Richard Reeves

Talk in Washington Is Never Cheap

WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital city is not noted as a place where the truth shall make you free. In fact, in the past several days one prominent Washingtonian lost his job for telling the truth to a congressional committee, and one military office disappeared because someone else anonymously leaked the truth about it to The New York Times.

Information and timing are the coin of the realm in Washington, and that makes the city different from most, if not all, others. It is the only place I've ever been where young, relatively poor nobodies -- as in staffers or reporters -- can be invited to the grandest of homes because they were at the hearing of the day and are willing to tell, word for word, more powerful people every detail of what happened. This they do happily -- knowing that for the evening they are more important than, say, an ex-senator still hanging around after being rejected by the voters back home somewhere. The reward for the conversation is food and wine the young could not afford on their own -- and perhaps a few other delicacies, edible or repeatable, they wish they could sneak back to their small, shared apartments in places where you have to look both ways even if you don't intend to cross the street.

It is also the only city I know where taxi radios are all tuned to National Public Radio, even when the driver cannot understand the language of the programs that unite Washington, beginning with "Morning Edition" and going through to "All Things Considered."

So the truth-telling of the past several days is a civics lesson in how our democracy works. The fired truth-teller, who will not be getting many more dinner invitations as long as George Bush is president, is named Michael Parker. He is a former member of Congress from Mississippi, a Democrat who switched to the Republicans in 1995, who was appointed five months ago as asssistant secretary of the Army for civil works. That meant he was the director of the Army Corps of Engineers, which does the military's construction work and supervises dams, waterways, coastline and such in the cause of flood control.

What Parker did was say the country would suffer badly because of $2 billion in cuts of the corps' budget -- and hinted that the White House expected Congress to restore the cuts in appropriations bills, thus allowing the White House to do what was necessary but still blame Congress for overspending. It's an old game. But this time the Bush White House changed the rules. It was not so much that they disliked Parker -- a friend of both the president and of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott -- but that they wanted to make an example of him.

And so they did. Parker's firing was meant as an object lesson to other appointees who confuse their loyalties. There are always a few foolish enough to think that their loyalties should be to their employees (36,000 of them in the corps) and local constituencies like flood control agencies rather than to the White House itself.

"The president's budget is the president's agenda, and administration officials should not be questioning the president's agenda," said an anonymous White House spokesman. Respect for the White House went up immediately all around town.

In the other incident, the demolition of a new military propaganda office, the White House lost face to a faceless leaker who let the world know that the Pentagon was planning to upgrade the amount of American propaganda being pumped out around the world. Part of the idea was to explain and defend American military moves and, it was hoped, to make folks out there like us a little better.

That sounds pretty good, but someone who did not like the idea (or who knew there was a hidden agenda) told the Times that another part of the job would be leaking phony stories to journalists around the world to make us look better and bad guys look even worse than they are. Predictably, the press, here and abroad, went nuts, and that idea was dead within days.

Another object lesson. Sometimes leaked truth does indeed make us free. Now the person who slipped that info to the Times -- it could be the lowest-paid secretary in the building or even an unpaid intern -- will sooner or later get the Georgetown dinner invitations that used to go to Mike Parker. That's the way it goes in the homes of the not-so-brave and the land of the free-talkers.

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