The president had a good week.
That was the political and journalistic consensus where two or more members of Washington's ruling tribes gathered this past weekend. Everyone seems to be trying to do better. The White House is working on its public relations skills; the press is trying to pay more attention to substance and less to style. This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
The New York Times should have brightened Bill Clinton's Sunday morning. "What a difference a week makes," its lead editorial said. ". . . The optical lesson is that a modest amount of substantive achievement can overcome a whole lot of stylistic failure. Only the most churlish opponent could fail to smile upon Mr. Clinton's overdue good fortune."
The Washington Post also took editorial notice of what it called, half-mockingly, The Great Clinton Comeback. "The point is that many of the things that have been right about the Clinton administration today have been right for some time," it said. "And many of the things for which Mr. Clinton has been criticized remain legitimate points of doubt and concern."
How can one week make such a difference? One senior White House aide suggested some obvious reasons for the sudden turnaround in Clinton's reviews _ the advancement of the president's legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, David Gergen's public relations manipulations and, perhaps best of all from a White House perspective, a sharp debate among journalists who have begun flagellating each other over Clinton's treatment by the press.
At the White House, the rejoicing over Clinton's good week is tempered by the mention of David Gergen's name. Gergen, the former Nixon-Ford-Reagan spin meister, is doing nothing to discourage any suggestion that his arrival marked a turning point in Clinton's wobbly presidency. He understands what some young Clinton aides never did: The beast that resides in the White House press room, Washington's most prestigious kennel, cannot be tamed or ignored; all you can do is stroke and feed the thing.
Gergen calls reporters out of the blue to offer them a chat with "the man." They rush over. Small groups of influential columnists and bureau chiefs are invited to dinner with the president and first lady. George Bush tried hospitality. He could tell Clinton these people eventually bite the hand that feeds them.
The Inside-the-Beltway news media are in a deep state of self-analysis. It used to be that covering a president was like a mob hit _ nothing personal, just business. But lately journalists are clawing each other. Some are echoing the White House line that Clinton is being treated unfairly by a press corps with a personal score to settle. Under this theory, reporters resent their loss of access and status in this White House and the president's attempts to go over their heads by relying more on non-Washington media, town meetings and television talk shows to get his message out.
There's another reason why I think Clinton had a good week and can look forward to a few more. Washington reporters, notorious for their short attention span, have tired of dwelling on Clinton's gaffes and goofs and have decided that a Clinton comeback is a better story, at least for now.
_ Phil Gailey