WASHINGTON -- "If Reagan was the Teflon president, Bush is the leak-proof one," said a White House correspondent who has covered both men. "Nothing gets in and, sure as hell, nothing gets out."
There was great and grudging respect in that complaint. Bush or his people know the secret: If you keep your mouths shut, there's not much the Washington press can do to you.
Howell Raines, now the executive editor of The New York Times, once growled that being a White House correspondent was not much different from stenography. But at least in those days -- Raines covered the Reagan presidency -- there were two things to transcribe, official leaks and unofficial leaks. The official ones from "a high source" were part of governance, often trial balloons floated to test public opinion. The unofficial or unauthorized stream was an approximation of what was really going on, who was doing what to whom and why.
The unofficial stuff, which usually goes from stream to flood when Democrats are in the White House, was the key to understanding a president and his works. But that has pretty much dried up these days. We are watching, but not hearing, a new peak in news management -- or, at least, noise management. These folks are not squealing on each other. It is not a question of "spin"; it is a question of silence.
Look at the last few weeks, which in a talkative White House could have been total disaster, the running story and whispers of a White House spinning out of control. Instead, the bad news (for the White House) comes and goes, usually in 48 hours. The old follow-up accounts of, say, the bouncing of the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, are dependent on behind-the-scenes reports on internal debate or turmoil. But if nobody talks, there's no follow-up.
The removal of Harvey Pitt from the SEC last month was followed by the firing of Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill and chief economic adviser Larry Lindsey; the embarrassing appointment and resignation of Henry Kissinger as chairman of the commission investigating intelligence failures before the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001; the re-election of Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana; and the Confederate flag-waving troubles of Sen. Trent Lott.
The Lott flap, of course, was somewhat different than the others, because although the White House maintained radio silence, Lott and other members of Congress are genetically incapable of shutting up. Hooray for them! I say.
The penchant for secrecy in this Bush White House is also retroactive. In my own latest adventures with the National Archives, which are being vetted by the White House, I have discovered that "pool reports" from the Reagan White House -- the reports filed by the small group of reporters assigned to fly on Air Force One and then copied and distributed to the rest of the press -- are no longer available to scholars. These were not even government papers 20 years ago. They were written by reporters for other reporters, published all over the world, and now you can't read them. Also, the White House is busily removing all documents relating to sex education, birth control and population control from government Web sites.
The silence of these lambs in the White House, of course, is not an accident; it is a well-thought-out strategy. In his now famous e-mail to Esquire magazine, John DiIulio, the resigned head of the faith-based initiatives office in the White House, said it all: "Bush staff, not just senior political adviser Karl Rove, came from Texas tightly knit and hyper-determined to protect the president and prevent the types of internal policy debates that beget bad press. They staffed and organized themselves, accordingly, thereby eliminating leaks ..."
They have also eliminated debate.
Is it possible that they are preventing leaks by not talking to each other at all? Could be. They certainly are consulting with fewer and fewer members of the public who do not share their political agenda. Outsiders, including the American people, are being cut out of whatever debate is going on behind the locked gates. In sealing all leaks, the Bush administration is drowning freedom of speech.
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