Sitting in her Washington office, where she had just returned from what she called a “useless” briefing by presidential spokesman Mike McCurry, McClendon decried the sorry state of journalism, slammed Clinton’s press operation, and reflected on a half-century of covering politics.
Q: What’s the biggest political problem you see facing the country?
A: The sad thing about the United States today is the American people are informed only on a few issues. They don’t know anything about welfare. They don’t know that we’re selling arms to every country in the world. The public has no idea about what’s going on.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: It’s the press. They stick together and circle around one subject. You go to a press conference at the White House and there’ll be 55 questions. All but one or two will be on the same subject. They ask the same question over and over in different ways. But you can’t just blame the press. I think you have to blame government, too.
Government has loads of money to spend every week–billions on public affairs and public information–and they don’t tell the public anything. It’s mostly devoted to enlarging upon the boss, to making him look great and big. They don’t tell the public how they are really spending money for fear the public may object.
Q: How good is the Clinton administration in terms of educating the public?
A: It’s very, very weak. They have too many blocks on reporters talking directly to federal officials. Here’s just one example. You call up the press office over there and you get one of Clinton’s interns. Clinton has this intern system that he thought would help a lot of college kids, and it does, but they don’t teach them a damn thing before they put them on the telephone. You call the press office of the White House and ask to talk to some other agency, and they say, “Well, you can’t talk to them. We have to take your query and give it to them.” Or maybe they’ll tell you that agency doesn’t exist. I say, “I’m very sorry, but that agency does exist, and I’d like to talk to it.”
Q: Clinton vowed to do things differently. What happened?
A: I don’t know. As soon as they got here they closed us off. And in the last few months–this is something a lot of people don’t know–Clinton has put almost all press coverage into pools. He has ceremonies all day long that don’t need to be pooled. And yet reporters are essentially restricted and can’t get in.
Q: How is White House spokesman Mike McCurry?
A: I think he’s tepid. In the first place, he’s State Department-trained. The State Department is always a big buffer between the people and the government. It’s never believed in giving forth a lot of secrets.
Another thing is Mike doesn’t project well. His words drop in his mouth right before his lips and stay there. And after the real press conference, he stays up at the microphone and has a whispering press conference–the second press conference. This he brought from the State Department. All the “important” people, the wire-service correspondents and the network types, are sidled up to him 10 feet deep, and those of us on the outside can’t get in. We don’t hear a word. If he’s going to say anything, it ought to be known to everybody.
Q: Would you say he’s better or worse than Dee Dee Myers?
A: I think he’s worse.
Q: That seems to go against conventional wisdom.
A: Well, conventional wisdom wanted her out because she was a woman. It wasn’t her fault she wasn’t getting as much access to the president as she should have. Dee Dee Myers is a very forthright person, and she explained things well. But there are a lot of men who will tell you, “Oh, yes, McCurry’s much better, because we can talk to him.”
Q: Who was the best spokesperson in all the administrations you’ve covered?
A: Jim Hagerty, who worked for Eisenhower. He was a newspaper-trained man and he was just very frank and honest.
Q: Who was one you didn’t like?
A: Well, I’ll tell you. Bill Moyers is a very good friend of mine. He’s been very nice to me. But he used to make me so mad when he worked for Lyndon Johnson. We would ask Bill a question and either he didn’t know the answer or wouldn’t have had a chance to talk to Johnson about it, so he would give us his opinion. We didn’t want to know his opinion. We wanted to know Johnson’s opinion. But Bill was covering up for Johnson. He probably knew he couldn’t get the answer from Johnson anyway.
Q: Who was the most forthright president you’ve dealt with?
A: Roosevelt was head and shoulders above all the other presidents. His brain, his training, his work and preparation for the presidency, his nerve, and all that. He was the type of man who before he ever came to Washington went with his wife to places where homeless people lived and got acquainted with their condition. That’s what makes a good president.
Q: And who was the worst president?
A: Lyndon Johnson. If you didn’t write something good about him, he was mad about it. He was mad at me all the time. He got me fired by at least four papers. But when I say Lyndon was the worst, I don’t mean he was the worst president. I mean he was the most difficult to deal with.
Q: How difficult does your age make it to be an active correspondent?
A: I do an awful lot on the phone, but it’s certainly cut down my ability to mix with congressmen and go to Congress.
Q: How does it affect you at White House press conferences?
A: You know, the White House has no accessibility for the disabled.
Q: Aren’t they subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act?
A: Certainly, but not everybody abides by these laws. I told the White House I was going to call every day until they did something. They said it would be a year before they could get it worked out. In the meantime, they told me to call ahead and tell them I was coming, and they would have an intern meet me down at the gate and help me get in through the elevator.
Q: Every day?
A: Every day.
Q: What about the Republicans in Congress? How have they been to cover?
A: They’re not as courteous. Many of them have one set of ideas, and that set of ideas will not fit government. It won’t work. And if you point it out to them, they won’t reply. It’s made it a lot harder.
Q: How about Newt Gingrich?
A: Tony Blankley, his press guy, has been very nice. But there’s so much that we need to know. I miss some of the real experienced congressmen who we dealt with for years. We miss them on the committees more than anything.
Then again, we have problems getting information out of Gephardt’s office, too. This doesn’t really surprise me, because the Democratic leadership, particularly the Democratic National Committee, has been very weak for several administrations. That’s why I think the Democrats lost the ’94 election. They were so sure of everything they had, they thought they didn’t need to reform themselves. I maintained for years that the Democrats in the House were too hard on the Republicans and really weren’t very democratic.
Q: As a general rule, are Republicans or Democrats easier to cover?
A: Republicans have been known among reporters for years for being hard to cover and for having less of a sense of humor. They have less of a knowledge of government, and they’re harder to get things out of. Part of that has been because they have had an inferiority complex. And then several of them, like Dick Armey and Phil Gramm, have such cockeyed ideas on the economy that they want to force on other people.
Q: As a Texan, you’ve watched Phil Gramm for some time. Did it surprise you that his presidential bid fell apart so fast?
A: Yes. I thought that he would have had more support. Personally, I think he is very narrow. I don’t care for anything he does. I especially don’t like it when he comes up and kisses me.
Q: He comes up and kisses you?
A: Every now and then, if he sees me. Believe me, I don’t stay around him very closely.
Q: One more question: Is the Internet having a large effect on what you do?
A: It’s affected it very strongly. We’re very worried. We still don’t know what the Internet will be, because some people can’t figure out how they’re going to get paid by working on the Internet. I’ve also discovered every now and then that someone’s put something on the Internet about me. Sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not. And I have to have it knocked down.
Q: Have you ever thought about having your own Web page?
A: No, but I think I’ll have to. It’s to the point where you can’t even carry on a correspondence or follow up a story without running into some of this technology.
Q: Do you use e-mail?
A: No. I’m not proud of that. I’m going to have to learn it. It’s frightening.
Evan Smith is the deputy editor of Texas Monthly.