Presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer, the balding boy who
cried “vandal,” is in a world of trouble. The clever ploy he executed last
January to demean the White House’s former occupants and thus dignify his
boss-all the while feigning high-minded disinterest-looks more and more like a
lowdown frame-up. His accusations about the damage done to the executive mansion by Clinton administration staffers
have lost credibility, and so has he.
After months of media hyperbole about felonious behavior and
hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, the only “evidence” put forward to
substantiate Mr. Fleischer’s charges is a couple of photographs. At most, they
show an office littered with boxes and files. To date, there is no evidence of
severed phone lines, wrecked keyboards, obscene graffiti, busted furniture,
stolen plaques, pilfered doorknobs or any of the assorted awful delinquencies
ascribed to the departing Clinton staff in stories attributed to anonymous Bush
Of course, the veteran
scandalmongers of the national press corps required little or no substantiation
for this thrilling story. By last January, broadcasting and exaggerating such
tales about the Clintons, their staff and their associates was an eight-year
media addiction, and its ill effects were exacerbated by the related habit of
ignoring or burying exculpatory facts.
These old journalistic
patterns persisted for a while, even after the General Accounting Office’s
investigation of the supposed vandalism, demanded by Representative Bob Barr, a
Georgia Republican, revealed no incriminating data. According to the General
Services Administration, “the condition of the real property was consistent
with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after
an extended occupancy.” Likewise, the G.A.O. informed the kooky Congressman that
the White House had provided “no record of damage that may have been
deliberately caused by the Clinton administration.”
Despite the typical reluctance to properly correct lurid,
baseless headlines, the official contradiction of Mr. Fleischer’s fantasies was
too sharp to be suppressed by the Washington press corps. At long last, some of
these Elmer Fudds, stumbling around with their notebooks and tape recorders,
started to suspect that they’d been duped. This suspicion grew when, upon being
asked a few elementary questions, the press secretary responded with blusters
and evasions. His answers were less plausible than a dot-com business plan.
Consider Mr. Fleischer’s
claim that the alleged damage was “catalogued” by the White House staff. It
quickly turned out that he hadn’t meant that term to be taken literally, as no
one had physically recorded any act of vandalism until June 1. Instead,
according to him, an outraged Bush aide was maintaining full and complete
“mental” notes for four months.
(Mr. Fleischer insists
that the Clinton gang threw away all the pencils and paper, a nefarious act
that may have precluded traditional methods of compiling information. Or
perhaps, as he has hinted more than once, the Bush staffers and their boss,
George W., were just too noble to write down those bad things.)
Fortunately, the young
Republicans have prodigious brains. They remember everything perfectly! How
else to account for the highly detailed set of “facts” provided to The Washington
Post by Mr. Fleischer last weekend?
Suddenly, he had nice round numbers for the disconnected or damaged telephones
(75), pornographic phone messages (15), discarded binders (6,000), tampered
keyboards (100) and booby-trapped fax machines (six).
Concluding with a few tart words about the Bush
administration’s unappreciated “graciousness,” Mr. Fleischer told the Post that he now hopes “everyone can go
on with the policy and business of the government.” That may not be possible
just yet, however, much as he would like to get back to prevaricating about
The unstraitjacketed Mr. Barr has demanded another vandalism
probe by the G.A.O. (although one of his calmer aides apparently told United
Press International that he doesn’t really want “a full-blown investigation
with subpoenas and hundreds of interviews.” Maybe just enough to refurbish the
original smear, if possible.) And Mr. Barr’s request has been endorsed by many
former Clinton staffers, who believe it will vindicate their innocence of
anything more destructive than minor pranks.
Meanwhile, the media pack might press Mr. Fleischer with a
few more belated inquiries: Do any requisitions, orders or other documents
exist to confirm the vandalism story? Are there any photographs of skanky
graffiti? Will anyone on the White House staff speak on the record about what
they found in late January?
If this fiasco drags on much longer, the Oval Office
masterminds who pull Mr. Fleischer’s strings could decide that their flattened
flack is no longer worth the embarrassment. There is a traditional solution to
problems such as this.
The press secretary can be “promoted” to handle “other
responsibilities” that don’t require any skeptical adult to believe what he
says. From a White House that never apologizes, that might be apology enough.