has been given Bush, the report has this to say: "Contrary to Democratic complaints, George W. Bush has not gotten an easier ride from the American media in his first 100 days than Bill Clinton did in his famously rocky start.... Despite a very good first month, Bush's coverage overall was actually less positive than Bill Clinton's eight years ago."
And the basis for this report? The group examined 899 stories reported by four network news divisions, two major newspapers, and one major newsweekly during the first 60 days of the Clinton administration and the first 60 days of the Bush administration.
That's pretty persuasive.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor