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From AJR,   December 1998  issue

On the Road   

The Lewinsky scandal has shattered the once-cozy relationship between the press and the White House on overseas presidential trips.


By Kenneth T. Walsh
Kenneth T. Walsh is senior White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report and author of “Feeding The Beast: The White House Versus the Press,” published by Random House in 1996.     

Larry McQuillan is an unlikely hatchet man. The surpassingly polite Reuters correspondent, who bears a resemblance to a middle-aged Clark Kent, is considered by colleagues and White House officials one of the least biased members of the White House press corps. So it was particularly bizarre that McQuillan found himself at the center of a nasty dust-up over fair play during President Clinton's visit to Moscow in September.

The donnybrook erupted on the second day of the trip, when McQuillan asked the president a perfectly appropriate question about the Monica Lewinsky affair. True, it was posed in the awkward setting of Catherine's Hall in the Kremlin during a joint press conference with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. And yes, the two leaders wanted to talk about grave matters of state such as nuclear proliferation and efforts to stabilize the ruble. But Clinton had ducked Lewinsky questions for two weeks, ever since his quasi-confessional speech on national television August 17. And Washington's chattering classes were clamoring for a more elaborate explanation or a full-scale mea culpa.

The press conference was well under way, and questions had been asked and answered about the chaotic Russian economy, the fluctuating U.S. stock market and other topics, when Lori Santos of United Press International queried Clinton about whether the Lewinsky scandal had given him "any cause for concern" about his effectiveness as a leader. Clinton brushed off the idea, saying he was "quite heartened by the reaction of the American people and leaders throughout the world."

After a few more interrogatories about weighty policy matters, McQuillan gave it another try. The first part of his question was directed at Yeltsin and concerned Russian politics. Then, looking directly at Clinton, he said gently, "And, Mr. President, another Lewinsky question: You know, there have been some who have expressed disappointment that you didn't offer a formal apology the other night when you spoke to the American people. Are you--do you feel you need to offer an apology? And, in retrospect now, with some distance, do you have any feeling that perhaps the tone of your speech was something that didn't quite convey the feelings that you have, particularly your comments in regard to Mr. [Kenneth] Starr [the independent counsel]?"

Clinton, with Yeltsin sitting impassively next to him, essentially repeated the same non-answer he had given Santos; he obviously was not pleased with the exchange. But the depth of the Clintonites' anger became clear a couple of hours later. Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and Clinton advocate who was traveling with the official delegation, spotted McQuillan in a corridor of the U.S. Embassy, where McQuillan was on pool duty. The congressman angrily began wagging his finger in the journalist's face, at one point backing his quarry against a wall.

"As an American, I'm outraged," Hoyer declared. The congressman went on to say it was inappropriate to ask such an embarrassing question at the press conference with Yeltsin when there were so many more important issues to discuss. It was, Hoyer said, the kind of behavior he'd expect from Geraldo Rivera or the National Enquirer.

McQuillan replied that he didn't like the circumstances either, but Clinton hadn't taken questions on the Lewinsky case since August 17 and the country deserved answers. Hoyer wouldn't let up. He denounced the media's obsession with the affair and said the American people really didn't care about it. The encounter lasted more than 10 minutes, with neither man giving ground.

So it goes in the trench warfare between the White House and the press over the sex-and-lies scandal. Hard feelings run deep, and they were clearly on display during the president's five-day trip to Russia, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland August 31 to September 5.

In covering the White House for 12 years, I've learned that foreign trips are usually occasions when the normal rules of engagement are suspended by both the press corps and the executive branch. Adversaries back home, the administration and the media enjoy a surprisingly cozy relationship abroad.

Far away from family, workaday distractions and, for the last four years, Kenneth Starr, both sides often consider themselves part of Team America, relying on each other like combat veterans invading hostile territory as they confront foreign security forces, red tape, logistical snafus, exhaustion, frustration, occasional sickness and the pressure of doing their jobs under adverse circumstances. "There is a subtle sense when we're traveling overseas that members of the press corps look to the White House to help them with their hassles with the host government," said former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry before leaving his job in October. "They see us as their allies and protectors."

But while this coziness has been the clear pattern over the long term--and it was particularly evident during Clinton's China trip last summer--the dynamic was entirely different on the president's visit to Russia, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. By that point, the scandal contagion had infected everything. Not only had Clinton waited too long to answer questions, creating a pressure-cooker effect within the media, but momentum was building in Congress for impeachment proceedings, making the Lewinsky affair and its aftermath the biggest story of Clinton's presidency. Nothing could stop the media juggernaut. And this is the news environment that Clinton is likely to face during every other foreign trip in the near future.

