The Clintons' Press Opera

If Hillary Clinton loses the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, it is a good bet that she, or her minions, will cast a measure of blame on the press. Bill Clinton has already started making excuses, complaining that the media has given Obama a free ride. Though Hillary handed out chocolate Valentines to members of her traveling press corps, any embers of romance between the former First Lady and the Fourth Estate have long since died. It is also true, as Clinton spokesman Jay Carson tells NEWSWEEK, that the press is "obsessed" with Obama.

Nonetheless, the bad blood between the Clintonistas and the media has less to do with any personal failings of the Clintons themselves—or the foibles of individual reporters and editors—than it does with a poisonous, and predictable, dynamic between the press and presidents that goes back at least a half century. It's a good guess that the current media darlings, Obama and John McCain, will experience the fickleness of the press before too long.

The last president who liked and enjoyed reporters (some of them, anyway) was John F. Kennedy. Chief executives ever since have felt surrounded and beleaguered within months, if not days, of taking up residence in the White House. If they have seemed paranoid at times, it may be because they had real tormenters in the basement of the West Wing, ready to pounce on their hypocrisies. How presidents handle the ordeal of press coverage can be revealing of character. Some pretend to shrug it off better than others. The Clintons have been theatrical in their resentments and aggressive about pushing back. But in the realm of press relations, the most important difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama or John McCain is that she has lived for eight years in the White House and they have not.

The estrangement between presidents and the press is particularly painful because the relationship often begins as a love affair. The press swooned over the young Bill Clinton. Many reporters and pundits, tired of 12 years of Reagan-Bush, saw Clinton, only 45 when he began his run in 1991, as a fellow baby boomer who was going to rejuvenate and make more realistic and relevant the liberalism of the 1960s. They learned to put up with "Saturday Night Bill" when, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, some tapes surfaced of Clinton sweet-talking a woman—not his wife—named Gennifer Flowers. But by the summer of 1992, the romance with the press was back in full bloom. The week of the Democratic convention, NEWSWEEK ran a cover showing a vibrant Bill and his running mate, Al Gore, under the line YOUNG GUNS. (At the Republican convention in August, NEWSWEEK put President George H.W. Bush on the cover with his dog Millie. DOG DAYS, read the headline.) Clinton's presidential honeymoon was over almost before it began. The White House stumbled in ways that now seem minor and forgettable—by, for instance, nominating as attorney general a woman, Zoë Baird, who had hired illegal aliens as nannies and chauffeurs for her kids. The press clucked and thundered. THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING PRESIDENT was Time's cover line in June 1993. NEWSWEEK's cover showed a picture of Clinton looking haggard, and asked WHAT'S WRONG?

THE Clintons were not naive about the media. The First Lady suggested moving the press room out of the West Wing and into the Old Executive Office Building down the block. When this idea didn't fly, Clinton's then press secretary, George Stephanopoulos, closed the door between the press room and his warren of offices: reporters yowled as if he had just erected the Berlin wall. Reporters can be soothed with food and wine, but only briefly. In June, the Clintons held six small dinners in the White House for various pundits and reporters. I went to one of them and weakly joked to President Clinton, "Well, we're co-opted now." He responded, unsmiling, "I'll believe it when I see it."

Whitewater, a tangled financial scandal, broke in the winter of 1994, and the Clintons descended into the bunker for good. Hillary was feeling burned by a New York Times Magazine cover story in which she had opened up about her spiritualism and been mockingly dubbed "Saint Hillary." When press adviser David Gergen suggested that the White House make available its Whitewater files to The Washington Post—to show there was nothing to hide—the First Lady nixed the idea.

Former presidential adviser Dick Morris (now a ferocious critic of the couple) tells NEWSWEEK the Clintons talked about why they were getting such bad press, and Hillary speculated that certain journalists were jealous of the Clintons' success. "They are all our age," said Hillary, according to Morris. President Clinton zeroed in on Howell Raines, an Alabama native and New York Times editorial page editor who was roasting the president daily. "He had to leave the South to make good and I never had to," Morris says Clinton said. Morris also says that when Gen. Colin Powell began flirting with a presidential run in the summer of 1995, Clinton warned that the press would not ask tough questions of a black man. "Bill would be furious that the media was giving him a free pass," says Morris. "Consider the source," says Carson.

Once scorned or reviled former presidents have a way of becoming elder statesmen. Clinton, out of office, morphed into a globe-trotting do-gooder, expansive and relaxed, even with reporters. Hillary Clinton came into her own as a U.S. senator, not as charismatic as her husband, but still solid and respected, even by reporters. But as a presidential candidate, Hillary was back to the old psychodrama, running as a once and future queen in a Restoration drama. Her basic pitch—ready on day one—is the same one used by George H.W. Bush when he ran for president in 1988. Hillary has been unlucky to have a rock star as an opponent, the kind of dazzling orator who is bound to make her seem plodding by comparison. Obama appeals to the young millennial-generation reporters who fill the seats on press planes, just as Bill Clinton struck a chord with baby boomers 16 years ago. Her campaign has arguably alienated reporters by stonewalling them at times, but the relationship between the press and the Clintons is complicated—more in the nature of a bad marriage than a cold war.

Republicans express their disdain for reporters by ignoring them. The Bush 43 White House appointed press secretaries who were intentionally kept uninformed about the inner doings of the Oval Office. The Clintons have more-intimate ties to the media establishment. Stephanopoulos was a true Clinton insider before he took over briefing the press every day. He yelled at reporters, but also gossiped with them and became a newsman himself (now ABC's chief Washington correspondent). Hillary's close confidant Sidney Blumenthal is a former journalist, and Clinton's admaker, Mandy Grunwald, is married to a veteran journalist and former NEWSWEEK correspondent, Matt Cooper. Familiarity seems to have bred contempt in Grunwald: she can be disdainful of the press. (She may be reflecting her boss's view that the press is fundamentally not serious about reporting the substance of policy.) Clinton campaign officials have not hesitated to go over the heads of reporters and complain to their editors; the reporters regard this, not unreasonably, as an intimidation tactic.

In the long run-up to the Iowa caucuses, the Clinton campaign herded reporters, sometimes rudely, away from the candidate. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, vented against the press for favoring Obama. When he began to not so subtly play the race card by comparing Obama with Jesse Jackson, the press backlash was indignant and gleeful. President Clinton's baiting backfired in South Carolina, and it seemed to some pundits that the Clinton machine was not so fearsome after all.

By then, Hillary Clinton had begun schmoozing with reporters again, going back into the press section of the plane and showing her jollier side. (The belly laugh is genuine.) But it may be too late. While it is not true that the press has "gone easy" on Obama—his slender record has been and will be scrubbed—the press helped fuel his momentum with mostly positive coverage.

A Clinton aide, speaking anonymously to hide his bitterness, predicted that Obama would get his comeuppance if he wins the nomination. "The one person the press corps likes more than Obama is John McCain," the aide says. Maybe so, but it doesn't really matter, because the press is almost certain to turn on both men. Digging through the personal record, searching for human flaws, is what reporters do when they cover presidential campaigns, and the critical skepticism only deepens when the winner occupies the Oval Office.