Right on Cue, White House Press Awakens from its Bush Slumber

Commentary
Eric Boehlert by Eric Boehlert

Pulling a collective Rip Van Winkle, the White House press corps has awakened from its extended nap just in time to aggressively press the new Democratic administration, just as it dogged the last Democratic president during his first days in office back in the 1990s. Conveniently skipped over during the press corps’ extended bout of shut-eye? The Bush years, of course.

Suddenly revved up and vowing to keep a hawk-like watch on the Obama administration (“I want to hold these guys accountable for what they say and do“) and all of a sudden obsessed with trivia, while glomming onto nitpicking, gotcha-style critiques, Beltway reporters have tossed aside the blanket of calm that had descended on them during the previous administration, a blanket of calm that defined their Bush coverage.

Can’t say I’m surprised about the sudden change in behavior, though. Taking the long view, I recently went back and contrasted how the press covered the first days and weeks of Clinton’s first term in 1993 with its coverage of Bush’s arrival in 2001. The difference in tone and substance was startling. (Think bare-knuckled vs. cottony soft.)

One explanation at the time of the Bush lovefest was that reporters and pundits were just so burnt out by the Clinton scandal years that they needed some downtime. They needed to relax; it was human nature. Conversely, the opposite now seems to be true: Because the press dozed for so long — because it sleepwalked through the Bush years — it just had to spring back to life with the new administration. It’s human nature.

When contrasting the early Clinton and Bush coverage, I noted it would be deeply suspicious if, in 2009, the press managed to turn up the emotional temperature just in time to cover another Democratic administration. But wouldn’t you know it, the press corps’ alarm went off right on time for Obama’s arrival last week, with the Beltway media taking down off the shelf the dusty set of contentious, in-your-face rules of engagement they practiced during the Clinton years and putting into safe storage the docile, somnambulant guidelines from the Bush era. In other words, one set of rules for Clinton and Obama, another for Bush. One standard for the Democrats; a separate, safer one, for the Republican.

“I don’t think there is a honeymoon” for Obama, Jon Banner, the executive producer of ABC’s World News, announced last week. “The accountability starts immediately.” See, accountability suddenly reigns supreme. Just like right after Clinton was sworn in. But Bush in 2001? Not so much.

For folks who, understandably, weren’t paying attention 16 years ago or who haven’t read up on their White House media history, it’s hard to appreciate just how uncanny the similarities are between how the suddenly hyperactive, conflict-driven press corps (baited by the right to prove their independence) is dealing with Obama’s first days and how the hyperactive press dealt with Clinton’s opening days, as journalists then also seemed determined to prove their un-liberalness.

The early Clinton and Obama scripts are at times interchangeable (i.e. baseless, negative stories like the cost of Obama’s inauguration and the cost of Bill Clinton’s haircut). The only part that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the mosaic is how the press lovingly treated the Republican in 2001 during his arrival in town.

The media’s abrupt transformation last week in terms of greeting the new president — a transformation that unfolded with great pride and even apparent glee among reporters — was showcased during the new administration’s first White House press briefing, where many reporters, previously comatose during the news-free Bush-era briefings, rose up in anger and demanded answers during a contentious session.

“Game On! Obama’s Clash With The White House Press Corps” announced The Daily Beast. And under the headline, “Obama press aide gets bashed in debut,” The Washington Times‘ Joseph Curl reported:

Although President Obama swept into office pledging transparency and a new air of openness, the press hammered spokesman Robert Gibbs for nearly an hour over a slate of perceived secretive slights that have piled up quickly for the new administration. It wasn’t pretty.

[…]

And so it went at the first official White House briefing of the new Obama administration — a fiery back and forth dispelling the notion that journalists would go easy on the guy that many reports show it went easy on during the marathon primary and general election campaigns.

Halfway through the interrogation, a reporter asked succinctly: “Is the honeymoon over already?”

Curl also reported there was yelling and shouting from journalists inside the White House press room that day. (One “spat.”) Now, if you’re having trouble recalling all the times the same press corps “hammered” Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer for nearly an hour — yelled, shouted, and spat questions at him — back in January 2001, don’t worry, your memory isn’t going bad. It’s just that those contentious hardball sessions never actually happened.