Clinton keeps the press, and press aide, in dark ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

June 30, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Among the lessons of life in Washington that the Clinton administration is late in learning is that if you put a spokesperson out front to speak for it, that person better know what's going on. Nothing more quickly undermines the credibility of information coming out of the White House than keeping the press secretary out of the loop on decisions large and small.

That apparently is exactly what happened the other day to Dee Dee Myers, the bright and able Californian who was candidate Bill Clinton's press secretary on his campaign plane last year and was given the title, if not precisely the duties and prestige, when he moved into the White House. Not told that the president had received an FBI report on Thursday making the case that the Iraqi government was importantly involved in the assassination plot against former President George Bush, she reported when asked on Friday that he hadn't seen it.

The FBI report provided an important basis for Clinton's decision to order the missile attack on Iraq's intelligence headquarters in Baghdad, and the gaffe was compounded when the White House on Saturday put a "lid" on news announcements -- an assurance to reporters that no news would be forthcoming -- although the decision to attack later in the day had already been made.

Myers pleaded lack of information, insisting there had been no effort to mislead the White House press corps, which felt free to go off and enjoy the weekend after imposition of the lid. She defended issuance of the lid on grounds that the administration didn't want to "tip anything off" on the mission. But nothing would have been signalled simply by not putting the lid on.

All kinds of excuses now will be heard, but the simple fact is that the episode revealed that Clinton's press secretary is not completely plugged into the highest councils of the White House as she must be to do her job effectively. The press secretaries of the past who have been the most credible -- Jim Hagerty under Eisenhower, Pierre Salinger under Kennedy, Jody Powell under Carter -- all were in the inner circle of advisers to the president on policy as well as on propaganda. When something was done, they not only knew about it but also knew why, and had a say in the decision.

From the outset, the Clinton White House had shown reservations about Myers' ability to cut the mustard in the big time, although she had functioned well not only as a disseminator of news about the Clinton campaign but also as an explainer on the campaign trail of decisions made and issue positions taken.

Holding forth as transition press secretary in Little Rock, she was left hanging almost until the last days before being named White House press secretary. And at that, she was given a distinctly subordinate role to George Stephanopoulos, who in being named director of communications took over the daily White House briefings that traditionally had been the job of the press secretary.

It was said privately that eventually Myers would assume that function, after further seasoning, but it was Stephanopoulos' job switch after only four months that put her front and center.

If nothing else, the new administration blew a chance to reap brownie points from women's groups by not only appointing the first woman White House press secretary but also putting her out front daily as the voice of the Clinton administration.

When former Republican public-relations man turned pseudo-journalist David Gergen, late of the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, moved in as de facto communications director with the loftier title of counselor to the president, he was supposed to be the man to make sure Clinton got out the messages he wanted out.

One of the tasks he was to address was smoothing over rocky relations with the White House press corps. So much for Gergen the communications wizard.

If Dee Dee Myers is going to make it not simply as the first woman White House press secretary but as a highly credible one, room will have to be found for her at the table when the big decisions are made.

If Gergen is going to occupy the communications chair at the table, then let him stick his own neck out on the firing line in the White House press room every day, and be accountable.

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