Advice to Clinton: Talk to the Press

DEAR David:

You remember the Monitor-sponsored breakfast sessions I am sure. You were our guest, as President Reagan's communications chief, on several occasions. And you sat in on the breakfasts at which Mr. Reagan met with this group at the White House.

Well, I see and talk to a lot of reporters who cover the president, the Cabinet, and other high administration officials at these breakfasts, and since Bill Clinton took over the presidency there has been a common and frequently repeated complaint from these journalists: That they have little or no access to Clinton's top people. Again and again I have heard this refrain: "Nobody answers my phone calls."

These reporters are grumpy on this subject; indeed, many of them angry. All have the same explanation for their plight: That the president felt he scored very effectively during the campaign by going over the heads of the print press to the people via television.

So now, they contend, Clinton has been applying this same approach to governing and putting his programs into place. Television gets all the breaks, they say, while print journalists have become second-class citizens.

Our breakfast group hasn't fared too badly. Vice President Al Gore Jr. dropped by a couple of days after he took office. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown have been guests - as has budget director Leon Panetta. But these were public officials who had been our guests in previous years, when they held other positions.

Elsewhere in the administration our invitations have too often met with some of this same lack of response that these other reporters were mentioning. We get the feeling that our calls often are swallowed up in a kind of bureaucratic goo, and the public figure never learns that he has been invited.

I recall that when you were in the White House you were always available, day or night, to take reporters' calls. You were unfailingly polite. You would patiently make the time to tell us not only what was going on but the reasons something was happening. Then you would give us your interpretation of what it meant, how this or that development "fit into the scheme of things."

Often you were providing "damage control," jumping in to try to clarify an administration position that had been blurred or challenged, or when some official had misspoken or blundered. We already had heard the other side. Now, from you, we would hear the president's side. From that and from other sources we could then move on to try to put an objective story together.

Actually, the David Gergen we used to talk to on the phone is pretty much the same fellow we have been listening to so appreciatively on the MacNeil-Lehrer TV news program - always so thoughtful, also so reasonable.

We certainly hope that this same David Gergen will be available to us now and that your broad responsibilities as the president's counselor on policy matters across the board won't keep you from playing the valuable role of communications director.

I hope, too, that you will be able to remind President Clinton that Ronald Reagan did not win his accolade as the "Great Communicator" by neglecting the print media. I always thought we got an even break from the Reagan White House, although some reporters might not agree. I found the access uneven at times, but mostly very good.

True, Reagan held relatively few press conferences. However, those are mainly TV affairs with the president talking over the heads of the print reporters to the vast TV audience.

I found Reagan's top officials usually available for interviews. And in a deadline situation if this was not possible, there would always be Gergen or someone else quite knowledgeable and informed there to bail me out.

Also, David, you might tell the president that there are studies that show that people are more likely to form their opinions on issues by what they read than by what they see on television. But we print journalists don't ask for the edge in White House treatment and access. We just like to be treated in an even-handed way.

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