Contradictory statements by senior administration officials are prime cut for front pages. When White House chief of staff James Baker says, "It is my best recollection that I was given the (Carter) book by (CIA Director William) Casey," who responds he has "no recollection" and later, "I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole," that's red meat. The same when administration communications director David Gergen tells a congressman he doesn't recall seeing the material, then acknowledges finding it in a file marked "Afghanistan."
It may well be that someone of the many now implicated in this three- year-old whodunit is lying, knows it and in the end will walk the plank. For the moment their statements must be preumed honest. Who gave what to whom and when is what the Justice Department and a congressional subcommittee are at work to determine. Only two other things are obvious: the papers were the property of the Carter administration and they didn't walk out of the White House.
Without blinking political misfeasance in or out of office, it does happen that busy people who live daily amid a sea of written material, and without ulterior motive, grudge or particular cause, just plain lose sight of the whence of something momentarily important as they are driven to cope with what's happening today or might happen tomorrow. Take this anecdote-- about something lost, not found--in The Post newsroom last week:
Deputy managing editor Richard Harwood was told that executive editor Ben Bradlee gave some four-month-old papers to me. Now, that's not the way I remember it. I recall the papers' coming from David Broder and my returning them to him. Or, I believe that's what happened. Anyhow, they are not in my office. Broder, who was then out of town, told us by phone he gave the file to Bradlee, who doesn't recall it that way but doesn't dismiss the possibility. Meantime, I have been unable to locate a separate letter from someone else on the subject, and frankly I can't tell whether Harwood believes all of us or none of us.
The heavy play on the Carter papers strikes some newspaper readers as hypocritical when compared with the limited coverage of what a July 4 Post editorial called a possible "doozy of a scandal on the Hill." A few days earlier, Rep. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) gave the paper "a good solid lemon" for appearing to downplay news that House committee transcripts had been altered.
Initially, the tampering involved hearings on Environmental Protection Agency business, causing Republican House Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi to charge "a pattern and a practice of malicious conduct aimed at discrediting and defaming members." Obviously, matters had gone beyond routine tidying up of transcripts for readability.
Now it appears that an amendment to an education spending bill was rewritten after it had passed markup. From 67 words, the amendment grew to 386 words with the effect, said Rep. John N. Erlenborn (R-Ill.), of increasing spending levels beyond what had been approved. This is denied by a staff member from the Democratic side.
Although the House voted unanimously to refer the initial tamperings to the ethics committee, some appraise the issue as partisan. Republicans have sought to involve the Justice Department without success to date. The amendment rewrite and a new disclosure that a statement by Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) last November was deleted from a hearing may change that.
The Post has given this "scandal" increasing attention in the last week. The story has not yet made the front page. Reporter Charles Fishman may have had the reason for that in his long, page-seven account Sunday. The Republicans, he wrote, "have tried to interest the media, public, Justice Department and fellow congressmen in the controversy, and one measure of their failure is that it has yet to acquire a name. . . ."
How about "news"?