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White House Notebook

Wrapping Up Tough Questions With Foil

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, January 22, 2002; Page A13

The flowering of the Enron bankruptcy scandal has reintroduced a strange animal to the White House briefing room: the press corps foil.

The use of foils, a technique popularized by Clinton press secretaries Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart, involves the careful selection of questioners from among the many raised hands to steer the briefing in a direction the press secretary desires.

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Want to change the subject to foreign affairs? Call on Raghubir Goyal of the India Globe (he'll ask about the perfidies of Pakistan), Jacobo Goldstein of CNN Radio Noticias (a Latin American question is likely) or Connie Lawn (a freelancer with particular interest in the Middle East). Had enough of foreign policy and wish to return to domestic matters? Choose Keith Koffler of Congress Daily (he follows the legislative process) or April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Network (she favors socioeconomic questions).

Want to end the briefing by turning the whole thing into a circus? You might choose Russell Mokhiber of the Corporate Crime Reporter (he'll launch into a tirade about greed), or Baltimore radio personality Lester Kinsolving (he'll ask about how "the Reverend Mr. Jackson impregnated his mistress and used tax-exempt contributions to get her out of Chicago"). Within seconds, the wire service reporters in the front row will beg for an end to the briefing.

The truly desperate press secretary might call on a certain journalist of unknown affiliation who sits in the back, wears a big hat and shouts unintelligible questions such as: "My name is Miguel Sandoval. I'm a representative of -- (inaudible) -- News Service. . . . I am a former public school teacher who began my career in the -- (inaudible) -- 1946 after returning to fulfill my duty to defeat the -- (inaudible) -- Tokyo during the Second World War."

Last week, when press secretary Ari Fleischer was getting peppered with questions about Enron Corp. and its chief, Kenneth L. Lay, Fleischer turned to the Goyal Foil. "Goyal," Fleischer said as others shouted to get his attention. Fleischer said to the others: "We'll come back. We'll come -- we'll -- "

The press corps resisted. "Ari?" one called out. "Let me follow that, Ari -- "

"Hold on," the press secretary commanded. "Goyal, go ahead."

Goyal did his usual. "If I may go back to India and Pakistan. . .," he began.

On the day the White House first disclosed that administration officials had been approached by Enron about its financial troubles, most reporters had only one subject in mind. After a battery of tough Enron questions, Fleischer reached for Goyal as if for a life raft. "As far as the home minister of India's visit," Goyal began. When others tried to jump in, the press secretary asked Goyal if he had a follow-up question. Goyal did, about Pakistani fighter planes.

Next, Fleischer turned to sometime-foil Goldstein -- but the Radio Noticias man wanted to know about Enron. Fleischer tried Congress Daily's Koffler in a transparent bid to switch the talk to Congress. Koffler indeed asked about Congress -- investigating Enron. Even Middle East expert Lawn asked about Enron. Finally, Fleischer was saved by an angry Greek journalist who wanted to know why he was not allowed to attend a meeting with the Greek prime minister.

"The room can get, out of boredom, into a feeding frenzy," Lockhart notes. "The ability to change the subject is an important tool for the press secretary." Lockhart admits to using a foreign journalist as a foil. ("He always had some technical question about Crete.") But his favorite foil was familiar to all: "If you're in a jam, go to Goyal," he says.

Will Fleischer acknowledge the use of foils? "No, I will not," he says. "I call on all corners of the room." McCurry and Lockhart resorted to foils "because of all the scandal coverage. That's not the way of this administration." Still, Fleischer adds: "I'm not above using a foil. I just haven't had opportunity to do it yet."

THE ENRON AFFAIR has also revived one of the White House's most dedicated pen pals on Capitol Hill: Henry Waxman, the diminutive but pugnacious ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee. The Californian has fired off 10 Enron letters in as many days, including two to Vice President Cheney, two to Enron chief Lay and one each to Bush Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill.

The letters tend to follow the same no-win format of: "Did you stop beating your wife?"

Printing all the letters available on Waxman's Web site produces an inch-thick pile of letters to the Bush administration: OMB, HHS, DOD, DOJ, FERC, EPA, CMS, Bush, Cheney, Karl Rove, Tom Ridge, the White House counsel, Cheney's counsel and the energy task force.

Why is he so prolific? Because Waxman is in the minority party. "If you don't have the power to issue subpoenas or hold hearings and don't want to make reckless accusations, what you end up with is writing letters," said Waxman's chief of staff, Phil Schiliro. "That's one thing we can do."

Not that it does much good. When Waxman's latest missive arrived at the White House last week, a senior Bush aide said, "We just set it aside."

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