As the trip to Moscow began on the afternoon of Monday, August 31, unrelated events were conspiring to thwart any White House spin campaign. The administration's plan was to bolster Boris Yeltsin's position with the prestige of the American presidency and to highlight Clinton's reputed ability to win over any audience, including the Russian people, with his charm and oratory.

But as the president flew across the Atlantic aboard Air Force One, the U.S. stock market plunged 512 points, sending the media into a frenzy of analysis about the possible weakening of the American economy. In Moscow, the Duma, or lower house of the Russian legislature, voted to reject Viktor Chernomyrdin as Yeltsin's handpicked choice for prime minister. For the rest of the week, the Dow would gyrate wildly, the Russian economy would teeter toward chaos and Yeltsin's position would deteriorate. And there was the constant shadow of the Lewinsky matter. Not the best of circumstances for a White House eager to take control of the news agenda.

After boarding Marine One at Andrews Air Force Base, the reporters in the press compartment--including David Bloom of NBC, John M. Broder of the New York Times, Terry Hunt of the Associated Press, Steve Holland of Reuters, UPI's Santos and me--watched the movie "Primary Colors" and ate a heavy dinner of lukewarm ravioli, grilled sausage and chocolate cake. Soon afterward, the spin patrol arrived. It was led by White House National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, dapper in a white shirt and red tie, and the more informally clad trio of economics adviser Gene Sperling, press secretary McCurry and deputy press secretary Joe Lockhart (who has since succeeded McCurry).

At this point, everyone was on their best behavior, and all of our face-to-face questions were focused on serious policy issues. Berger and the other aides talked about how engaged the president was not only in the Russian crisis but in keeping track of the U.S. stock market and the ongoing Northwest Airlines strike. No one mentioned the Lewinsky scandal.

By Wednesday, September 2, the day Clinton was preparing to leave Moscow for Northern Ireland, his trip was taking a back seat in the headlines, but there was still a considerable amount of substantive coverage. The Washington Post's lead story that morning, for example, was on the stock market's rebound. But below the fold was a report by Moscow correspondent David Hoffman headlined "Clinton Urges Russia to Extend Reforms." That kind of issue-oriented emphasis, however, was about to change.

Both within the traveling press corps and in the journalistic community in Washington, rumors were swirling that the Washington Post's Bob Woodward was about to break a story that the president had had a sexual liaison with a "second intern." The Post would run a piece by media writer Howard Kurtz the following Saturday decrying the rumor-mongering and reporting that there was no evidence of any second intern. But the rumor itself heightened the traveling reporters' sensitivity to the Lewinsky matter and its determination to press Clinton on the scandal.

That same Wednesday, McQuillan asked his question of the president during the press conference with Yeltsin, provoking the confrontation with Hoyer. Clinton's weak reply fueled media speculation, both in Moscow and in Washington, that there were other revelations to come and that the president was mishandling the gravest crisis of his tenure.

In his story in the Post the next morning, headlined "President Stands Pat On Lewinsky Speech," White House correspondent Peter Baker wrote, "This latest attempt to put the Lewinsky saga behind him did little if anything to quell the unrest back in Washington, where political leaders of both parties said his new statement did not go far enough."

It got worse for the White House. By Friday, September 4, the Lewinsky scandal had just about obliterated the trip from the media's radar screen. The traveling press corps' stories were mainly relegated to secondary play as events in Washington took precedence.

The Post led with Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman's public condemnation on the Senate floor of Clinton's behavior with Lewinsky as "disgraceful" and "immoral." Pressured by Lieberman's speech and the deteriorating political situation at home, the White House sent the president forth to make still another stab at an apology. This time, Clinton seemed more contrite than he had in the past and even used the words "I'm sorry."

Clinton made his remarks in another awkward venue--at a press conference on September 4, in Dublin with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern looking on uncomfortably. This time, the White House reporters were props in a larger drama as Clinton tried to douse the latest firestorm back home by using the journalists as his conduit. Unlike the earlier incident with McQuillan, there were no recriminations toward the reporters who asked about Lewinsky, because this time the White House wanted the questions to be asked.

Two lessons should be drawn from the episode. The first is the familiar dictum that once the media herd starts to stampede, nothing much can be done to stop it. The second lesson is that, in the end, the White House press corps is seen by the president and his aides as either an adversary to be overcome or a transmission belt to be used for the administration's purposes. Most of the time, there is no middle ground.

After we returned to Washington, McCurry tried to put the best face on the news coverage. "We had a very bad hand of cards," he told me, "and there was not much we could do about that."

