Richard Reeves

Closing Down the White House

WASHINGTON -- "The Hill" is a Washington newspaper with a small but powerful readership, principally members of Congress and their staffs. It seems a profitable operation, partially because it gets advertising that eludes most journals, things like the full-page ad in last Wednesday's issue that showed a bit of one side of the face of President-elect Bush's nominee for secretary of the interior under the headline: "Gale Norton is so far on the fringe ... she's off the page."

The same edition has an annual feature called "Ins & Outs," one of those lists that purport to tell you who and what's up and who and what's not. Most of the pairings are cutesy. "Big hair" is in, "Big Macs" are out. Greta Van Susteren is in, Chris Matthews is out.

But one of those pairings is an important predictor of what Washington, and therefore the country, will be like for the next year or so. "Staying on message" is in, "Leaking" is out.

George W. Bush, unlike, say, Bill Clinton, has not gone around proclaiming that this will be the most open administration in history, etc. When naming Cabinet members, the president-elect said he wanted men and women of ideas, but those ideas were for him, not for press and public.

Many of them, of course, have exactly the same ideas, but that is one of the things that make Republicans a party as opposed to a debating society. In a speech the other day during the ceremonies surrounding the Columbia-DuPont Awards for broadcast journalism, professor Robert McChesney of the University of Illinois offered the opinion that the main reason the Republicans won the after-election campaign last year was the remarkable way they communicate without words. "It is amazing," he said, "that every Republican, from the candidate for president to a dogcatcher in Iowa, is saying the same words at the same moment."

He was making the point that, in his view, the press favored Republicans during the period from Election Day until the Supreme Court stole the election. Structurally, he argued, reporters live on disagreement, and finding none on one side, they focus on the differences on the other side, in this case filling airwaves and pages with Democrats arguing with each other.

It's an interesting point, one that also explains why reporters generally favor Democrats, not for ideological reasons but because they are easier to cover. In that context, Al Gore lost the election in the long periods when he refused to meet the press.

Open vs. closed governance is a critical difference between the two parties -- and both of them tend to get in trouble because of it. Clinton got little done in his first year in office because so many people were in his office at the same time -- 20 or 30 people debating over things some of them knew nothing about. "It was like an Internet start-up," said Jodie Goldstone, a Clinton assistant in the early days. The Bush White House is sure to be more like the inner council of a mature corporation, an isurance company perhaps.

Clinton's Oval Office leaked and leaked, which drowned his agenda, because he had to respond to the journalism of each day rather than to issues themselves. (Hillary Rodham Clinton's in-the-vault discussions of health-care reform were obviously at odds with his early free-wheeling style, but she was a special, special case.)

But Republicans often go too far with their insistence on control, loyalty, discipline and order above all. The most obvious example of that was the rise and fall of Richard Nixon. Secrecy became an end rather than a means of control -- and, as time went on, Cabinet members and other responsible officials did not have enough information to know what was real and what was not, or who was to be trusted and who was to be misled. Some of the same kinds of order-above-all thinking during the presidency of Ronald Reagan played a part in Iran-contra misdeeds, among others.

That is not to say Bush is like Nixon. But he will be more like Nixon than like Clinton -- and he will pay a price for the inevitable isolation at the top of closed governance.

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