White House Strives to Repair Tattered Relations With Press

Many in the media, too, take steps to give Clinton 'a bit more room'

The White House's newfound outreach to former adversaries - bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on former Republican Sen. Bob Dole and inviting ex-President Bush to the White House last week - is also being extended to its arch nemesis: the press.

Like a couple making a second effort at a failed marriage, the Clinton administration and the corps of reporters who cover it are both trying to step off on the right foot.

Today, as President Clinton looks out at the assembled mob in the East Room of the White House during the first press conference of his second term, he is embarking on a new strategy: Spend less time trying to circumvent the media to communicate with the country and more time working with it.

Some members of the White House press corps already see signs that the tension between the Clintons and the press is easing.

"There is a new focus on dealing with the media. I believe it began happening right after the election," says Bill Plante, White House correspondent and 32-year veteran for CBS news. Mr. Plante is one who has faced the brunt of presidential ill will firsthand: During a recent Rose Garden press conference, Mr. Clinton dressed him down when Plante asked if the president would sign a bill providing federal compensation for the legal expenses of fired employees of the White House Travel Office. While Clinton later apologized, Plante says the president in many ways is no different from other presidents.

"Reagan at first also thought he didn't have to go through the press to get to the people," Plante says. "Whether they like it or not, we set the agenda. I don't say that out of arrogance, it's just the fact."

Several factors are contributing to improved presidential relations with the press, including a more media-savvy White House staff and a maturing appreciation for the role of the media that often occurs during a president's second term.

But the desire for a better relationship may also be coming from the other side. "I think they [the media] might be giving him a little bit more room the second time around.... It's a new start for both sides really," says Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, a Clinton ally.

Retired Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson (R), author of "Right in the Old Gazoo: A Lifetime of Scrapping with the Press," agrees that the media at large may feel they were too hard on Clinton in his first term. "They fried him, strung him up, hung him, put crushed glass in his food, and I have to say he has come back from all of it."

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Mike McCurry has been trying to thaw frozen relations since he arrived in 1995. He has created lines of communication that did not exist during the short tenures of predecessors Dee Dee Myers and George Stephanopoulos.

Mr. McCurry has also increased the president's one-on-one contact with individual reporters. Earlier this month during a vacation in St. Thomas, for example, the president and first lady hosted small, off-the-record gatherings at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The food left much to be desired, but reporters there said they walked away feeling respected and gained new insight about the Clintons.

Moreover, the president's schedule now often includes an hour a week, usually Fridays, for off-the-record sessions with small groups of reporters. Clinton is also making more "back of the airplane" strolls on Air Force One to chat with journalists. Monthly formal press conferences are also planned.

"Sunshine helps.... I don't know if it results in any different coverage," says White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn. "It helps on the human level for the president to see that reporters are individuals."

It wasn't always that way. When Clinton first arrived in Washington, the "war room" mentality of his campaign was still in place. Instead of settling in for the long haul with White House reporters, the president tried to bypass the mainstream media and to communicate via other venues, such as town hall meetings and "Larry King Live."

Today's press conference, eight days into Clinton's new term, is a contrast to 1993. Then, Clinton waited longer than any president since Eisenhower to hold a formal press conference. In his first term, he held fewer than a dozen formal news conferences, compared with 39 for Gerald Ford, 37 for Richard Nixon, and 48 for Ronald Reagan (during two terms).

Historically, presidents since George Washington have grumbled about the press. But some understood it and used it to their advantage. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, made an effort to build personal relationships with reporters who covered him. In the TV age, John Kennedy assigned a group of secretaries to provide reporters with written transcripts of presidential speeches and meetings just as soon as they ended, to make reporters' jobs easier.

Presidents often try to mend press relations halfway through a first term, or at the beginning of a second. "It's a regular cycle," says Plante.

In Simpson's view, the president may be coming to the same realization he did. "The media is arrogant and obtrusive. But to blame all of life's problems on it is wrong."

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