On the China trip two months earlier, the reverse was true: Clinton held almost all the cards. He played them well, and the press corps was a willing partner with White House image makers.

One vivid example occurred on Sunday, June 28. The temperature hovered at 99 degrees as our press pool took a bus, cable car and a sweaty hike uphill to a position atop the Great Wall.

The first family, we were told, would walk along the Wall toward our location, where about two dozen American and Chinese reporters and photographers stood im-patiently in an ancient stone tower. The 50-yard stroll was to be a "money shot"--a visual crafted by the White House for television, newspapers and magazines around the world. Thus alerted, the photographers began elbowing one another and maneuvering nervously as the presidential party appeared and began walking toward us.

Suddenly, White House staffers Julia Payne and Darby Stott, two of our handlers, got agitated. Someone from the president's staff was walking too close to him, spoiling what was supposed to be a clear shot of the first family. Payne grabbed her cell phone; the offending aide was ordered to step aside and let the Clintons have the made-to-be-seen moment to themselves.

"Clear?" Payne asked a photographer. "Yes," the photographer replied as he rapidly snapped one picture after another. The money shot was a success. Only the first family was in the frame as they strolled along the Great Wall, even though a platoon of aides, Secret Service agents and Chinese officials walked with them, just a few paces out of camera range.

Not long afterward, Mrs. Clinton was asked about her impressions of the Great Wall. "Magnificent," she said, and several reporters speculated that her terseness meant that she was miffed at something. Other members of the pool suggested that perhaps she was simply as tired and overheated as the rest of us and didn't want to prolong her time in the sun.

We ended up seeing the president and his family at close range for fewer than 15 minutes during our two hours on the Wall, but the White House had accomplished its mission. As the first family moved away from us, McCurry, standing behind the pool in shirt sleeves with his arms folded across his chest, confided to an aide that he was pleased with the scene. "It was a good picture," he declared.

Clinton had been in China only four days, and McCurry and other administration officials were aggressively spinning the line that the trip would have "profound consequences," causing a "ripple effect" that would propel democratic reform as more and more Chinese, emulating the president, spoke their minds and tried to open up their society. It was hard to imagine that a brief presidential visit could alter a culture that was more than 3,000 years old and transform a communist system that had lasted nearly a half-century, but for the most part the press corps was buying it.

After a rocky start, the Clinton White House learned what the Reagan White House understood from the beginning: Keeping the press corps immersed in creature comforts helps reduce the media's antagonism. So the Clinton administration goes out of its way to provide not only first-class hotel accommodations but a constant supply of food and soft drinks everywhere the journalists go.

Covering the president abroad, reporters are almost totally dependent on the White House for basic logistics. I know of no other beat except perhaps trekking around with presidential candidates where journalists rely fully on their sources for so many fundamentals. No private vendor could cut through all the complexities that arise when the media travel en masse across international borders. So the White House Travel Office, in coordination with the president's schedulers and his press staff, arranges the media's planes, buses, hotel rooms, food service, telephones, passport clearances, visas, luggage handling, even jaunts to tourist spots and "shop ops." (The cost of press travel is prorated among the news organizations that make the journey.)

And spinning is easier abroad than it is back home because the administration's critics or neutral sources of information can be hard to reach, especially when the White House controls briefing schedules, press conferences, filing times and flights through various time zones. In this particular case, the China trip was expected to cost at least $15,000 a journalist--a large sum at a time of dwindling interest in foreign affairs--so the temptation was to inflate the news in order to justify the expenditure.

But the reasons for the Team America camaraderie on most foreign trips are more than logistical. On the long-planned China trip, for example, both sides shared a goal: to portray the president's activities as historic, or at least worthy of a front-page story or the lead piece on the evening news. Both sides also looked upon the trip as a chance to take a break from the scandal coverage. "Several reporters came up to me and said, 'Thank God I'm covering a real story for a change,' " McCurry said later. "This was a press corps starved for substance after six months of sex."

This dynamic would change completely by the time of the Moscow trip. But during the China trip, the press corps was looking for a respite.

Despite all the media hand-wringing leading up to Clinton's arrival in Tiananmen Square, site of the massacre of pro-democracy activists in 1989, the actual event was something of a news bust. The president's carefully chosen words criticizing the Beijing regime's human rights record did not offend his hosts, but they didn't satisfy his critics, either.

What remained a potentially damaging issue, however, was the president's refusal to meet with pro-democracy dissidents. His aides contended that such a gesture would only get the dissidents harassed or arrested and would needlessly alienate Chinese President Jiang Zemin, with whom he was supposedly forging a closer relationship. The White House's problem was that, absent another theme, this was the natural story line for the press.

