High above 14th Street, four men and women wearing headsets are typing President Bush's latest words into personal computers as fast as the ear can hear them.
Doug Wedel, reputedly the fastest, who can type what Bush says as quickly as he says it, has a unique perspective on Washington's major players, knowing them best as disembodied voices emanating from earphones. "Cheney is a dream," he says. "Yeutter is good. Carla Hills is good. Darman is very good. . . . Quayle is getting better every day."
This means that their voices are easy to transcribe -- no great highs and lows, no endlessly branching sentences. Not necessarily the stuff of juicy sound-bites on the television news, but a factor in an increasingly important Washington business -- one that sells the city's hottest commodity: Itself.
Wedel works for the Reuter Transcript Report, a service founded two years ago by Reuters, the international news agency, and one of two companies providing near-instant transcripts of official words uttered here every day.
The oldest, and still the leader in the business, is Federal News Service, founded in 1984. A smaller company, concentrating only on the White House, is PressText.
The main market comes from Washington's 4,145 news outlets and almost 150 foreign embassies. Also: trade associations, law firms, political action committees, federal agencies. Cortes Randell, Federal's founder, said his fees range from a few hundred dollars to $4,000 a month, depending on how many transcripts and events a subscriber requests.
"Washington is a great town for this," said Andrew Nibley, Reuters' chief editor of U.S. news. "It's so incestuous. Everyone wants to know what everyone else said. It used to be if you wanted to float an idea, you could do it in the next day's paper. Now you can do it instantly."
Soon after Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman finished testifying last week to a House Judiciary Committee panel, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan dispatched an aide to Reuters to request a transcript. Later, in his own Hill testimony, Greenspan referred to the Darman transcript.
On Tuesday, even before Bush finished addressing an association of magazine publishers, Reuter and Federal were moving transcripts of his opening remarks. Transcripts of daily briefings at the White House, State Department, Defense Department and Justice Department, among others, begin showing up in computers as soon as the briefings are over. Once at the city's embassies, they are on their way to foreign capitals as well.
All of which has a marked impact on the way business is done here.
"You know that what you say goes around the world instantaneously to foreign leaders, that it's read instantaneously by every embassy in Washington, analyzed and sent to their home countries," said White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. "On foreign trips, it's very frightening to be standing in a desert environment 6,000 miles away and they're telling you that they've been poring over your transcripts."
This hasn't done much for the candor or humor business in Washington. "You have to be real careful about humorous asides," Fitzwater said. "The smile, the twinkle in the eye, the curve of the lip are lost completely" in transcripts.
Perhaps the biggest effect is on news reporters. Reuters' Art Bushnell said editors have joked to him that reporters now gather all their news by sitting at their desks -- but still file the same, huge expense accounts.
Yoram Tal, Washington bureau chief of Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest newspaper, broke news of huge international importance simply by monitoring a Federal News Service printer in his Chevy Chase office one Saturday afternoon.
In a news conference in California on Japanese-U.S. relations, Bush happened to make one remark about Israel. The president said the U.S. opposed new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem -- the first time he had explicitly included Jerusalem as a forbidden area.
White House reporters noticed the shift but concluded that Bush had misspoken, or had not meant anything new. They gave it short shrift. Tal, far more sensitive to Israeli nuances, had this reaction: "It was unbelievable." His editors literally stopped the presses to give his story major prominence.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reacted the next morning with fury and tried to blame the remark for his refusal to join the U.S. peace process. American reporters followed the story more than a day later.
Tal said that his only achievement was in having been in his office when a printer was spitting out a transcript of interest to Israel. "It's not a great journalistic achievement," he said. "It was so easy for an Israeli."