The wild west thing.

Author:Fitzwater, Marlin
Position:Recollection of a White House press briefing - Includes related article on television and journalism
 
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Every morning they read The Washington Post that hits their front door and listen to National Public Radio while they shower. Then, their appetites whetted by the day's news, they creep out of the underbrush of Washington neighborhoods and come to the White House briefing room.

They are the lions of the press. They enter through the Secret Service gate on Pennsylvania Avenue, submit their cameras for search, show their passes for the 500th time, snarl at the uniformed police manning the identification computers, and finally trudge up the long and winding driveway to work.

They are entering a cage as real as any zoo ever constructed. Their movements within the White House are monitored and managed. The president's schedule determines their lunch time and their leaving time; his agenda controls their thoughts and ideas. Presidential minions just out of college will tell them to "wait here" and "move there." By the 11 a.m. briefing (known as "the feeding time"), they are pissed. It's no wonder.

For the White House staff, the press is a problem to be managed, like a cocklebur that attaches to your pants leg. We move them around like checkers--into the Oval Office at the top of each meeting, into the Rose Garden for a bill signing. This is the power center of the democratic universe. The more the president's power is challenged by sources outside the White House, the more it is exercised within the White House.

In March 1987, the outside challenges could be counted in truckloads--from the Tower Board looking into the "arms for hostages" question, from Democrats hungry for the presidency, and from a press corps that smelled the blood of an injured president. Reagan would conduct public events the way groundhogs test the day, sticking out his nose for a time, uttering a few words, then quickly ducking back into the Oval Office.

It was Friday, March 13, 1987. As usual, I began my day by greeting Carl Jones, who has welcomed White House visitors through seven presidential administrations. Carl has a 14-inch TV set stashed in the coat closet, and can stand in the doorway watching the morning news, take my coat, welcome me to the day, and never miss a beat. Sometimes he would warn me, "Lot of reporters around today."

He said that today.

Oh Christ, I thought. What have I missed? "Got a paper, Carl?" He motioned me to the coffee table. The stories on the Post's front page seemed harmless. Something about the new certification procedures for the Soviet arms-control treaty. No emotion there. Certainly wouldn't cause reporters to come in early to try to ambush me going into the White House, or even cause Carl to notice.

Must be The New York Times, I thought, which was buried beneath The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times. I dug it out, glanced at both sides of the fold, and my heart stopped. The headline was, "Reagan Counsel Recounts Chaos Over Iran Affair." Peter Wallison, who had just resigned as the President's counsel, but not yet announced it publicly, must be covering his ass. The first paragraph confirmed it: "President Reagan's chief legal adviser today depicted scenes of chaos in the White House in recent months and said he had been prevented from looking into the Iran affair for several weeks after its disclosure last November." Wallison had given the interview to Gerald Boyd of the Times's Washington bureau.

I knew what this meant: My morning briefing would be war. There is nothing the press likes better than internal squabbling--even better if there's a hint that the President might be blamed. Most of all, this provided them with an opportunity to break my rock-solid policy of not discussing Iran-Contra from the White House.

When I started the new job on February 2, 1987, Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Bud McFarlane had all departed the National Security Council, and the Iran-Contra investigation was just getting into full swing. The Tower Board, including Senator John Tower, General Brent Scowcroft, and former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, had been appointed by President Reagan to look into the sale of arms to Iran and make policy recommendations. The Congress was about to hold hearings. And an independent counsel, Lawrence...

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