Troubled ties: Bush and the press

President George W. Bush's antipathy toward the media is nothing new. It's been quite apparent from the beginning of his administration. He's had only a handful of full-blown press conferences, and he's permitted very little access to himself or his White House advisers.

Recently, Mr. Bush declined an invitation to speak at the annual spring dinner of the Gridiron Club, a selective group of Washington journalists. True, he had scheduled a get-together with the Mexican president for that weekend. But since 1885, presidents have usually set aside the Gridiron affair as a priority date. Gridiron members I talked to said they felt stiffed.

I recall not being able to get Bush's father to attend a Monitor breakfast when he was president. Over the years other presidents, starting with Ford and including Carter, Reagan, and, later, Clinton, have all brought the Monitor's group over to the White House for one and sometimes two question-and-answer sessions over lunch. But not the elder Bush and now, not the younger Bush either.

The senior Bush, when president, consented a couple of times to meet with our group - and then canceled at the last minute. Once, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater called just hours before the get-together. "Something has come up," Marlin told me. After Bush left office, I asked about these last-minute turndowns, and Marlin said that Bush would look over the list of journalists scheduled to attend and ask, "Why would I want to sit down with -?" And here he'd name a reporter who, he felt, had given him a hard time. And then, Marlin said, Bush would point out several others on the list whom he found unsuitable as breakfast companions. And that would be that, Marlin said.

What made the elder, and now the younger, Bush so antipress? A new book, "The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty," by Peter and Rochelle Schweizer, reminded me of incidents that got under George H. W. Bush's skin - and are well-remembered by his son. One that really upset the father, a fine first baseman at Yale and a war hero, was when Newsweek published a hard-hitting cover story in 1987 calling him a "wimp." Bush blamed his longtime friend Katherine Graham, whose Washington Post Co. owns Newsweek, for portraying him as a weak sister.

The elder Bush also has never forgiven the press for circulating rumors that he had had an extramarital affair - something he firmly and angrily denied. According to the Schweizers, the younger Bush was so upset at the way the media treated his father, that he decided he'd just "completely ignore" them as president.

It would be wrong to single out the Bushes as the only presidents at odds with the media. Even President Kennedy, with many buddies working on newspapers, became so upset with the New York Herald Tribune that he canceled his subscription to it.

I'm looking forward to reading what Bill Clinton has written about his relationship with the press in his upcoming book. I know for a fact that a lot of my media friends liked Mr. Clinton. So when they wrote about his extramarital dalliances, they did so with no eagerness.

Actually, of course, no president had a worse relationship with the press than Richard Nixon. Long before Watergate, most reporters who covered Nixon found him devious and lacking in personal warmth. Who can say how much this negative attitude affected their coverage of him? How much of the press dislike for Nixon drove the probe that eventually uncovered the Watergate scandal?

I remember attending a White House Christmas party for the press when that scandal was swirling around Nixon. But he didn't show, and we speculated that the glowering president was sitting up in his living quarters, fuming over the latest Woodward-Bernstein story in the Washington Post.

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