All the media pom-pom shaking over Clinton's latest State of the Union address almost makes me nostalgic for a return to the Reagan years, when the press mercilessly (and, usually, unfairly) slammed the Gipper at every opportunity.
At least there was an attempt at journalism.
Go back a dozen years. In 1987, ABC's Jim Wooten analyzed Reagan's State of the Union address this way: "During the Reagan years, the number of poor people in America has gone up by 23 percent, while federal help to the poor has gone down by nine percent. And if the President has his way with this next federal budget, that gap will continue to grow." Wooten then ticked off a list of anticipated victims from the Reagan "cuts," including children, school lunches, food stamps and public housing. He then claimed homelessness had increased "a thousand percent" in the Reagan years.
After Reagan called the deficit "as slippery as a greased pig," CBS reporter Lesley Stahl felt it necessary to confront the statement. "The slipperiness was exacerbated by the President's refusal to pay for his defense buildup with a tax hike," she explained. "The result: the deficit nearly quadrupled so that now the national debt is nearly more than 2 trillion dollars. If you started counting to two trillion right now, one number each second, you'd get there in 64,000 years."
Now that you could call an adversary press. Put aside the media's fiscal analysis (if you can) which was beyond ridiculous. Accept instead the simple premise that these journalists' see their mission as one that would afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. They are there to probe, question, examine, dissect - you pick the verb - the substance.
That being so, can anyone please explain to me the media's coverage of Bill Clinton's State of the Union addresses, especially the last two, as anything other than apple-polishing embarrassments?
This, from Time's Nancy Gibbs, is about how tough it was last year: "He invited his exhausted audience to take a holiday from Lewinsky and spend a refreshing hour and 12 minutes feeling like a country again."
And this year the sycophantic state of the media was no different. For Newsweek's pre-speech headline, readers found this loaded nothingness: "Basking in a Cloud: As the President's lawyers defend him in the Senate dock, he goes to the podium of the House to remind the country that he's a master of policy, an able steward of boom times. The people are listening, but in Washington the trial grinds on. Is Bill Clinton a visionary, a felon, or both?"
Today, the State of the Union is less a formalistic kick-off to a year of legislative head-butting, and more a chance to use the rally-around-the-flag polling effects to drub the Clinton scandals to death. MSNBC's John Hockenberry imagined the American people proclaiming: "Will these people just get down to business and leave this impeachment thing alone?"
If the media elite was really spoiling to treat this address like the speeches of Clinton's predecessors, why couldn't they parse it for falsehoods or hypocrisy? The Republican National Committee quickly pounced on the details. On education, Clinton said "we must empower parents with more information and more choices." But he vetoed school choice for the District of Columbia last spring.
Clinton claimed "This year, we will reach our goal of 100,000 community police officers, ahead of schedule and under budget." But Clinton's Justice Department claimed only 71,000 hires, and Congress found only 41,000. Meanwhile, by the end of the year, the National Association of Chiefs of Police has contended the funding will dry up and the number of cops in America will return to where it started when the crime bill passed in 1994.
The National Taxpayers Union Foundation declared that Clinton's State of the Union promises, if they were all implemented, would cost America an additional $288 billion a year. How would Clinton pay for that? NTUF also noted that Clinton's vaunted "AmeriCorps would receive a $133 million boost, despite a 1996 General Accounting Office determination that the agency's books were unauditable."
Clinton's media supporters won't examine the substance of what he says. But they've got plenty of time to gush about the way he says it. They won't analyze his promises; they'll celebrate his promise. Theirs is an utter disinterest in the business of government, all the while repeating the Clinton mantra that we ought to return to the people's business.