Out of the West: Pool stories dry up as Clinton goes on the run

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The Independent Online
Washington - The following exchange, by no means as trivial as it sounds, took place during the daily White House press briefing on Monday.

Reporter: 'George, the President went jogging without the pool this morning. Is this something he plans to do as a regular matter, or go out on other jaunts without a pool?'

George: 'I got the pool report after I got in this morning. I saw that he left around 6.03, and the pool is supposed to be there at 6.00. I mean, I think that might just have been . . .'

Reporter: 'No, reporters were there but there was no one to take them.'

Another reporter: 'Nobody called until 6.25.'

George: 'I'll find out about it.'

'George' is George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton's chief press spokesman. A 'pool' is the small group of reporters, most from news agencies and television networks, which accompanies a president on his public appearances.

Even a novice can divine two facts from the transcript extract above. The first is that Mr Clinton is running (no pun intended) things rather differently from his predecessor; and second, in these early days, that all is not sweetness and light between him and the White House press corps.

Maybe it's just a case of beginners' nerves. At moments during these last few days, the Keystone Cops might have been in charge at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 'We need an owners' manual in the glove compartment here,' one neophyte was heard lamenting over the White House public address system on Friday, 48 hours into the Clinton era.

no one knew anyone else's phone extension, or which office they were in. The in-house computer network was semi-disabled: its back-up disks had been subpoenaed by a special prosecutor investigating possible involvement by Bush officials in the notorious search of the Clinton passport files. Ah well, you say, a week or two, and all will be in order. The new lot will learn the ropes, and the mighty White House news machine will be back on track. But then again, perhaps not.

Judge by that easy smile, the 'aw-shucks' manner and alarming propensity to shake every hand in sight, and you would imagine Mr Clinton never happier than with his arm around a reporter's shoulder. The difference between image and reality is the measure of his PR expertise. Already, there have been a host of signals that specialist White House correspondents will have a harder time of it. Least of them is the spat over the unobserved jog.

Every president has a right to privacy. The system whereby reporters tracked George Bush at prayer, at golf, and at table during his odd forays into local restaurants was a waste of time. When the press operation itself goes private, however, it's another matter.

Ever since JFK's time, reporters have been allowed to wander up to the press office, now Mr Stephanopoulos's kingdom. Since last Wednesday, however, guards and locked doors bar the way.

'Even in the worst days of Watergate,' recalls Helen Thomas of United Press International (UPI), who has covered the White House for more than three decades, 'we were able to get to the press office. But now, all of a sudden, where we've always trodden freely, we're intruders.' Her complaint is not sour grapes. In the pressure cooker of the White House, such access has been a safety valve. Small wonder the lid has suddenly looked like blowing.

The Clintonites intend to do exactly what they did in the campaign - bypass the national media, which caused such grief over Gennifer Flowers and the draft, and carry the gospel directly to voters. Overturning another hoary tradition, they have cunningly thrown the briefings open to the television cameras.

So, glasnost at last? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. In fact, the spokesman controls these daily jousting sessions; among viewers in Middle America however, the ritual will come across as little more than bear-baiting by the mob. And as that very cool customer Mr Stephanopoulos is well aware, this is a nation of animal- lovers. Public sympathy will not be with the reporters.

Not for the first time, Mr Clinton's model for his press relations is the Great Communicator himself. He plans slightly more formal press conferences than Ronald Reagan, and far fewer than Mr Bush. The electronic town-hall, where the President meets the voters via satellite, will be his preferred means of communication.

If Mr Stephanopoulos is not popular in the White House press room, then so be it. No spokesman was more amiable and accessible than his predecessor, Marlin Fitzwater. And look what happened to his boss, George Bush.