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Kansas State University
128 Dole Hall
Manhattan, KS 66506
785-532-2535
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Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to Presidents Reagan and Bush
108th Landon Lecture
Thursday, November 21, 1996

 

It was this university that gave me 10 of the most exciting years of my life in the White House, being with two presidents when the Cold War ended, being with Gen. Colin Powell through eight military conflicts, attending seven summit meetings, touching the angelic hands of the Pope, crying through heartaches, like Hurricane Hugo and the San Francisco earthquake and the LA riots. I have known America at its best and its worst, and I know America to be a land of good people and it's a good country. I have served in two of the most cherished institutions of American life, institutions nurtured by 220 years of care and people who wanted to preserve freedom. They are the presidency and the press.

So this morning I'd like to dwell briefly on these two institutions, the ones I know best on the human side, if you will, to have a little fun with politics, to focus on my first love, journalism, and finally to say thank you to all of you here at Kansas State University. Well, first of all, let's say there really is no better time to talk about the presidency than right after a national election, because it's a time of renewal and a time of closure. We render a verdict on the last four years, then we grant a license for the next four years. Before we start, however, I want you to know that I realize this is a nonpartisan audience, and therefore, 30 percent of my stories are about Republicans and 50 percent are Democrats, but the Democrat ones are a lot funnier.

So, let me start by bring you up to date on some of the antics that are going on in Washington today, a town where 'romance is in the air' usually means there's a Congressman stuck in a 10th floor elevator. That's a little less likely since Bob Packwood left town, but nevertheless, it happens. Our city is nearly bankrupt these days. It's gotten so bad that critics now refer to Washington as a work free drug place. And the Congress - the Congress says, you know, enough's enough, and they set up a budget review board to run the nation's capital, and they make all the decisions now about the budget and various expenditures. And then so a few months ago our mayor just up and disappears, and he turns up a week later at a church camp near St. Louis, where it was reported that he was recovering from alcoholism, drug abuse, prostate cancer and marital stress. I mean, the man gives new meaning to the term universal health care.

But Washington is still an exciting place and the fall political season -- just to review for a few moments the campaign and how we got here -- the fall season started off with the conventions. Now, in August, I don't know about the rest of you, but I watched television for 16 straight days of the Olympics, then six days of the Republican Convention and six days of the Democratic Convention, and I must say they all kind of run together after a certain time. For example, I'm not certain, but I swear that the GOP national chairman Haley Barber was also our gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling.

Each of the national conventions really had kind of one grand moment, one moment of excitement and big news, and for the Republicans, of course, it was the selection of Jack Kemp to be the vice presidential running mate. Now, Jack Kemp may be the first vice president every selected to take your mind off Newt Gingrich. Poor Newt -- I mean, poor Newt, he's the hero of the Republican Party in many ways, but he -- I mean, he was the chairman -- the permanent chairman of the Republican National Convention, and yet we only saw him one time. Do you remember when Mrs. Dole went down off the platform or walked in the audience and started talking about how great Bob was, and her microphone went dead, and an arm reached in front of the camera and handed her a new microphone? That was Newt. I think the convention planners were worried about giving Newt a speaking role because of his earlier comments that men are better than women at going to war, because men can be dropped in the trenches like piglets in the mud. That's not what the Army means by "Be all you can be."

But Newt's troubles really started when he got the $4.5 million dollar advance on his book, and the publishing company was headed by Rupert Murdoch, so a lot of people said, "Well, that's a conflict of interest. Murdoch has a lot of investments that are some way regulated by the federal government." But I particularly loved the defense of one fellow member of Congress who said with great indignation, "Does anybody really believe you can buy a member of Congress for a mere $4.5 million."

But enough about the Republicans. Let me focus for a minute on the Democratic National Convention, where they really tried to answer actually the only real question before that convention, and that was, "Would the President's political guru, Dick Morris, be loyal to his wife, his call girl or his president?" Now, I think it's a tribute to the art of political consultancy that even today we don't know which he chose. As this story broke he got up and went home to Connecticut, went home to his wife, and then disclosed that he had a mistress in Texas and an illegitimate child. So just as I thought the Democratic party would shun this guy forever, the President, the First Lady and the Vice President call him up to offer their sympathies. Now, what do you say in a conversation like that? "Hello, Dick, sorry to hear about your hooker." But Washington and the New York newspapers have been full of this story. They just can't get enough of it, and the Washington Post has been running the call girl's diaries, in which she relates that while he was with her he called up the President to talk about family values and the economy and the budget, Middle East peace process and other items. It turns out the man who had the President's ear also had Bart Simpson's brain.

