Perk-y Be

ALICE STEINBACH

April 09, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

I have to write this really fast because I'm due at the White House briefing on "Perk Take-Backs" in about 20 minutes. Rumor has it Marlin Fitzwater will announce that the five White House calligraphers being let go are to be replaced with five Palmer Method volunteers from a local elementary school.

Then I'm off to the Match-a-Perk Rally being held poolside by a group of House and Senate leaders over at the Rayburn Building gym. House Democrat Vic Fazio is expected to wow the assembled lawmakers once more with a repeat of his recent "We-will-match-every-perk-we-have-with-a-White-House-perk" speech.

It's all part of the round-the-clock perk watch that's been assigned to me. Every paper has one now -- a Perk Wars reporter -- and most of us find it an exciting beat.

For one thing, it's new: It represents a contemporary journalistic way of looking at politics -- at the ethics of politics and the politics of ethics, etc., etc., etc.

For another thing, as a beat it's unpredictable. Not like, say, the Education Department beat where every day they release a variation of the same study, the one that shows American kids academically falling behind most other kids in the world, blah, blah, blah.

No, on the Perk Wars beat you never know what's going to happen next. Here, to illustrate what I mean, are some excerpts from last week's notebook:

Monday: Got an anonymous phone call from the White House press office. Hard to hear since whoever's on the other end is using a really cheap phone, but I think she's suggesting I come over and check out the White House bowling alley.

Arrive there to find United Auto Workers' bowling league has rented out alley -- a cost-cutting move which, according to accompanying press release, will defray the cost of all future White House floral arrangements.

Later, on way back to White House press office, stop by garage sale outside Oval Office. Pick up a nice, slightly used, red-leather dog leash and some boxes of M&M's marked with the presidential seal. After some hesitation, decide to take a pass on Leo Buscaglia books.

Tuesday: All reporters on the Perk Wars beat are asked by House Speaker Tom Foley to attend a grand reopening of the House of Representatives barbershop. Once there, the press is informed that the day of the $5 haircut is over. We watch as someone named "Mr. Moe" -- using a bowl and kitchen shears -- trims Sen. Edward Kennedy's hair and then hands him a bill for $100.

Copies of the bill are circulated among press members who are invited to stay for lunch in the Senate dining room. Enjoy very much the Spam sandwiches and grape Kool-Aid. Notice through the kitchen door that paper plates are being washed and dried for reuse during dessert course.

Wednesday: Some of the veteran Perk Wars reporters are invited by State Department press office to accompany Jim Baker on a commercial airline flight -- a personal trip he's taking to Houston. Refusing uprade to business class, Baker -- who says he was "shocked" to find out how much his personal travel on military aircraft cost the taxpayers -- not only flies coach but insists on taking middle seat.

In the smoking section.

On Continental Airlines.

He spends most of flight expressing amazement that $38,500 did not cover the dozen or so personal trips he and his family took on military planes.

On arrival in Houston, Baker invites reporters to watch as he uses pay phone to call White House. "A really fun flight," he tells President Bush.

Thursday: Find press release saying a number of House and Senate members will be walking over to a regular bank on Friday to deposit their checks. Make note to attend.

Phone rings. It's an invitation to trek over to White House and observe budget director Richard Darman pull up for work in an unchauffered, self-driven car!

Arrive just in time to see Darman leap out of 1976, two-door Plymouth. In memo he hands out to thunderstruck reporters, he notes that with the deficit being so large and all -- about $400 billion -- he will regularly drive himself to and from work!

Friday: As expected, a crowd has gathered outside building where about 500 House and Senate members have come to bank their checks. Notice a small fight has broken out between Sen. Alan Simpson and a tall, unidentified woman holding a tape recorder. This does not stop House member Charles Hatcher, a Democrat from Georgia, from holding a press conference over in the corner: "My dog ate the check stubs," he tells reporters.

And so it goes. The perks of politics, the politics of perks: You can't have one without the other.

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