Imagine a press conference where Ronald Reagan or George Bush didn't just criticize the Democrats, but accused them of "not knowing very much." (See box.) Would that be seen as the act of a "master politician"? No, but that's the compliment Bill Clinton earned yesterday.
Right after the live broadcast on CNN, The Washington Post's David Broder declared: "There is no better politician in the country today than Bill Clinton. I thought it was a masterful performance." (He did note the Republicans don't trust him with the national interest.) Several other trends were obvious:
While reporters let Clinton claim Republicans damaged nonproliferation efforts in answering seven questions on the test-ban treaty, no one asked about Chinese espionage on Clinton's watch and how China is a major proliferator to rogue nations like Iran and Libya. Perhaps responding to the White House ban on Investor's Business Daily Washington Bureau Chief Paul Sperry, no one asked about FBI agents' allegations that the Clinton Justice Department smothered the probe of Chinese influence in the 1996 elections.
Instead, reporters have played up the protests of other nations, even China. Wall Street Journal reporters Neil King Jr. and Helene Cooper wrote: "The Senate vote plays right into the Chinese view of a unilateral America bent on global dominance. Placating China won't be easy."
The tilt of evening news stories was easily in Clinton's favor. ABC and CBS both ran two of his soundbites to just one from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. On NBC, the Clinton-to-opponent ratio was four to one. Only CBS mentioned Lott's reaction to Clinton's testy allegations when introducing the story, but CBS's John Roberts added a third GOP-bashing Clinton soundbite without rebuttal.
ABC and CBS evening shows skipped a question on Judge Susan Webber Wright's contempt citation against the President, even though CBS's Bill Plante asked the question. This morning, Plante worked it in with fresher news: "Five years and almost 50 million dollars later, independent counsel Kenneth Starr is reportedly ready to move on, and of course, the President is ready to do the same thing, as he made very clear yesterday."
On ABC this morning, George Stephanopoulos helped review the new Al Gore ad on the treaty and how it would help him win the votes of "peace activists." Reporter Terry Moran carried the Democratic line: "When the Senate rejected the nuclear test-ban treaty this week, it turned a relatively obscure matter into what could become a major campaign issue next year."
On NBC this morning, they discussed Clinton's "feisty" words, but any incivility that occurred was equally blamed on both parties. Today co-host Matt Lauer: "There has been bad blood between the President and Republicans in Congress for a long time, certainly since the impeach-ment hearings, probably before that. But Tim, it seems as though even the appearance of civility between these groups is now gone out the window." Tim Russert replied: "Absolutely. It's poisonous down here. It is very, very ugly." Lauer found "plenty of blame on both sides." The "both sides do it" mantra remains. - Tim Graham