But then we moved on to the debates. Ross Perot was out this year and I thought he should be. I mean, you may recall that in 1992 I'm the guy who stepped off the President's campaign plane and declared Ross Perot to be delusional and paranoid. You see that's a disease that sets in when you actually think Larry King is Abraham Lincoln. Strangely enough, in 1992 Bob Dole was Ross Perot's best friend, and Perot called up Dole to complain about what I had said. Dole, in turn, called President Bush and said, "You've got to make Fitzwater apologize." Bush said no. The second day Dole called up and says, "Well, now you've got to fire Fitzwater." Bush said no. The third day he called up and said, "Well, now you have to apologize." Bush said no again. And I'm happy to say that after 1996 Sen. dole has a much better appreciation for my position.

The other big debate that still rages in Washington today, of course is over the role of the first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And you may remember that episode several months ago, where the President threatened to punch in the nose Bill Safire of the New York Times for something unflattering he wrote about the First Lady. Now, actually the President didn't threaten to punch Safire in the nose; he sent his press secretary out to do it for him. I understand that concept. But I want you all to know that George Bush never asked me to throw up on the prime minister of Japan. There's some things you just have to do yourself.

All of this raises a quest for what we call the character issue in politics, and frankly, the Republicans never quite figured out how to deal with this problem. But it does seem to me that the Clinton administration had more than its share of personnel problems in the first four years. I mean, remember these names from yesteryear -- Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, Lanny Guinier, Vince Foster, Bobby Ray Inman, Bernie Nusbaum, Jean Hanson, Roger Altman, Mike Espy, Webster Hubbell, Jocelyn Elders, Craig Livingston, Dick Morris. Now, people are asking the question, "What in the world does it take to survive in Washington?" And so I want to bring you Fitzwater's three basic rules of survival.

As David Letterman might say, start with Rule No. 3, if you need a date don't call the Arkansas State Troopers. Rule No. 2, your nanny is probably illegal if she jumps in the closet when the doorbell rings. And Rule No. 1, if you're going to pay $200 for a haircut, get off the airplane.

But things are never quite as they seem in Washington. You know, the President just won an amazing victory and yet he's complaining about being almost bankrupt from his legal defense costs, and the Washington Post now estimates those are about $2.3 million. Of course, that was before the two insurance policies kicked in yielding $900,000 for his legal defense. And it seems that a few years ago the President took out two insurance policies against the possibility of sexual harassment. Now, that's what I call the vision thing. How does the President deal with all that?

Well, I suspect at times the President feels like the old Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who at age 88 found himself on a train frantically looking for his ticket. As he was going through his coat pocket and his pants pocket, the young conductor noticed all this, walked over to him and said, "Mr. Justice, I know who you are. I trust you completely, just mail me the tickets when you get home." Whereupon, the old Justice looked at the young conductor and says, "Son, the question is not where are my tickets; the questions is where am I going."

And that, of course, is the real question Bill Clinton faces today; where is he going? Where does he want to take the country? And I don't think he can always look to polls to tell him where to go, to give him direction. I mean, the polls can be pretty accurate; they're pretty accurate during the campaign, but to get anything like -- things like trends, where the country's going to be five years from now, where are they going to be 10 years from now, I think you have to be very careful. For example, in 1973, there were 457 Elvis impersonators in America. In 1993 there were 2,736 Elvis impersonators in America. If this trend continues, by the year 2000 one out of four Americans will be an Elvis impersonator. And I think we have to ask the question, "If not the three people next to you, who?"

In any case, I believe the President's first two years will probably be remembered for his failure at the Health Care Reform Plan and probably the last two for the transformation that he made into a conservative Democrat. But one can never be entirely sure just what episode will be the most remembered about a presidency. I mean, Al Gore was just floating along when he ended up at a big reception in a Buddhist temple. He said he didn't realize it was a political fund-raiser. He apparently thought it was an Arthur Murray macarena class.

But the presidency is a very personal institution. Harry Truman went in a haberdasher and came out a man of steel. LBJ went in a congressional strong man and left defeated. Ronald Reagan went in an actor and came out ending the Cold War.

