It’s Garbage Time for Trashing Tales

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

sources.

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

bigger issues.

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.