By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- On one of the scariest days yet in the five-year battle with terrorists, President Bush prepared to make a speech to reassure the American people. But the White House press corps was 1,000 miles away in Texas.
Bush had left his ranch vacation and jetted north for a scheduled closed-door fundraiser. No press plane accompanied him. And so when news broke that Britain had broken up a major terrorist plot, the only ones there to convey the president's reaction were a handful of local reporters and a few pool journalists who ride in the back of Air Force One.
The idea that Bush could travel across the country without a full contingent of reporters, especially in the middle of a war, highlights a major cultural shift in the presidency and the news media. In the four decades since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, presidents traditionally have taken journalists with them wherever they traveled on the theory that when it comes to the most powerful leader on the planet, anything can happen at any time.
But increasingly in recent months, Bush has left town without a chartered press plane, often to receptions where he talks to donors chipping in hundreds of thousands of dollars with no cameras or tapes to record his words for the public. Barred from such events, most news organizations will not pay to travel with him. And so a White House policy inclined to secrecy has combined with escalating costs for the strapped news media to let Bush fly under the radar in a way his predecessors could not.
"A lot of it is a reflection of the times," said C-SPAN's Steve Scully, president of the White House Correspondents' Association. "The whole thing is changing."
For veterans of past administrations, the changes are striking. "When the president moved it was a big deal, and I can't even remember an occasion when we didn't take a charter," said Ed Rollins, who was Ronald Reagan's White House political director.
"Go back 20 or 25 years and say we're at war and the president is traveling around the country and there are only, what, three people with him?" asked Joe Lockhart, who was Bill Clinton's White House press secretary. "That would have been unthinkable."
In some ways, it may not seem to make much difference. Like presidents before him, Bush still always travels with a small media pool that includes wire services, television cameras and a single newspaper reporter who files a report to others left behind. The advent of instant video feeds, cable television, the Internet, e-mail and transcripts of the president's every public word has made it possible to cover Bush without being anywhere near him.
Yet fewer eyeballs on a president means less scrutiny, in the view of some media and government watchdog groups. Fewer reporters, they say, means fewer questions and fewer versions of what happens available to the public. News accounts written from a different time zone invariably miss context and texture. And in closing the doors of some fundraisers, the White House has reversed a policy adopted under Clinton after fundraising scandals raised questions about what donors are seeking when they hobnob with presidents.
Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition formed three years ago that includes groups such as the American Library Association, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Society of Professional Journalists, called the changing pattern of coverage "quite disturbing" and part of a "rising tide of secrecy" in Washington.
"It's another way of closing off responsibility and accountability and shutting themselves off from public view," she said. "I think the public would prefer that somebody be in the room who is not there for their own interests to be served."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said there is nothing insidious about closing fundraisers in private homes and noted that news organizations choose whether to pay for a plane follow the president. "It's really all about money," he said. "It used to be that media organizations had more dough."
Given the changes in communication technology, he added, "I think presidents are more widely available than at any point in American history." And he said he makes a point of finding ways for at least some reporters to see Bush when there are major developments. "If there is big news, we make sure the president's available," Snow said.
The cost of covering the president has risen dramatically at a time when the news media, anxious about economic pressures, are aggressively cutting costs. For a one-day trip to St. Louis, for instance, the White House billed The Washington Post $3,317. To go to Yuma, Ariz., for a day, the bill came to $3,795. A two-day trip to Europe cost $8,283, not counting hotel charges.
And so even for trips where there is a press plane, sometimes only a handful of journalists are on board. Newspapers that used to travel regularly, including USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and others, now do so more sporadically. The Boston Globe no longer even has a White House correspondent, focusing on breaking exclusive stories rather than writing about the president's everyday activities.
"It's not like we're ignoring it completely," said Joe Williams, the Globe's deputy Washington bureau chief. "But the lineup we're using right now gives us flexibility to attack a broader range of stories than we would if we had a designated White House correspondent."
Bush is not the only one to find ways of escaping much public notice as he flies around the country. Vice President Cheney manages to leave Washington for days, and sometimes weeks, at a time without public announcement. Few in the capital even knew he was in Texas in February, for instance, until he accidentally shot a companion while hunting quail. And he has been in Jackson, Wyo., since July 29 without any national news media mentioning it.
The Jackson Hole News & Guide found out Cheney was there only because it spotted his plane and the radar dish that serves an anti-missile battery that protects his house when he's in town. "In the past, they've been kind of weird about it," said Thomas Dewell, the paper's co-editor. "They'd say, 'His airplane's here and the missile base is here, but we can't tell you if he's here.' " This time, he said, Cheney's office confirmed his presence when asked.
Cheney aides said they announce his movements only when he makes public appearances but will provide his whereabouts if reporters call to ask. The vice president, who has already headlined 81 fundraisers in this election cycle, plans to return to Washington on Sunday before heading out to events in Arizona, New Mexico, Montana and Idaho next week, his office said.
Clinton agreed to stop holding closed fundraisers in response to criticism of his campaign finance tactics. When a fundraiser was held in a private home, the White House permitted a single print reporter into the room to record the scene and the president's words for the rest of the pack. The Bush White House changed that, leaving fundraisers open if located in hotels or public spaces but closing them in private homes. "The thought was having the presence of reporters would disrupt the intimacy of the events," said Ari Fleischer, who was then White House press secretary.
Lanny J. Davis, who was White House special counsel during the Clinton fundraising scandals, expressed surprise that the change has not generated more criticism. "I marvel at their ability to get away with it," he said. "I have to grudgingly admit to some envy. I admire their chutzpah."
Bush has traveled out of the Washington area at least seven times this year without a press plane, including four times in the past month to closed Republican fundraisers -- in Milwaukee, in Cleveland, in Charleston, W.Va., and on Thursday here to Green Bay to raise $500,000 for House candidate John Gard. He also headlined a fundraiser in Texas yesterday that was closed to the media. That may serve the interests of candidates who want the money Bush can raise but don't want a public embrace with a president suffering low approval ratings.
Scully said he may raise the issue of closed fundraisers with Snow. "As we move into the fall campaign, if this happens more often, we're going to put pressure on Tony and others to open these events," Scully said. "He is the president. He is traveling at government expense. . . . We should be in there to hear what he has to say."
In the past, major media organizations felt it was important to be near the president even if they were kept out of the room, a "body watch" mentality sparked by the Kennedy assassination and reinforced over the years by any number of unexpected crises, including the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"There's going to be a time when something's going to happen and the major national media's not going to be there," Lockhart said. "They're going to have to rely on technology. Will this have a major impact on our democracy? Smarter people than me will have to answer that."