As I look back on my 10 years in the White House, it's always these personal episodes that come to mind. President Reagan in 1988, standing toe to toe with Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin, in a room that looked like a Faberge egg and Gorbachev shaking his finger in anger and President Reagan saying no. No, America would not return to detente in the '80s; we would not give up Star Wars, indeed, we intended to win the Cold War. For President Reagan, not an effusive man in private, walking through row after row of the parents and families of those who died on the USS Stark, and women clinging to him crying until his shirt was soaked and his suit wrinkled, his eyes red and swollen, his clothes stained with tears and makeup and lipstick, and yet he embraced every mother in that hangar.

Or President Bush, walking into a crowd of several hundred thousand people in the middle of Prague, Czechoslovakia, and they were chanting freedom, freedom. And when the President started to speak with each sentence followed by translation, they shouted to turn off the translation, they wanted to hear the raw voice of the American President, because for them it was a voice of freedom.

Or having dinner with George Bush just hours before the Panama invasion and seeing his face turn inward, his countenance growing weak and drawn as he talked about the men in the C-130s who were about to fall out of the night and into a firefight at the Panama City Airport, he knew that many of them would die.

Or a meeting with the President in the Oval Office at 2 o'clock on Feb. 27, 1991, to confirm the end of the Persian Gulf War. Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the objectives had been met; Iraq was effectively kicked out of Kuwait. President Bush turned to Gen. Powell and he said, "Well, can I end it tonight, Colin? Can I call an end to the hostilities? I don't want this to go on any longer than necessary." And Gen. Powell said yes. The President says, "Well, but what does Schwarzkopf say?" And Powell said he agreed, but he got up from his couch and walked over to the President's desk, picked up the telephone and called Schwarzkopf directly in Saudi Arabia, and he outlined the plan they had in mind. Gen. Schwarzkopf said it was fine with him, but he did ask for a few more hours to deal with a tank group that was operating north of Bahrain. Gen. Powell finished the conversation and turned and related it to President bush, who managed to trace the lines on the big charts that were drawn in the Oval Office, lines of the retreating Iraqi forces, and then he said, "Midnight is the deadline for the end of the coalition offensive." We had won.

For the first time in 40 years, Americans could clearly say we won.

But as I said again, one never knows exactly what it is that the presidency will be remembered for. And as I look back on my years as press secretary, I want to comment for just a few minutes on another signal event which occurred during my years, and that was revolution in communications. In the history of communications we can point to changes, like the printing press, the radio, film, talking movies, and certainly television. They all changed the way the message was delivered to America, but they didn't have such a great impact on the people who operated the system, on the messengers, the journalists and the practitioners. The great principles of journalism, freedom of the press, the people's right to know, accuracy in the reporting, journalistic independence, openness in government, information for the public good were still being followed through of these changes by the practitioners of journalism. The great television pioneers -- Murrow, Friendly, Reynolds, Edwards and all the rest -- were products of the basic journalism courses taught at schools like Kansas State University and practiced in the newsrooms of Abilene and Coffeyville and Manhattan and Kansas City and New York and thousands of other communities across the country.

But in the 1980s two technological changes occurred that altered the way journalism was practiced in America. They changed the whole nature and the character of the game. They made the principles of journalism harder to follow and more difficult. They revolutionized the economics of journalism and turned lawyers into reporters, journalists into entertainers, writers into sloganeers, laymen into cameramen, politicians into pundits and so blurred the profile of journalists that we now turn to Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken and Hard Copy for the daily news. They created new business opportunities, giant media conglomerates, mega profits in the communications industry. It was a tidal wave of change brought on by the computer and the satellite.

The computer made everybody a journalist, no qualifications necessary. Plug it in and start your own newsletter. Every organization has one, or five, or 10 or 20. Send it to other journalists and your ideas are suddenly a part of the mainstream journals of the country, passed along from one publication to another like back fence gossip. The satellite made all news instantaneous to everyone, everywhere all the time. Live coverage of wars, decisions made and passed along to millions, with little time for reflection. Five hundred cable channels operating 24 hours a day, talk shows demanding talent, anybody to fill the time. And most significantly, a new market was created for information of every kind on every subject.

The old question studied and restudied by media scholars for centuries, "What is news," I think still applies. Editors used to make news judgments in terms of their readers' interests, their community standards, their churches' morality and their personal ethics. But today, with hundreds of hours of television programming being offered on cable and satellite to audiences around the glove, reporters and editors often have no idea who their audience is. The result is that producers, editors and correspondents write for themselves. They make themselves the audience, transferring their own prejudices to the masses. They define news according to their own interests, not according to the community' interests.

