Thursday, January 19, 2017

Beat the press? A new president arrives -- Jan. 19, 2017 column


In the lull before the inaugural storm, I walked around the Capitol and admired the refurbished dome gleaming in the sun.

School kids snapped selfies, guards chatted amiably among themselves and groundskeepers shoveled mulch. Except for cell phones and increased security, not much has changed on Capitol Hill since my first presidential inauguration five presidents ago.

Then as now many in the nation’s capital were apprehensive about an incoming 
Republican president with show business ties. The avuncular Ronald Reagan, though, had served two terms as governor of California.     

Avoiding school groups winding around the Supreme Court building, I ducked into the Library of Congress to visit America’s treasures. Thomas Jefferson’s library? Check. The Gutenberg Bible? Check.

The Herblock Gallery’s selection of 10 political cartoons reminds visitors that political and social conflict are not new. For more than five decades, Herbert L. Block, a politically independent editorial cartoonist, lacerated the powerful and championed the ordinary citizen. Block, who won three Pulitzer Prizes, died in 2001.

The Herblock exhibit changes every six months. The current exhibit, through March 11, shows cartoons from1966, during the Vietnam War. Some of the issues still resonate: gun control, electronic surveillance, the struggle between factions of the Republican Party and campaign finance.

A brilliant cartoon titled “Backlash” represents President Lyndon Johnson unintentionally killing the Great Society by pursuing the expensive war. Herblock shows LBJ, wielding a large sword, labeled “War Costs” inadvertently lopping off the head of a man labeled “Great Society Hopes” standing behind him.

I was thinking of Herblock’s sharply drawn cartoons when President Barack Obama in his last presidential news conference told reporters: “You’re not supposed to be sycophants; you’re supposed to be skeptics.”

Perspective is often keen in retrospect. Obama’s relationship with the White House press corps over the years was civil but strained. He promised transparency, but his administration had an abominable record with Freedom of Information Act requests.

The administration stiffed one of every six FOIA requests, setting a record for the number of times an administration claimed it could not find documents requested, an Associated Press investigation revealed last year.

Obama preferred one-on-one TV interviews and speeches to news conferences. When he did have news conferences, he called only on reporters on a list. His long answers meant fewer questions could be asked.

Now comes billionaire businessman President Donald J. Trump, whose combative style toward the news media is legendary. No president likes negative stories, of course, but most have the self control to keep their anger under wraps.

Trump has been openly hostile -- calling out reporters and yanking their credentials during the campaign, dismissing reports as fake news and refusing to answer questions from news outlets he deems unfair.

Trump’s team is considering whether to evict reporters from the West Wing, where they’ve been working since the William McKinley administration. Also under consideration: dropping live TV coverage of daily press briefings, started during the Clinton administration. Critics say the format encourages grandstanding and posturing by reporters. Imagine that.

Most Americans probably have little sympathy for reporters being ousted from the briefing room, but Obama endorsed having reporters onsite and not across the street.

Offering indirect advice to his successor, Obama told reporters: “Having you in this building has made this place work better. It keeps us honest; it makes us work harder.”

It’s not as though reporters wandered around the White House at will, dropping into Cabinet meetings. They are on a very short leash, limited to the press staff area.

Obama recognized belatedly that part of the job as president is shaping public opinion.

“There were big stretches, while governing, where even though we were doing the right thing, we weren’t able to mobilize public opinion firmly behind us to weaken the resolve of the Republicans to stop opposing us or to cooperate with us,” he said in a recent interview with CBS.

Obama said he will be glad to be a consumer of news rather than its constant subject.
Trump has a knack for shaping opinion, although he succeeded in the election in gathering more people against him than for him.

And, though he complains he has received the worst media treatment in American history, Trump only now starts living in the media glare and intense scrutiny of the presidency.  

As Reagan would say, stay tuned.

(C) Marsha Mercer 2017. All rights reserved.


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