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Clinton rebuts his negative press

President Clinton opened his Tuesday news conference exactly where he had abruptly ended the one a day earlier.

He called on Brit Hume.

In the Rose Garden on Monday, the ABC News correspondent had asked about "a certain zig-zag quality in the decision-making process" that led to the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court.

Clinton answered curtly, then stepped away from the lectern. He appeared upset that a question about politics had broken the mood spun by an acceptance speech so moving that his aides found the president red-eyed after reading it in advance, and that still brought a tear to him when Ginsburg read it aloud.

"You know what I'm really upset about?" Clinton said Tuesday to Hume, who was recently married. "You got a honeymoon and I didn't."

And with that, the president moved on to a list of accomplishments overshadowed by his rotten press.

"If someone had told you at Christmas time that by June 1 we'd have unemployment under 7 percent for the first time in a year and a half, 755,000 new jobs, a 20-year low in interest rates, a seven-year high in housing sales . . . passed family leave and passed the motor vote legislation, repealed the (abortion counseling) gag rule and the ban on fetal tissue research . . . I'd say most people would think that was a pretty decisive record," Clinton said.

"The budget resolution passed on time for the first time in 17 years," he added.

"This is the most decisive presidency you've had in a very long time on all the big issues that matter. And I might say all the heat we're getting from people is because of the decisions that have been made, not because of those that haven't."

Meanwhile, an independent research organization released more evidence of why the president has to do his crowing himself.

From inauguration day until the end of May, 66 percent of remarks about Clinton on the network evening news were negative, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. In the same first months of the Bush presidency, negative mentions were only 41 percent.

"It is unrelenting," said Doug Bailey, publisher of the "Political Hotline," a daily newsletter compiled from press clippings and excerpts from the electronic media.

"We spend a lot of time trying to keep the report as balanced as we can," Bailey said. "When we quote something critical about the president, we also try to find something to quote that's supportive. And it's getting more difficult every day."

Whether any president deserves his coverage is a question leading to a circular argument _ something like the Center finding that declining poll numbers tend to follow downbeat coverage: Is it the tone of the reporting that forms public opinion, or the presidential actions being covered?

All that's certain is that the news so far has focused most on Clinton's miscues and controversies. At the Center for Media and Public Affairs, college students take it all down, coding sound bites "positive" or "negative" ("neutrals" are noted but not tallied).

Center director John Sheehan gave an example of a remark that would be coded negative to Clinton: "The laser he has intended to focus on the economy has become a strobe light. I mean, we're just sort of all over the place."

David Gergen said that April 29. A month later, Gergen was working at the White House to shore up the president's image.

One of his first actions was to appease reporters. Former communications director George Stephanopoulos had sealed off the press office reporters were allowed to wander through freely in previous administrations.

The explanation _ that the communications office contained materials not intended for reporters _ reflected the Clinton strategy of bypassing traditional media and instead taking his message directly to the people through talk shows and live interviews.

The strategy left reporters feeling vaguely insulted. Some observers said their peevishness leaked into their reports.

"I think you have made a judgment on him that he's very weak," GOP adviser Ed Rollins told reporters Tuesday, at one of the "breakfast meetings with reporters" where news is sometimes made, and the conventional wisdom is always reinforced.

"I think there has been a certain amount of personal malice here," said Richard Harwood, a former Washington Post ombudsman who writes a column on the media and believes Clinton has been hit too hard.

"Every president has run into this in one way or another," Harwood said. "Truman had a horrible beginning in the opinion of many people. So did Eisenhower, especially in the minds of the Washington crowd."