In addition, a new marketplace has developed where reporters are more valued for their wit, their style and their glibness than they are for their reporting. The ability to explain things to people has been devalued. Reporters are the lowest paid segment of their industry. Pundits, columnists and talking heads do the best, because they become celebrities, celebrities with speaking fees and advertising endorsements, consultant arrangements and honoraria. Celebrity is the new life blood of journalism. That, too, has changed the nature of communication.

So consider some of these symptoms of this revolution and technology. No. 1, an infotainment age. It's left to us, the audience, to decide what's news and what's entertainment, to decide if John McLaughlin, a former Jesuit preacher, a Nixon speech writer is an entertainer or a newsman. It's left for us to decide if Jack Germond, a crusty old reporter for the Baltimore Sun who sits in the first chair in the McLaughlin Group, is still a reporter or a charming old curmudgeon of an entertainer. And what of Andy Rooney, Stone Phillips, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North and all the other talking heads. Are they news people, entertainers or just celebrities who are a part of the new tidal wave of journalism?

No. 2, big money. Anchorman on the networks make $7 to $10 million in a year. They ride in limousines, they fly in private jets, they interview heads of state or equals in power. Are they out of touch? When is the last time an anchorman bought a loaf of bread? What are the news values of the $7 million man, and with that kind of money, how can he assume himself to be a representative of the national audience? When the Clinton administration appointments of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood failed because of public outrage over their nannies and failure to pay taxes on them, the White House press corps had missed the story entirely. Why? Because they had more money than most Americans, and because they had nannies. On this issue, at least, they had lost touch. And there are others related to the great wealth that's now pouring into the communications industry.

No. 3, the revolving door. Journalists today move in and out of government at will. The current Deputy Secretary of State was foreign editor of Time Magazine in 1991, then President Clinton won the election in 1992 and he immediately moved over to the State Department as Deputy Secretary. Then we found out he was also Bill Clinton's college roommate. Shouldn't we be a little suspect of his reporting motives in 1991? Dave Gergen works for PBS, formerly with Reagan and Clinton. Pat Buchanan works for CNN, runs for President. Pete Williams, Tim Russert, Bay Buchanan, D.D. Myers, Chris Matthews, Tony Snow, Bob Selnick, Jeff Greenfield, the entire cast of Crossfire and hundreds of others all worked for politicians or political organizations before they became media pundits and so-called news people. The list goes on and we wonder why the American people wonder about bias in the news media.

No. 4. Ted Koppel walks out of the Republican National Convention and he says, "There's no news going on. I'm taking my marbles and going home." David Broder, in trying to explain this writes that, quote, "The irony is that television which drove politics out of the convention and encouraged the politicians to convert them into TV entertainers, now complain about the results." But it was inevitable. The satellites and the robot cameras eliminated the need for the newsmen. And Ted Koppel, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, saw the ghost of Christmas future and he didn't like it.

People don't want to be told what to think. We make our own judgments. We're tired of correspondents giving us their bias. A new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs shows that 75 percent of the air time afforded to the national political conventions this year was given to the correspondents, not to the participants. Koppel also saw that the political parties were way ahead of the networks in terms of respecting their audience. They put their speakers on one right after another. They said, "Let the people hear them; let the people judge what we're about." the network correspondents and the anchors pouted for two weeks. They blamed the political parties for staging the conventions, but, in fact, I believe they can only blame themselves.

Assumption No. 5, the new journalism marketplace. The Times Mirror organization reports that 10 years ago 60 percent of all Americans said they got their primary news of the day from the network evening shows. Today, that's down to 40 percent. Now, for my friends in journalism who refused to be involved in business in any way because it corrupts their principles, that means lack of market share, folks. It doesn't mean we're less informed, it doesn't mean we're watching less television, it means we're watching somebody else. We're turning to C Span and CNN and the other cable channels for getting just as good a perspective and just as much talent as the big networks.

There is a new computer service called Point Cast, where you leave your computer on and every half hour automatically the news of the day comes on you screen, as a kind of a screen saver, if you will. So by the time 6 o'clock rolls around you've seen the news of the day. There's nothing new. The network evening news is old and even seems a little boring. But it also raises another question, who produces that news you see on the computer? What kind of judgments are going into that news? Where is it coming from? We have no idea.

When a tidal wave hits, no matter what its form, there are basically three responses.

