MOLLY IVINS Atlanta HAVING COME TO ATLANTA for one of those “First Year of the Clinton Presidency” thumb-sucking sessions, I offered my own professioncentric view of the world by focusing on Clinton and the media. I felt obliged to review the record for this august occasion, and what’s depressing is that there’s so much evidence to support what I already thought: This president is getting trashed. As an opinion writer who spent .12 years being generally unhappy with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, I consider myself an expert on trashing pres idents. I once wrote an entire column on the subject of how to describe the Reagan quality that was then politely referred to as his being “disengaged.” “So dumb if you put his brains in a bumblebee, it would fly backwards” was one of my offerings. And Bush inspired several unkind reflections on my part; his inability to express himself clearly in the English language was fodder for many a column. How I miss him. But I think you’ll agree that there is ,a qualitative difference between wondering what Bush actually meant when he said something incomprehensible and a radio talk show host telling jokes about Hillary Rodham Clinton performing oral sex. I think we have a problem here, folks. The difference between the way Bill Clinton has been treated by the press in his first year and the way Reagan and Bush were treated is not a matter of one’s political perspective. By now, there are several media studies comparing exactly the same story —, “President makes major policy proposal” or “President signs bill” and the wildly different treatment that Clinton has received. On the theory that the press is always sycophantic toward someone who has come in with a big electoral majority at least for a while I went back to our last minority president, Richard Nixon. The exit polls in ’92 showed that had Ross Perot not been in the race, his vote would have split evenly between Bush and Clinton, leaving Clinton with a clear majority. When Nixon was first elected in ’68, the situation was far muddler: The George -Wallace vote was also a Robert Kennedy vote, one of those populist phenomena that always confound pollsters. Of course, the country was in turmoil after ’68, the Year Everything Happened. Opposition Molly Ivins, a former Observer editor, is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. to the war actually escalated in ’69, Nixon’s first year in office, but it was not yet considered Nixon’s war, so the vituperation was not aimed at him. Press and popular opinion was to give the guy a chance. Somewhat closer to the mark is the first year of Jimmy.Carter’s presidency. Although Carter Was cut far more slack than Clinton, who has been under steady and very heavy media fire since before his inauguration, there were undercurrents of the same vein of attack. “This guy is from outside Washington; he doesn’t understand how things work here; he’s from a small, Southern, podunk state; he has white-trash relatives, etcetera.” Perhaps the most significant difference between media attacks on Carter and Clinton is that Carter appeared to be more vulnerable to them than Clinton does. Carter always looked as though he were in pain, whereas Clinton appears to be actually enjoying himself, at least some of the time. There are a -number of psychobabble theories to account for the media’s negativity toward Clinton. One is that Clinton is not a father figure; he’s a brother figure and so much safer to attack. One is that the Washington press corps is trying make up for its lamentable performance in the ’80s \(missed the savings and loan story, missed the Housing and Urban Development scanwith Clinton. Another is that Clinton early on declared that he would not be a captive of the Washington press corps. He would go over its .head directly to the people on talk shows and in town meetings. And so it decided to show him who needed whom in this town. And so on and so forth. One of the alternative theories is that neither Clinton nor the media are at fault. They are both part of a political climate that has become so polarized and so paralyzed that no one talks about how to fix anything anymore. As a recent minor example of what happens to Clinton with the media, the big Washington story a few weeks ago was that the administration had decided to concentrate on getting health-care reform passed this year. Except that instead of being about getting health-care reform passed, the story immediately became that Clinton was dropping the ball, breaking his promise and letting slide … welfare reform. Now, Superman couldn’t get two bills that size through Congress in one year, and it is clear to anyone who has looked at these problems that health-care reform is the key to welfare reform. What constantly happens to women on welfare is that they go out, got a job and start making it on their own, and then one of the kids gets sick. And the only way they can afford a doctor is to go back on welfare. Ergo, you do health-care reform before you do welfare reform. This is not rocket science. Exactly why the media have recently decided that a non-breaking story \(see the New York Times, Arkansas S&L is now a story the same media that ignored the S&L disaster during the ’80s because Donald Trump was so much more interesting is beyond me. I am a great believer in thorough research on politicians who make money while holding public office. Those who lose money and then fail to deduct it on their income taxes strike me as a bit less of a menace to the public at large than, say, Lyndon B. Johnson. One of the many theories about all this is that Clinton is a victim of “changing standards.” JFK could womanize; Clinton can’t. Reagan could get away with having his California kitchen Cabinet make him rich; Clinton can’t have any questionable friends in Arkansas. And on the whole, aren’t we a better nation for insisting that our public figures retroactively meet heretofore undreamed-of standards of purity? \(While the media themselves, of course, are lowering their standards considerably about what’s I don’t think so. Bobby Ray Inman might not have made a good secretary of defense because he’s a classic military-industrial complex graduate, not to mention his spook background, not to mention his less-thanimpressive private-industry record. But he’s right that making the housecleaners Social Security payment a make-or-break issue is silly. More than the petty list of specific transgressions \(recall the tantrums when the Clinton people fired some folks in the White of cynicism and sourness that this kind of coverage has achieved. Beyond that lies a far more vicious climate of actual hate and contempt fostered by talk radio. Clinton is a very intelligent man; he is extremely knowledgeable about both state and federal government and how they fit together. He has lots of ideas about how to fix things and is quite flexible about adapting his ideas to take account of other people’s ideas and problems. He genuinely likes people. He’s not mean, he’s not autocratic and he’s not paranoid yet. The media have yet to give him the benefit of the doubt on anything. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11 ,-,.