An April 8 Outlook article on the White House and the media incorrectly described Marlin Fitzwater as the only press secretary to serve two presidents. Two others also served different administrations.
What's Leaking Out of the White House
Shortly before leaving Moscow after four years covering Russia, I was granted a rare audience by a top Kremlin official. As we talked about Vladimir Putin and his relationship with President Bush, the Kremlin official compared the Bush team to the Bolsheviks and laughed at how secretive their White House appeared. "They've adopted some of our techniques with the press," he said.
For most of the past six years, journalists covering the White House have indeed been forced to master the art of Kremlinology. The famously disciplined and leak-averse Bush team succeeded at hermetically sealing the building, keeping behind-the-scenes machinations, well, behind the scenes. Deprived of any genuine information about how the institution operated, reporters were left to extrapolate what was really going on based on who was standing where at a Rose Garden photo op.
But something surprising has been happening in the past few months. The hermetic seal is showing cracks, and now the most disciplined administration in modern times has begun to see its internal workings seep into public view. Bush's shake-up of his Iraq team appeared in the newspapers before he was ready to announce it. His fight with the Joint Chiefs of Staff over plans to send more troops to Iraq played out on the front page for weeks. Secret memos by his national security adviser and his old defense secretary showed up in print. And unnamed officials put out word that Bush's new defense secretary tried unsuccessfully to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"You always have more leaks when you have a combination of a late term and big controversy," observed Marlin Fitzwater, the only person to serve as press secretary to two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "Between the war and the last two years in office, I think it's pretty normal to have this kind of increase in leaked material. You've got to remember that the primary motivation for most leaks is that people want to influence the policy or the president when they're not otherwise able to do so. At the end of a term and in the middle of a controversy is when you can do that."
None of this means that the White House is suddenly leaking like a sieve. This is still not the most transparent institution; extracting information can be maddening at times. Just two months ago, as the Super Bowl neared, the White House refused to reveal what kind of television the president would watch it on. And in fact, many disclosures that have come out lately seem to have originated from other agencies in the administration. But it signals that the White House is no longer able to enforce its will on all corners of government quite as efficiently as it once seemed to do.
"Discipline is enforced by fear, and there's not a lot of people right now afraid of the president, politically afraid," said Joe Lockhart, who was press secretary for President Bill Clinton. "The Joint Chiefs, the Republican leadership, former aides are not worried about political retribution from the White House. They're a paper tiger."
Indeed, the toughest criticism of the Bush White House these days seems to emanate from those who were once on the inside and are no longer reluctant to speak out. Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, told the New York Times this month that he is "so disappointed in things" that he has concluded that Sen. John F. Kerry was right about Iraq. John R. Bolton left his post as Bush's ambassador to the United Nations and within weeks complained that the administration was not being tough enough on Iran and North Korea. Kenneth Adelman, a former confidant of Vice President Cheney and adviser to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, now denounces his erstwhile friends for running the worst administration in modern times.
Some of what is happening now was commonplace in past administrations. During Clinton's tenure -- and, I'm told, during those of his predecessors -- it was possible within limits to gain insight into how the White House worked. Reporters who had a question about economic policy could call the president's economic adviser, those writing on health care could call his domestic policy adviser, those with legal queries could call the counsel's office. None of those officials in the Bush White House returns reporters' calls.
In the past, it usually became known who was being considered for the Supreme Court or top administration posts long before any announcements were made. Options for welfare policy and diplomatic initiatives were effectively vetted in the media before landing on the president's desk. At times, that put Clinton's disarray on public display, but on many other occasions, it helped air dissent and further legitimize debate.
"Within reason, it's healthy for the system," Lockhart said. "You can't govern through the newspapers. But you also can't govern with six people in the room. You have to strike a balance." In the first two years of Clinton's presidency, "there was too much public argument," he added. "But by the end of the administration, the balance was pretty good."
Bush didn't think so, and he came into office determined to do things differently. Leaks, in his view, were a sign of a disorderly White House. Nothing should get out that was not supposed to get out. And his ability to make that stick through so many years suggested an unusual solidarity among his team. Bush remembered people in his father's White House coming to him as the president's son to complain that they had no access to the Oval Office. The son vowed not to repeat that management pattern and believed that by keeping an open door, there would be less incentive for aides to go to the media to be heard.
"You've got two polar extremes there," said Trent Duffy, a former Bush spokesman, comparing his White House with the previous one. "The main reason the Bush White House was able to maintain such a level of discipline was largely because they and the vice president's office were really in sync and there wasn't a lot of freelancing, versus the Clinton White House, which was the opposite."