On June 26 in Xi'an, ABC's Sam Donaldson rushed into the media filing center, waving his arms and boasting to White House Deputy Press Secretary Barry Toiv that he had just attempted to visit a dissident but was stopped by Chinese authorities. "I have it on film," Donaldson said as the perpetually nervous-looking Toiv blanched.

Toiv no doubt envisioned dramatic images of Donaldson's confrontation dominating ABC that night. His concern was justified. Back home, ABC's "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" featured the dissidents, as did CBS and NBC.

"When we at ABC tried to talk to dissidents, the secret police stepped in," Donaldson said over visuals of authorities blocking entry to a building. "The man we were barred from visiting at this office building in Xi'an was later detained and held for a day before being released."

Donaldson then was seen on camera talking sympathetically to Tang Zhi Ping, whom he identified as a dissident who "got through" the cordon. After ABC showed a clip of National Security Adviser Berger calling China's human rights record "terrible," Donaldson had the last word: "But how tough will the president be when he meets [the] Chinese leader at their meeting in the Great Hall and then meets the press? We'll see, Peter."

The next day, at Clinton's press conference with Jiang in the Great Hall of the People, there was none of the usual buzz among the dozens of American reporters. The situation in the ornate hall seemed too formal, and no one wanted to cause embarrassment.

As the president began criticizing China's human rights policy, Jiang started tilting his head farther and farther back until he was looking at the ceiling.

The atmosphere seemed tense until Jiang gave his response, which defended his country's need for order but did so in a cordial way. As the exchange continued, the tension lessened, and it appeared to the American journalists that they may have been witnessing a real dialogue rather than a choreographed PR show--a refreshing change.

As the press conference proceeded, it became clear that Clinton and Jiang were engaging in a philosophical debate, broadcast live on Chinese television. This was rare, although no one could be sure how many people actually watched. (It later turned out that the live broadcast was never announced in advance to the public, and it occurred on a Saturday morning, when few Chinese watch TV.) Yet Toiv told me, "The [news] people quickly realized how extraordinary it was and how important it was"--all with behind-the-scenes encouragement from the White House. The words "extraordinary," "remarkable" and "historic" were widely disseminated by White House spinners and were picked up in news accounts characterizing the event.

Bill Plante said as part of his report on the "CBS Evening News": "They're still talking here about yesterday's remarkable televised news conference in which Presidents Jiang and Clinton talked openly about Tiananmen, Tibet and the dissidents. They're talking about how much things have changed because it was on live television." NBC's David Bloom reported, "That debate, the candid give-and-take over human rights, was historic precisely because it was televised live to millions of Chinese."

The Washington Post's lead story the following day, by John F. Harris and John Pomfret, was headlined "Summit Debate Buoys U.S. Hopes." The New York Times published two front-page stories under the headline, "Surprising Exchange on Rights on Chinese Television." In a story inside, John Broder reported that U.S. officials were "jubilant."

Most news organizations appeared to take a similarly positive view--one that was echoed two days later in the coverage of the president's speech at Beijing University, where he was questioned vigorously by students and handled himself well. This event also was carried live on Chinese TV (again, with no advance notice and on Monday morning, when most potential viewers were at work). The American media played the event as another "extraordinary" development that might have marked the start of a new openness in Chinese society. The dissident story evaporated as the nine-day trip wore on.

By Day Seven--Wednesday, July 1--the pace of the trip had slowed. It was time for the ritual of "tong dinners"--get-togethers in which small groups of reporters invite their sources to dinner to get to know them better, talk about policy, swap gossip and perhaps pick up a few juicy news morsels. The meals are generally on background, so the sources cannot be identified by name. (The term tong, taken from the word for Chinese gangs in the States, was coined long ago because journalists, like gangs, tend to be protective of their turf.)

On this particular night, two colleagues from the other newsmagazines--Jay Branegan of Time and Melinda Liu of Newsweek--and I had made a reservation for dinner with McCurry and White House Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Steinberg at what was billed as a hip Asia-California restaurant in Shanghai called 1221. They fed us some valuable context and some anecdotes about the trip (McCurry subsequently absolved me from the ground rules so I could recount this tale), but the intimate mood eroded with the arrival of several other reporters and White House guests, including Berger. They apparently had gotten the same glowing reviews I received about the restaurant from embassy officials and the hotel concierge.

Unfortunately, their presence compromised our journalistic mission. Since we had been seen with McCurry and Steinberg, our session was no longer the private backgrounder we had anticipated. Clearly, if something very special turned up in U.S. News, Time or Newsweek, lots of people would immediately suspect where it came from. With no illusions about getting a news bombshell from our dinner companions, we ordered a round of Tsingtao beer and had a good time.

