Clinton courts futility if he tries to plug leaks ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Reports from the Clinton administration's working retreat at Camp David indicate that the new president is already concerned about leaks. If so, he thereby joins the club of every one of his predecessors, Democratic, Republican and Whig.

In a town in which there are thousands of reporters looking for news and thousands of government officials who either want to peddle a pet idea or shoot down one they don't like, stories inevitably get written or broadcast that the chief executive is not going to like.

Even in the most harmonious of times, when one party controls both the executive and legislative branches as now, the town can be a sieve. President Clinton may abhor the fact that some Republicans remain in Congress after his November mandate to change America, but reporters certainly don't. Out-party members can be counted on to spill the beans frequently when they get their hands on some juicy item of news or policy that will put the incumbent party in a bad light.

Some of the highest of administration officials have been known to leak like a broken faucet, the most celebrated of recent memory being James Baker, the secretary of state and political fireman of the Bush years. The difference is, when they reveal something, they call it a trial balloon, not a leak.

The word from the White House the other day that freezing or reducing Social Security cost-of-living adjustments was under consideration had all the earmarks of one, and it was duly shot down by the Senate's Mr. Social Security, Pat Moynihan of New York.

Trial balloons serve the useful purpose of airing out an idea, or a nomination, so that a reading can be taken of whether it will fly as a formal, announced decision. Having one shot down is not usually as damaging to the administration as announcing a decision, such as the Zoe Baird nomination, and having it smothered in the cradle.

President Clinton as governor of Arkansas had a generally good reputation for dealing with the national press, but he took a pummeling in the 1992 campaign.

One of the factors in his survival and eventual election was his ability to bypass the traditional print and broadcast news media and find ways to go directly to the voters, either on talk shows or town meetings. It can be expected that he will continue to do so as president.

But other presidents have learned that in the capital city, where information is an essential commodity of success, and where getting and dispensing it is a major industry, unduly fretting over leaks is a waste of time and energy, and sometimes can be destructive.

Richard Nixon found that out with the uncovering of his White House "plumbers," who got themselves in very hot water with the law in the Watergate era with their overzealous crusade to plug news leaks.

Lyndon Johnson permitted his own paranoia about leaks to lead him to undo decisions already made if they were leaked -- and to deny he had ever made the decisions in the first place. The services of more than one worthy public official were lost to the country as a result.

It's natural that every new administration will want to "speak with nTC one voice" to make sure its message gets out to the public loud and clear. There is a huge public-relations apparatus available to a president to facilitate the effort, starting with his own communications director and White House press secretary on down to press officers in the most obscure government agency.

If these functionaries confined themselves to the dispensing of unadulterated information, there might be no need for leaks, or for an aggressive press corps. But history has shown that Democratic and Republican administrations alike, in times of pressure, are apt to move from information-dispensing to self-serving propagandizing.

That's why it's healthy for the country to have members of the news media pushing whatever doorbells they can -- in the administration, on Capitol Hill, among the lawyers and the lobbyists -- to learn what's going on, and to sift out fact from fiction.

Many millions of dollars have been spent in recent administrations trying -- in vain, mostly -- to find out who told what to whom, in an effort to stop leaking. It has never made any difference, and never will.

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