Gag order blamed on missed Bush call


July 24, 1992|By Marina Sarris and Karen Hosler | Marina Sarris and Karen Hosler,Staff Writers

It could have been one of those moments that make press secretaries salivate.

Imagine Gov. William Donald Schaefer conducting a news conference in the State House and being interrupted by a call from President Bush.

Imagine the elated governor getting off the phone to announce that Maryland was receiving the second federal waiver ever granted to reform its welfare program. Imagine TV cameras recording it all, reporters scribbling every word.

If only that plan had worked July 1, legislators and reporters might not be suffering under a gubernatorial gag order today.

Unfortunately, the busy president didn't call Mr. Schaefer during the media event, as the governor had expected.

A disappointed Mr. Schaefer ended his news conference and retreated to his office.

Within the next 30 minutes, his staff had to hastily gather reporters together again so that one of his Cabinet secretaries, Carolyn W. Colvin, could announce the federal waiver.

The next day, an angry governor told his Cabinet members they were not properly coordinating the release of news. He ordered them to start clearing all communications with reporters and legislators through his office.

While this story helps explain the events leading up to Mr. Schaefer's gag order, there's one strange thing about it.

Although Bush administration officials acknowledge their role in the call that never came, Frank Traynor, Mr. Schaefer's press secretary, went to great lengths yesterday to deny that the Bush administration had ever contemplated the call to the governor.

Mr. Traynor's version of the story discounts events that might reflect poorly on the White House. Mr. Schaefer admires Mr. Bush and often sings his praises.

Nonetheless, here's the story from Washington. Preliminary arrangements for the call were made by aides to Health Secretary Louis W. Sullivan and Governor Schaefer, Bush administration officials said. They had even scheduled a time: 11:10 a.m.

Sure enough, at about that time in Annapolis, Mr. Schaefer was finishing his news conference about a new jobs program.

But when the request for the call went to the White House, it fell through the cracks.

Mr. Fitzwater and his deputy, Judy Smith, said that they vaguely recall the request and remember that Mr. Bush had a scheduling conflict.

"I just remember somebody saying, 'What about this phone call during Schaefer's press conference?' and I looked at the president's schedule, and he had something else to do then," Ms. Smith said. "You can't be two places at once."

There was nothing listed on Mr. Bush's public schedule for July 1 at that hour, but he often has private meetings in the White House that are not announced.

Missing the call was a disappointment for some in the Bush administration, who said it could have been a great opportunity for the president to get publicity for his efforts to advance welfare reform.

One official cited it as an example of the lack of direction within the White House and the Bush re-election campaign that has hampered the president's ability to get his message out.

L Only Mr. Schaefer's press secretary doesn't see it that way.

For starters, Mr. Traynor said there was never a plan for the president to call.

L "That would've been great, but it wasn't the plan," he said.

According to Mr. Traynor, the plan was simply to make sure that the Bush administration gave Mr. Schaefer permission to announce the waiver in time for his press conference.

During the 12 hours before the press conference, Mr. Traynor said that he was in frequent contact with his "friend," Mr. Fitzwater, to find out whether permission had been granted.

"I called Marlin, and I said, 'I'm trying to get an answer.' He said, 'As far as I know it's going to be good to go. Things are hectic here.' He said Sullivan's office would call when it was official,' "

That call did not come until after the governor's news conference had ended, Mr. Traynor said.

Mr. Fitzwater said that he did not recall talking personally to Mr. Traynor or anyone else from Mr. Schaefer's office about the July 1 press conference, although someone else in his office might have.

Ms. Colvin, the state secretary of human resources, announced the waiver later that day, but the governor did not attend the announcement because of the confusion, Mr. Traynor said.

"The governor was upset with me because I did not do the proper job I should've done," he said.

So why, then, did the governor blame his Cabinet for the lost press opportunity?

"I'm one of his Cabinet members," Mr. Traynor said. "This was just another example of how we as an office have missed opportunities."

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