Most political journalists come to Washington because they’re snappy writers, big thinkers, or news breakers. Me? My ticket to the big leagues had little to do with talent. It was mostly about the governor I was covering, Bill Clinton.
No false modesty here. It’s safe to say that had it not been for Clinton’s election as president in 1992, the Associated Press leadership would have been content to see their 29-year-old statehouse reporter become the gray-haired dean of the Arkansas press corps.
But, as they say, elections have consequences.
AP promoted me to the White House beat because I knew Clinton, his family, friends, and staff better than anybody in the national press corps. Those contacts helped me break a few stories and get my career in Washington jump-started. But there’s more to it.
Although we were never pals and occasionally butted heads, my relationship with Clinton and his wife, Hillary, made me a better journalist. And I believe that the Clintons benefited from having a familiar—if not always friendly—face in the White House briefing room. In this town, more than we like to admit it, relationships matter.
Mine with Clinton started in 1985. Two weeks into my first job out of college—at The Sentinel-Record in Clinton’s hometown of Hot Springs, Ark.—the editor sent me down the block to cover one of Clinton’s speeches.
“Where are you from?” asked the 39-year-old governor, slipping his right hand into mine and draping his left arm around my shoulders. It was, I believe, my first man hug.
“Detroit.” I remember thinking: Jesus, he’s got pretty blue eyes.
“What part of Detroit?” Clinton asked.
“Seven Mile Road and Gratiot.”
“Oh, yeah,” he replied. “Isn’t that near the Macomb County line? You grew up in Reagan Democrat Country.” Clinton spent the next five minutes breaking down the political demography of Detroit’s northeast corner.
He was intoxicating. In the time it takes to heat a TV dinner, Clinton had convinced me that he was the smartest person in the room and that I was the center of his attention. In the next 25 years, I would see countless others fall just as quickly to the Clinton Touch.
A few minutes after that first chat, I was in the hotel bathroom—in a stall, actually—when the door of the men’s room banged open and I heard Clinton yelling. “I want you to take that f— poll and shove it up his a—. You got that, you stupid p—!”
I walked out of the stall and waved at Clinton who, realizing too late that a reporter was in the room, stood at the urinal and nodded meekly. I brushed past the aide who had just been lambasted.
Two years later, I moved to Little Rock to cover the governor on a daily basis. He was incredibly accessible. He treated the capital press corps with respect, despite the fact that we quickly learned not to go wobbly over his charms. When a political reporter would visit from New York City or Washington, Clinton would grab the scribe by the right hand and drape his left arm over the poor sucker’s shoulders. And he’d wink at the Arkansas reporters, as if to say, “You were in love once, too.”
I also got to know the lambasted aide. The governor promoted him twice, eventually to a Cabinet post. When the aide’s son became gravely ill, Clinton quietly helped the family. They are still dear friends.
Why do I share these little stories? Because Clinton taught me that politicians are not as good or as bad as they seem on first or even second impression. Clinton isn’t the God I first met, or the dog I heard barking in the bathroom. Like the rest of us, he lives in a third way—a complicated, imperfect man who ably served his state and country while satisfying his ambitions.
The point is that relationships matter. Politicians who pay reporters a modicum of respect might earn the benefit of the doubt. Reporters who look past their cynicism to get to know politicians as people might discover a sophisticated, three-dimensional subject. Politicians who form relationships with each other, even if they disagree ideologically, might make the system better.
That last point has a certain resonance in a capital divided along epically polarized lines. The shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., sparked a national conversation about the coarsening of U.S. politics. Lawmakers remembered a not-too-distant time when they socialized across the partisan divide rather than fly home to their homogenized districts.
President Obama, who has called for an “adult conversation” on contentious issues, invited Democratic and Republican lawmakers to the White House for a Super Bowl party. He suffered no illusions that the fresh-baked apple pie and home-brewed beer would usher in an era of comity. Still, it couldn’t hurt. “The more we can humanize each other,” Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., said after the party, “the better it is.”
A few days later, The Washington Postpublished an op-ed by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a conservative Republican who is friendly with Obama. The pair has worked together on bipartisan legislation. They hugged each other after Obama gave an address to a joint session of Congress in 2009.
In the op-ed, Coburn accused Obama of not taking the lead on deficit reduction. It was a tough piece, but not mean. “What America needs now,” Coburn wrote, “is not division and posturing but real leadership.”
Real leadership benefits from real relationships. As a contentious budget debate gives way to the 2012 campaign, let’s hope that Washington’s political and media elites resist the temptation to deify or demonize imperfect strangers. Get to know one another. Apple pie, anybody?
This article appears in the Feb. 26, 2011, edition of National Journal.