The national press corps, inflamed by President Clinton's personal failings, has howled like a wolfpack at the White House for over a year now.
Things were a bit different during the Reagan era.
In her new book "Reporting Live," former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl writes that she and other reporters suspected that Reagan was "sinking into senility" years before he left office. She writes that White House aides "covered up his condition"-- and journalists chose not to pursue it.
Stahl describes a particularly unsettling encounter with Reagan in the summer of 1986: her "final meeting" with the President, typically a chance to ask a few parting questions for a "going-away story." But White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes made her promise not to ask anything.
Although she'd covered Reagan for years, the glazed-eyed and fogged-up President "didn't seem to know who I was," writes Stahl. For several moments as she talked to him in the Oval Office, a vacant Reagan barely seemed to realize anyone else was in the room. Meanwhile, Speakes was literally shouting instructions to the President, reminding him to give Stahl White House souvenirs.
Panicking at the thought of having to report on that night's news that "the president of the United States is a doddering space cadet," Stahl was relieved that Reagan soon reemerged into alertness, recognized her and chatted coherently with her husband, a screenwriter. "I had come that close to reporting that Reagan was senile."
Stahl wasn't the only reporter to hold back. Nor were her bosses at CBS the only ones to pressure journalists to soften their coverage of Reagan, both of his policies and his person.
But that was back then. Beginning 13 months ago, the President's personal sexual predilections became the country's top news story; 13 years ago, a matter as important to the public as the President's mental competence was deemed off-limits.
The national press corps spent years either ignoring the issue or euphemizing it as "inattentiveness" or "the age issue" or his lax "management style."
Some Americans may not remember the era when Teflon news coverage was afforded to a president who fell asleep at White House meetings and didn't recognize members of his Cabinet. Untethered by cue cards or teleprompter, he could ramble off into dark fogs of gibberish.
Today's media are quick to note that Clinton now avoids news conferences in fear of having to answer questions about l'affaire Monica. Reagan broke records for the fewest news conferences. And for obvious reasons. In October 1987, in his first press conference in seven months, here's how President Reagan answered a question about whether taxes should be increased:
That answer was no less coherent than his repeatedly befuddled responses ("The poverty rate has begun to decline, but it is still going up.") -- and his rousing "I'm all confused now" summation at the 1984 debate with Walter Mondale in Louisville.
At a disjointed 30-minute news conference in June 1986, the President served up consistently muddled answers (aides had to immediately "clarify" several of their boss' claims), but no reporter present was willing to ask publicly what was wrong. None were willing to say that the President had no clothes. A top White House official privately marveled to the Los Angeles Times about "how easy the press was on him" and said that reporters treat Reagan "almost reverentially."
This view of a timid, almost reverential press corps was shared by others in Reagan's PR team-- notwithstanding their often disingenuous complaints at the time about liberal bias. In "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency," author Mark Hertsgaard quotes former Reagan Communications director David Gergen as saying, "A lot of the Teflon came from the press. They didn't want to go after him that toughly."
Today, such loopy public performances by a President might prompt nightly "White House in Crisis" specials on national television. Back then, establishment news outlets were in the habit of burying embarrassing personal facts about Reagan in stories adorned by misleadingly cheery headlines.
During Reagan's 1988 Moscow summit with Gorbachev, the New York Times noted that the President had fallen asleep at a meeting with Soviet dignitaries. The Times subtitled the article: "REAGAN IMPRESSES SOVIET ELITE." Two days later, another summit-related article in the New York Times attributed this quote about Reagan to Britain's Margaret Thatcher: "Poor dear, there's nothing between his ears." The article's headline: "THATCHER SALUTE TO REAGAN YEARS."
Around the same time Lesley Stahl had her 1986 meeting with a weak and disoriented President to whom she was forbidden to pose questions, Time magazine was painting a picture of a totally different President. Coinciding with the Fourth of July hoopla, Time's cover projected a beaming Reagan halloed by multicolored fireworks. Titled "Yankee Doodle Magic," the story offered thousands of idolatrous words about "one of the strongest leaders of the 20th century" and about "Reagan's reassertion of presidential leadership" and how "he has restored the authority of the American presidency."
"If Reagan is afflicted by senility," the magazine scoffed, "some of the world's leaders might try a case of it."
Time's portrait of the American President bore distinct similarities to the ones painted of Communist Party leaders by the Beijing press corps. (Too bad for Time-- as the Iran-contra scandal erupted weeks later-- that its "strong leader" was said to be out of the loop of his own foreign policy.)
Compare Time's Teflon treatment of Reagan in 1986 with the magazine's cover story on Bill Clinton last week. Here's the lead sentence: "Like a weasel, Bill Clinton emerges from a drainpipe shinier than when he went in."
The truth about relations between the press and presidency is that while some things have changed, much remains the same. What's changed is the willingness of mainstream journalists to unveil, even revile, the person of the President. With Reagan, relevant questions about his mental competence weren't even raised-- and a President being asleep at the wheel should be as newsworthy as a President sleeping around.
Establishment journalists today resemble attack dogs on Clinton's personal defects, his sex and lies, but they seem unable or unwilling (or too bored) to act as tough watchdogs on Clinton's often-conservative public policies, especially economic and foreign. Time magazine will call Clinton a "weasel" over Monicagate, but not over his policies on social security or NAFTA or Iraq.
In this regard, nothing much has changed. For when it came to watchdogging Reagan's economic and foreign policies, mainstream media were as disconnected and dozy as the President was.
A version of this appeared in the Baltimore Sun.