Press Affection, And Vivisection

Hillary Clinton's law firm smells fishy, no? Arkansas is a small state where the elites all scratch each other's backs, and it certainly helped the Rose Law Firm to have the governor's wife on board. All true. But the law-firm story is actually less sleazy than it looks from afar, and that makes for a good example of how distorted some of the recent coverage of Bill Clinton has become. The press both likes and dislikes him too much, which isn't healthy for anyone.

As it happens, Jerry Brown was grossly wrong about Clinton "funneling money" into his wife's law practice. In fact, the Rose firm, the third largest in Arkansas, is 37th in state business. Hillary Clinton takes no share of state fees, but if she did, it would be peanuts. According to state records, since 1989 Arkansas has paid the Rose Firm a grand total of $4,226.75.

That just about covers the bar bill for the couple dozen reporters holed up in Little Rock. The Los Angeles Times alone has had eight reporters there in recent weeks. As well they should. Too bad that other news organizations don't spend the money to do it. After all, anyone on the verge of being nominated for president cannot expect to avoid several painful appointments with reporter-proctologists.

Unfortunately, Clinton's recent treatment sometimes crosses the line from examination to vivisection. With several exceptions, the stories are not the much-needed anthropological looks at his compromises, trade-offs and sellouts-on the environment, say, or capital punishment. They are "gotcha" pieces that few people actually read beyond the headline, in part because they are unreadably dense. By printing such stories, the papers have seemingly justified some of their investment in Little Rock, but the voters are left more confused. All they know is that Clinton is in trouble again, and that red-meat phrases like "S&Ls" and "cocaine dealer" are making their way down the food chain, passing through the savage New York tabloids en route to Jay Leno's monologue and the files of GOP hit men.

The press is confused, too, spooked by the specter of "the tank"-that oily, awful metaphoric place that reporters have "gone into" when they are seen as being too favorable to a candidate. Figuring out who has ended up there can be a bit of a witch hunt, but Howell Raines, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, is right that there was an "extraordinary burst of cheerleading" early on, "the most dramatic example of infatuation among some reporters since Kennedy." (See last week's dead-on "Doonesbury," in which reporter Rick Redfern actually volunteers for the campaign.) Where Raines is wrong is in suggesting that Clinton is now merely undergoing "routine scrutiny." Because he and other editors perceive a special affinity between this generation of reporters and Clinton, they may be bending over backward to be especially tough ..FT.Some first-rate Clinton stories have appeared-David Maraniss's and Michael Weisskopf's Washington Post account of his too-cozy ties to the local poultry empire comes to mind, though the paper underplayed the scores of free corporate flights that the Clintons took. But even Paul Greenberg, editorial-page editor of the Pine Bluff [Ark.) Commercial and a constant Clinton critic (he coined "Slick Willie"), says that some of the recent stories are unfair. For instance, last week's front-page New York Times jab at Clinton's handling of the state's ethics bill showed little understanding of the history of that debate. "It's not that they [the Clintons] are corrupt; they're just very casual about their connections," Greenberg says. What's missing most is a context for Arkansas politics-a sense of place.

Clinton operatives are skillful at playing on reporters'own sheepishness about bashing a guy they find smart and likable. It worked well in containing the Gennifer Flowers episode, which would have overwhelmed a politician (say, Dan Quayle) less admired by the press. But why no SWAT team on George Bush? Actually, some of the same reporters who are currently whacking Clinton have also scrutinized the president. Murray Waas and Douglas Frantz of the L.A. Times reported last month that Bush approved a secret $1 billion payment to Saddam Hussein the year before he made war on him. Jeff Gerth of The New York Times has done stories on conflict of interest among Bush's sons that make Hillary Clinton's activity look like one of those cookie-and-tea parties she disparages. But those reports have no traction; the less convincing Arkansas stories do, because of their daily drip-drip quality and the willingness of Jerry Brown to exploit them.

Not that any of this will affect the outcome. Just as the puffing of Clinton didn't singlehandedly create him (he was winning over important supporters as much through his speeches as his clippings), so the tough stories that have appeared so far won't destroy him. In fact, it could be argued that the public tends to rally round candidates more when they're hounded than when they're hyped. Why either extreme? Winston Churchill liked to say that the Germans were either at your throat or at your feet. That sounds like the Huns of the press, though they all know better.

Press Affection, And Vivisection | News