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Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2001 / 10 Shevat 5761

Morton Kondracke

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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 landscape.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.


01/30/01: Bush Should go for broke early on education
01/23/01: Clinton ain't going away, folks
01/19/01: Bush should try for legacy as 'Great Reconciler'
01/16/01: Left-Center Rift Re-emerges For Democratic Leaders
01/12/01: Clinton doing Bush no favors in Mideast
01/09/01: Bush and Democrats can deal
12/14/00: Will Daschle make it his business to get along with President Bush?
12/08/00: GOP is in danger of ruining record on medical research
11/27/00: Some fascinating stories about how and why people voted
11/22/00: GOP Survived health bullets, but one is left
11/20/00: Can next president and Hill deal?
11/15/00: With nation split, leaders must reach across party divide
11/07/00: The Envelope, Please:Bush Beats Gore, GOP Holds Hill
11/03/00: Parties appeal to two 'gospels'
11/01/00: Lurking in the shadows
10/26/00: What's Gore's Social Security plan?
10/18/00: While Bush, Gore debate surplus, Congress spends it
10/16/00: Two debates leave lots of questions
10/03/00: What questions should be debated?
09/28/00: Gore and Bush should prepare to lead
09/19/00: Bush let values issue slip away
08/25/00: Gore hands center to Bush
08/22/00: AlGore, look to future, not to Bubba
08/08/00: 2000 race could leave high road for low
08/03/00: Convention must point Bush to center
08/01/00: GOP Readies 'Debt Lockbox' As 2000 Strategy
07/27/00: Cheney adds heft to GOP ticket
07/25/00: Foreign, Defense Policy Deserves Full 2000 Debate
07/20/00: Truman Show: Gore Replays 1948, But Bush Isn't Dewey
07/18/00: Bush Must Fight Gore's Drug Plan As 'Bad Medicine'
07/13/00: Mexico's Election Supports U.S. Action On NAFTA, Bailout
07/10/00: Abortion is good for something --- just ask AlGore
07/06/00: Meet Steve Ricchetti, Bubba's secret weapon
06/30/00: AlGore is down, but is he out?
06/27/00: Social programs caught in election-year game of one-up
06/22/00: Congress Is Near Flunking a Test On School Reform
06/16/00: Doting on the grandparents
06/13/00: On Stem Cells, Bush Has Wrong Pro-Life Stance
06/08/00: Has Gore Caught Bush?
05/26/00: PNTR Vote Could Tell Which Party Fits 'New Economy'
05/23/00: The secret to winning the election: Economic programs
05/18/00: Gore should regroup
05/16/00: McCain's Support Is Tepid, But Lets Bush Focus on Gore
05/11/00: Voters need wonk training
05/09/00: Bush Could Score With Charge That Gore's Too Partisan
04/28/00: Reno's force aids Clinton, not Elian
04/25/00: Should Clinton be indicted?
04/24/00: Can Gore win on Bush tax cuts?
04/18/00: Levin's 'bridge' key to China trade?
04/11/00: Congress, U.S. Voters Still Aren't Ready For Campaign Reform
04/06/00: Bush, Gore Silent As Popular Culture Gets Ever Coarser
03/30/00: Is 2000 Like 1948, 1976 or 1960? Or Is This Unparalleled?
03/28/00: Will Bush, Gore Go for a Better Way To Pick Nominees?
03/23/00: Medicare cutbacks bleed hospitals
03/20/00: Chances Improve That China Trade Will Pass Congress
03/16/00: Lieberman as veep would help Gore
03/14/00: Can Bush, McCain Unite to Beat Gore?
03/09/00: Can GOP Forge Unity After Nasty McCain-Bush Race?
03/07/00: What accounts for McCain's excesses?
03/02/00: 'Debate' Proved Gore Is This Year's Best Gut-Fighter
02/29/00: Surprises! The 2000 GOP race is full of it
02/25/00: Voters want centrist in White House
02/23/00: Gore would hit McCain's record
02/15/00: Will negativity hurt McCain in S.C.?
02/10/00: How hard should Bush hit McCain?
02/08/00: Bush must retool his entire campaign
01/27/00: Could Gore beat Bush as Truman beat Dewey?
01/20/00: Big New Surplus Estimates Could Alter 2000 Politics
12/21/99: Bush improves, everyone panders
12/16/99: Prospects improve for campaign reform
12/14/99: Riots raise free trade as 2000 issue
12/10/99: Gore won GOP 'debate' in N.H.
12/07/99: Election pits Bush cuts vs. Medicare boost
12/03/99: Can race be a constructive issue in 2000?
11/19/99: White House race may be best in decades
11/16/99: Where is Bush on health care fight?
11/11/99: Will TV stop profiteering from politics?
11/09/99: Is GOP isolationist, or just partisan?
11/04/99: Gore, Bradley Run Opposite Races On Style, Substance
11/01/99: GOP, Clinton could reach deal swiftly
10/27/99: Bush to fight 'culture wars' -- positively
10/21/99: Porter, Mack: heroes on medical research
10/19/99: Gore scores among party big shots, but polls go South
10/14/99: Bush critiques could help GOP Congress
10/12/99: Congress can save health care from ruin
10/07/99: Will gun-control cause the GOP to shoot itself in the foot?
10/05/99: Gore moves: Desperate but necessary
10/01/99: Fox, Armstrong make case for NIH
09/28/99: Dems' race brightens Bush's chances
09/23/99: East Timor deflates `Clinton Doctrine'
09/21/99: Buchanan v. Bush? Yeah right
09/17/99: Candidates turn attention to poverty
09/15/99: Bush's education problem
09/09/99: Budget makes 2000 an `issues' election
09/07/99:Airport rage increases, with good reason
09/02/99: U.S. future up for grabs in 2000
08/31/99: U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon
08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
08/19/99: Neither party has upper hand for '99
08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
08/12/99: There's time to catch Bush, say Gore aides
08/10/99: Rudy, Hillary try much-needed makeovers
08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
08/02/99: Pols blow fiscal smoke on budget surplus
08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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