WASHINGTON -- The White House showed yesterday how a stale bit of information with modest impact could be parlayed into national headlines, a prime spot on the network news and two days of positive publicity for a president who has been feeling ignored.
It's the Rose Garden strategy, George Bush style, and a classic example of creating news where there really isn't any.
"We got our own spin out there early and two days of news," crowed an exultant White House official. "You can't beat that."
The "news" was that President Bush signed an executive order yesterday requiring federal contractors to notify non-union employees working under a certain type of union agreement that they can get a refund if their dues are used by the union for political activities they don't like.
The rights of such employees had already been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988. Fulfilling Mr. Bush's order amounts to posting signs. Union officials insist that they are already taking similar measures.
Moreover, Mr. Bush, who had been urged by Republican conservatives to take a stand on the issue, had already done so. In a White House speech on March 20, he announced that he was "ordering several steps to implement promptly" the 1988 Supreme Court decision.
But by yesterday morning, Mr. Bush's anticipated action had been trumpeted to almost breathless proportions.
A report in Sunday's editions of the New York Times, picked up by other newspapers across the country, including The Sun, gave prominent mention to eye-catching White House estimates that Mr. Bush's action would eventually keep $2.4 billion a year out of union coffers.
The White House acknowledged yesterday that the figure was misleading and could not really explain how it arrived at the figure. Union officials said the actual amount could be only a tiny fraction of the White House estimate.
But the numbers gave the story a sense of impact and political conflict with unions, who generally support Democratic candidates. That propelled the story not only onto front pages but into the lead spot of at least two network television news broadcasts Sunday night and a third network last night. Radio broadcasts and wire service reports also kept the story in circulation yesterday.
Mr. Bush, overshadowed by the lively contest for the Democratic nomination, hadn't gotten such attention in weeks.
Putting out the story in advance of yesterday's ceremony also "gave us a chance to just get the facts out there before [White House reporters] started calling up everybody who would say how terrible this is," the White House official explained.
The White House followed through on this build-up yesterday with a Rose Garden extravaganza featuring Harry Beck, a former Marylander who brought the lawsuit that resulted in the 1988 decision protecting non-union members' rights.
Actor Charlton Heston, a one-time union activist with a distinctly conservative viewpoint, also was on hand. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater jokingly denied that Mr. Heston's appearance was timed to coincide with the broadcast Sunday night of his portrayal of Moses in "The Ten Commandments." But that didn't hurt.
Mr. Bush got in a line about how Mr. Heston had come "fresh from parting the Red Sea yet again."
The president, who also ordered that unions provide the government with a fuller accounting of their political expenditures, explained that he was taking steps "to protect individual liberties."
In fact, the rights of non-union workers employed in businesses with union representation were first established four years ago by the Supreme Court. Mr. Beck, then an AT&T worker, had sued the Communications Workers of America (CWA) for using some of his money to support Hubert H. Humphrey and advocates of gun control.
Mr. Beck didn't belong to the union but paid an "agency fee" to the CWA for its representation. His dues were not being used for direct contributions to candidates, which were already prohibited by law. But unions often use a portion of their dues for indirect contributions, such as financing phone banks, sample ballots and get-out-the-vote drives.
In its 1988 ruling in the Beck case, the court said non-union workers can insist that their dues be used only for costs associated with union representation.
The White House contends that this right is not being enforced because at least 300 demands for a refund have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board. CWA President Morton Bahr said yesterday that only one-quarter of 1 percent of the 600,000 workers represented by the CWA have asked for a rebate.
But even as they were claiming Mr. Bush's action would have no impact on them, labor leaders took the opportunity to make political hay on the issue, too.
"By this obsequious pandering to the ultra-right special interests of his party, the president has given hypocrisy a bad name," declared AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland.
Film at 11.