Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2001 / 10 Shevat 5761
Bush should be open with press
PRESIDENT BUSH proved in his inaugural address that he can be a capable communicator, but there's worry in the press corps that his White House is going to be excessively tight with information.
Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was a superb spokesman on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, but he needs to have full access to what's going on in the Oval Office and freedom to talk about it, or he risks becoming another Dee Dee Myers.
Myers, former President Bill Clinton's onetime spokeswoman, clearly was not present when policy was made and the White House "message" was concocted. She was reduced merely to delivering it. The press knew it, and she lost effectiveness. Finally she left.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Bush said that he would deliberately keep Fleischer in the dark about some matters. All presidents do that some of the time. But Bush should keep it to an absolute minimum.
The best policy for any White House is to get as much information out as possible on its own terms and to dominate the debate in Washington. So far, that's not Bush's policy. Rather, the policy seems to be "when in doubt, don't talk."
The atmosphere is certainly better than the hostility that prevailed at the outset of the Clinton administration, when the president and first lady considered moving the press room to the Old Executive Office Building and then briefly barred press access to much of the West Wing.
Nevertheless, reporters covering the Bush transition complained that it was next to impossible to get calls returned -- and when they were, it was from a press functionary who delayed the process of passing on information, rather than facilitating it.
Consequently, Democrats got a jump on the education debate this week. Reporters who care about education were fully briefed by New Democrats in the House and Senate. Every story anticipating Bush's education plan contained more facts about the Democrats' plan than Bush's.
The Bush administration is only days old, and nearly every White House starts out with mania to "stop leaks." That quickly dissipates because they're impossible to stop.
But Bush, if he means to change the climate in Washington, should adopt a new information policy, encouraging officials to talk, brief and put out information that educates the public and, yes, spins the media a bit.
"Spin" -- which rarely reveals new facts, only dispenses propaganda - has become a habit in Washington because politicians believe they are engaged in a "permanent campaign." It's a bipartisan habit, and it would be welcome if Bush broke it.
Even spin, though, is preferable to a close hold on all information. For instance, it took prying from the New York Daily News to find out who is occupying which office in the new West Wing -- something that shouldn't be a state secret.
Every conveyance of information is not a "leak," and all "leaks" are not detrimental to an administration. They can help the press and public understand how policy was made, the arguments the president had to weigh and why he reached the decision he did.
A "close hold" information policy forces the press to go to secondary and tertiary sources (Congress and interest groups); thus, the truth about an administration may easily get distorted.
Clinton never stopped conveying the impression that he detested the press, regarding it at best as an adversary to be manipulated and at worst an enemy.
He rarely held the kind of background sessions with journalists that might have built support for his policies. Clinton was successful enough that, ultimately, he felt he didn't need to.
Bush, however, demonstrated in his inaugural address a real desire to change things -- to unify the country instead of polarizing it, to establish an era of responsibility instead of one of license, and to foster civility instead of combat.
His inaugural address may not have contained immortal lines like those in the speeches of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, but he was eloquent enough -- far more than he's ever been before.
His "solemn pledge" to "work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity" was memorable. And the clearly sincere grounding of this goal in his belief in "a power larger than ourselves, who creates us equal in his image," was a welcome means of reaching out to minorities.
Bush needs not just to speak to the nation often but to let his subordinate officials tell the media and the country what's going on and why. Otherwise, his adversaries will dominate the
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.
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