The minutes of a year's Carter administration cabinet meetings have leaked to the press.
It is a scenario for disaster, right? A nation's secrets lie exposed to its enemies. The fabled fighting among advisers in the battle for the president's mind is there for all to see. Cabinet members are revealed unbuttoned, taking positions in the inmost council that they never thought they would have to face in the light of day.
Wrong. It is the scenario for a yawn.
The Nation, which obtained the minutes of Cabinet meetings from March 14, 1977, to March 13, 1978, for the first issue of a new format for the 113-year-old magazine sets the tone in its lead article by saying "secrets in an official sense they may be; fabulous they certainly are not."
The minutes, as compiled after each meeting by Cabinet Secretary Jack H. Watson Jr., make boring reading. Perhaps most strikingly, they show Cabinet meetings are forums for members' reports, backpats - and lots of discussion of what the press and television are saying about them.
Transportation Secretary Brock Adams told one session that he attended a town meeting in Wichita on rural transportation and that there are "serious rural transportation problems [which] have never been sufficiently addressed."
In another session, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris reported she spent a day campaigning for Democrats in New Jersey and New York.
Ambassador Andrew Young described a previous week at the United Nations as exciting: the United States voted three resolutions aimed against South Africa.
"What could a Cabinet meeting be after all, given our society and form of government, other than an adult version of a first grade's show and tell?" novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. comments in The Nation.
At one session, President Carter brought Ambassadors Ellsworth Bunker and Sol Linowitz to tell about the Panama Canal treaties, but not everyone gets to bring people. Most members simply tell what kind of a week they had.
Occasionally the president or a Cabinet member volunteers praise for a colleague - whether or not the colleague's field is under discussion.
The Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joseph A. Califano Jr., wanted it on the record that he commends Attorney General Griffin Bell for "his wise and courageous decision in the [Richard] Helms case."
Bell's wisdom was to do less than throw the lawbook at the former CIA director, who was accused of lying to a congressional committee about CIA involvement in Chile. Califano's former law partner, Edward Bennett Williams, represented Helms.
Carter, appropriately, has the broadest perspective in the back-patting department. The minutes record that on March 6, 1973: "The president said that, although the administration has numerous problems on its hands, he continues to feel confident. The primary reason for his confidence is that the Cabinet is a cohesive group whose individual and collective judgement he trusts."
While he likes its judgment, Carter is less happy with the way his Cabinet members write the weekly reports he demands of them. Some, he complains "contain unneccessary information about travel plans, speeches and related items . . ." In other words, the president doesn't want to read everything they did last summer.
Again on the minutes report: Jan 16, 1978, "The president asked Cabinet members to hold down the length of weekly reports. He prefers a one-page summary, similar to the Kiplinger Report format, unless there are extraordinary circumstances."
Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, said the minutes came to his magazine unsolcited and he declines to reveal their source. They have been cleansed of certain indications that would have revealed who provided them, Navasky said; their authenticity was checked with sources familiar with the minutes.
At a press conference launching The Nation's new design and a drive to increase its circulation from the present "unaudited 25,000," Navasky said the minutes reveal that government leaders "are obsessed with press coverage and television coverage." For example:
Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance commends a Washington Post article on the Soviet Union at one meeting.
The next week, Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal denounces a Washington Post report on oil company taxes.
National security affairs adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski praises a New York Times editorial on US.-Soviet relations.
Carter expresses pleasure that three Cabinet members were on the TV talk shows the previous Sunday. He urges them to continue to communicate with the people.
Navasky was asked whether the White House had commented on The Nation's obtaining a copy of the minutes.
"I assume that right now the Cabinet is meeting and talking about it," he mused.
Deputy White House press secretary Rex Granum said that the minutes are deliberately written without any substantive content because the administration assumed that at some point they would leak.
The magazine article "seems to justify the decision to write the minutes in that matter," Grarnum said. Ideas are put forward at cabinet meetings and debated there, he said, and to label them merely "show and tell" is a "judgement based on faulty premises."