The next surprise was Chelsea Clinton showing up with a small band of pals, White House staffers and Secret Service bodyguards. Spying McCurry, she walked over, said hello to the press secretary, and introduced herself politely to each person at the table. She was effervescent, the poised and pleasant young woman that White House associates always say she is. At one point, she began talking about visiting silk merchants in Shanghai. She added excitedly that she had seen TV journalist Geraldo Rivera twice on the trip and she was "having a great time."

For his part, Rivera, like many other media people on the trip, had dropped his guard. Reporting for NBC's "Today," he started out declaring that "the critics of our China policy charge that our national security has been sold down the river by greedy American businessmen and by a naive or even corrupt administration." By June 30, in his final report on the trip, he had turned obsequious. The White House had arranged for the president to drop by after his interview with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Shanghai's Ritz-Carlton, and Rivera went ga-ga on the air. "It is nice to see the commander in chief, the president of the United States, in an upbeat, upbeat mood," Rivera gushed. "He's doing well here, he knows it, and he hopes that people hear it back home."

Just before 5 p.m. Friday, July 3, in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong, a voice came over the public-address system announcing that the president would arrive for his scheduled press conference in two minutes. The correspondents had gotten good play for their stories, the White House was pleased with the positive tone, and there was self-satisfaction in the air. McCurry, the warm-up act, came up to the podium beaming and cracked a few jokes. Four minutes later, the president strolled in.

He read an opening statement asserting that the trip--surprise!--was a great success, then turned to Ken Bazinet of UPI for the first question. Bazinet, a curly-haired jokester who is a favorite among his colleagues, had been stewing about this moment all afternoon. At the vast lunch buffet for the media at our press hotel, he had bounced questions off me and Walter Mears of the Associated Press as he devoured tiramisu. He settled on this: "From your staff to President Jiang Zemin, it's been hailed as a success. Are we leaving here with one symbolic agreement? I wonder if you could explain to us what exactly or how exactly you'll show your critics back in Congress that you did reach your expectations on this trip."

Clinton, predictably, repeated his perceived list of accomplishments, including more than $1 billion in trade deals (dwarfed, the full truth be told, by the $50 billion annual China trade deficit) and an agreement by Beijing to stop aiming its nuclear missiles at the United States (although the weapons can be retargeted within minutes).

The reality, however, was that the "historic" nature of the trip had been oversold. After Clinton left, dissidents would again be detained. Wang Youcai, a student leader of the 1989 democracy demonstrations who tried to register a new opposition party during Clinton's trip, would be formally arrested. Natalie Liu, a Chinese citizen working as a freelance television producer who helped arrange CBS coverage of the dissident story, would be handcuffed and taken from her apartment, apparently under detention.

But for the moment, all the ingredients were there for a boffo finale, quite the opposite of the circumstances at the end of the Moscow-Belfast-Ireland trip: Here was a quotable final performance by the president, face time for the many reporters who were called on at the concluding press conference, a refreshingly positive story line that had the president behaving as a world statesman rather than a randy member of "Animal House," and not much else going on around the world to steal the play.

At 8:37 p.m., the 18-hour flight home on Air Force One began, and a few minutes after takeoff Clinton sauntered back to the press cabin. He stayed for about a minute, hovering near the door for a quick getaway to his private quarters. What he said was thin gruel and wouldn't make its way into many stories about the trip. He called China "fascinating" and expressed the hope that he or his successors could have regular summits with Chinese leaders in the future. Since he had just held a lengthy press conference, no one asked him a substantive question. He admitted he was weary, then disappeared to the front cabin where, an aide said, he played hearts, read and took a nap. We didn't see him again on the flight.

Clearly, his 60-second drop-by was just a courtesy. But even in this routine situation, there was a common agenda on both sides of the media divide. No one in the White House or the press pool wanted the president to make news at this point. McCurry later admitted the press conference had gone so well that he didn't want his boss to "step on our story" by providing information that might have diverted reporters from the main event. The exhausted reporters had the same idea: They didn't want the president to make news that would require them to update their stories. So both sides called it a day and shut down operations.

Yet this harmonious atmosphere won't be replicated any time soon. Quite the opposite. As the House Judiciary Committee pursues its impeachment inquiry into Clinton's misconduct, embarrassing questions will inevitably arise. Tensions between the president and the press will intensify, particularly if the administration stonewalls. When the next foreign trip rolls around, hostilities abroad will resume.