< 100 Days Many Years Later


Friday, May 01, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: To be sure, some presidents’ first 100 days are rockier than others. Bill Clinton’s for instance, were marked by controversy. Towards the end of those inaugural days, when a reporter asked Communications Director George Stephanopoulos why the White House seemed quote, “wobbly,” he answered, on the campaign trial you could just change the subject but you can't just change the subject as president. Since then, the media landscape has changed, accounting for 24-hour cable news, not to mention the seismic impact of the Internet. But the game is still the same, a tug-of-war over control of the daily narrative. We asked Clinton’s first press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, to reflect on her first days as she watched the Obama team adjust to the White House. She says the Obama transition seems more – focused.

DEE DEE MYERS: I was extremely envious of their transition. The Clinton transition had been rockier. I think we were so distracted by both the transition and by some of the scandals that grew out of that, including the president’s pledge to allow gays to serve openly in the military, finding the right attorney-general, a few other things that happened, we didn't come to that first day with the same kind of laser-like focus on how do we hit the ground running.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, the very first subject of one of your very first press briefings became an ongoing problem for the Clinton White House. It was the issue of Hillary Clinton chairing the Health Care Task Force.

DEE DEE MYERS: I wouldn't have remembered that. [BROOKE LAUGHS] How we block these things. But, yes, that’s an excellent example of something that was a strategic imperative, which was doing something about health care, but became politically complicated because Mrs. Clinton was put in charge of that effort. And so, from the beginning there were two storylines there. How are they going to fix health care, and what’s Hillary doing? And so, you know, we had to battle both of those fronts. And it was distracting.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: At that briefing, a reporter asked you, why is the meeting closed, that is, of the task force? And you replied, why is the meeting closed? Because the task force meetings will continue to be [LAUGHING] closed throughout the development of the policy. That can't have felt good.


DEE DEE MYERS: It’s one of those answers that you give and you know you’re going to have to answer the same question every day for the next hundred or thousand days. The health care process is a good example of – and I think everybody involved in it look back and say there’s a lot of things we could have and should have done differently, and one of them was to have a more open process, because not only would that have helped us engage the American public but you catch your mistakes. All of a sudden you send something out there, people go, oh, no, no, not that. And I think the Obama team has done a good job in most cases of trying to make the process transparent. Look, I think a lot of the senior Obama team were people that lived through the Clinton administration in one form or another and learned from the mistakes, and more power to them. If all that [LAUGHS] led to something good coming out of it, then [BROOKE LAUGHS] all was not in vain.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s a much more crowded and fragmented media environment now than it was during the Clinton period. They can use that to their advantage, right?

DEE DEE MYERS: It seems to be a little harder for a story from one corner of the room to get traction.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me an example of that?

DEE DEE MYERS: I'll give you an example from the Clinton administration. President Clinton got his hair cut one day on Air Force One. This was in the spring of the first year. And there was what turned out to be a false report that it had tied up air traffic around the country because his plane had sat there on the tarmac at LAX, prohibiting other planes from landing and rippling across the nation into a traffic jam. That story took off. Now, in this current media environment, would that story have the same reach? Maybe not. There was a way that certain very powerful news organizations – The New York Times, the networks, The Washington Post - would get onto a story and drive the room at a briefing and drive the media. And so I think sometimes those kinds of stories don't take off in the same way.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Comparing and contrasting the first 100 days of Clinton’s administration with George Bush, Senior’s and with Obama’s, one thing that jumps out at us is the change in communications technology. George H. W. Bush had to reckon with cable news a little bit, but it didn't have enough influence to set the news agenda during most of the Bush years. Bush, Senior also didn't have to reckon with the Internet, and I don't think for the first 100 days you did either, did you?

DEE DEE MYERS: When I went to the White House with President Clinton there were three networks – CNN – CNBC was just emerging – there were no other cable outlets, and there was no Internet. And so you had a much more condensed media environment. So I think there’s no question that changes in technology have changed everything. I think the Obama administration, starting in the campaign, really did a masterful job of integrating all the new media, so they pay attention to both Meet the Press and what The New York Times is saying on any given day, and also to Twitter and to various blogs and to the traffic they generate on the Internet through their massive list of contacts. And it’s a very integrated strategy that lets them reach a lot of people who are getting their news in a lot of different ways.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you envious of the toolbox they have at their disposal that you didn't have?

DEE DEE MYERS: That’s a “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” kind of question. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I mean, you have a lot more tools but you have a lot more demand, too. And when I think about, yes, you have a lot of opportunities for creative strategy but you’re also on the hook for hundreds of news outlets that want something from the White House every day, so whether it’s ABC News or somebody’s website that has an audience and is worth communicating with, it just means that there are dozens more items on your to-do list every day. I mean, I think it’s in the president’s interest ultimately, but it makes for a long day for the White House press secretary.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dee Dee, thank you very much.

DEE DEE MYERS: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dee Dee Myers was the White House press secretary during President Clinton’s first 100 days. She’s also the author of the book, Why Women Should Rule the World.