First, are the people who say, "I've seen it all before." They do nothing and often are drowned. Second are those who say, "I'm getting out of here," and they hide and seldom have homes to come back to. Third are those who say, "This is a tidal wave. I better learn how to surf tidal waves." In other words, they deal with it. And my theory is that journalism leaders today are mostly in the second group, they're hiding, like Ted Koppel, looking for familiar territory to return to. CBS news president Andrew Hayward told this year's meetings of network affiliates that television news was committing seven deadly sins. He said they were imitation, predictability, artificiality, laziness, oversimplification, hype and cynicism. Perhaps in their somewhere is a commitment to deal with it.

After the conventions this year the networks defended themselves by saying the audience for conventions was gone, nobody cared. That puts them, I believe, in the do-nothing category, and I submit that the audience for information about our democracy is there. The people may not be watching those networks, but they're watching other sources, and they're reading the newspapers, and they're keeping track of what's going on.

Westinghouse, Time Warner and the other communications giants I believe are taking this revolution and creating an exciting new future in communications, and it's one that we need to be looking forward to. We need to look back for some of the solutions, perhaps, but we need to be dealing with the problems of this giant new industry. Just wait till you see what Bill Gates does with NBC. Right now it's called MS-NBC, but the peacock will strut again, I tell you, because Microsoft knows what the future is about, and the communications system in this country is going to be drug along whether they like it or not. Our challenge as viewers, as readers and as users is to monitor these new communication systems and make sure they reflect our society, our values and our information needs.

So let me suggest just a couple of ideas in closing for the news media to consider. First of all, as the marketplace is driving journalism, maybe it also has solutions. I'm intrigued by George Clooney, an actor of all people, who has used the marketplace to bring responsible journalism to television tabloids. He simply won't give interviews to Entertainment Tonight if it keeps buying from irresponsible photographers. One small step for man. We need some way to sort out the infotainment puzzle. We need to know who's reliable and who has an ax to grind, who has a bias, so why not use the new technology to tell us.

Almost every newspaper, radio and television station in America today has its own web page on the Internet. Why not put the resumes of your on-air reporters, your byline reporters, your major producers on the Internet, then the whole world can see who it is that's telling us this information, a voluntary kind of accountability. At least the national news organizations I believe should be adopting a revolving door policy. Why not a one-year cooling off period just like the government has? Sign a contract, leave ABC, and you can't join the federal government for one year. Leave the federal government and you can't be a reporter for one year. More voluntary accountability.

Financial disclosure. Senator Robert Byrd a few years ago suggested that journalists disclose their sources of income, like public officials. The media went crazy. Why? They operate like a fourth branch of government; they ask us to accept their word without any accountability; there's no licensing or other process. Why shouldn't we have a feel for their salary range? Why shouldn't we have a feel for their outside income and what companies are paying their honoraria? It seems to me like another point of voluntary accountability.

And finally, let's talk a little bit about civic journalism. The new editor of US News and World Report, James Fallows, recently wrote a book contending that the media is destroying democracy and he advocated a new kind of civic involvement in journalism. The Big East Coast media treated his ideas with total disdain. My reaction was a little different. My reaction was I know what civic involvement by the media is. I grew up with it. It was a journalism I learned at Kansas State University and other places. It was the editors I know who were involved in their communities, who worked for better roads and better schools and worked for he better ethics of their community. Why is that so shocking to my colleagues in the East who have gotten so far away from this that they not only don't know how to relate to their community, they're afraid they can't do it without somehow compromising their own values.

I believe that there are people in this state and leaders in the journalism community across the country, like Huck Boyd and A.Q. Miller and William Allen White, the Seaton family, Henry Jameson and so many other pioneers of the print press in this country, that there is plenty of reason and plenty of ways to judge how civic journalism could be useful in guiding the new revolution that we see going on in the '90s in communications. The people of America must demand good journalism from the new marketplace. I believe newspapers today are better than ever before, more intelligent, more diversified, more responsive and more needed. As we turn to the computer or the fax for faster information, let us return to the newspaper for depth and insight. It's there. It's labeled and we can judge its principles every day.

Forty years ago in the wheat fields of Kansas I used to look up and watch the clouds go by and somehow fell in love with journalism. In my high school newspaper and with my friends in Abilene, what magic it was to write about events and to have people praise you for it. Not only that, people would defend your rights, you could say any fool thing you wanted. This is the greatest thing that ever happened and we cannot lose that in the communications revolution. But to keep it, I believe it is time for the national news media to stand up and surf the tide, to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the revolution in communications. Thank you all very much.