Shutting Down A Truth-Teller

“Baseless and groundless” or “groundless and baseless”?

By the close of business on Monday, Dec. 2, there seemed almost perfect agreement between White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and John DiIulio, the former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Both were advising everyone, in almost identical wording, to pay no attention to the troubling tales about the Bush administration that Mr. DiIulio had told writer Ron Suskind for the January issue of Esquire .

The sequence of events during that day gave off an extraordinary Orwellian odor, as if the loquacious Mr. DiIulio had been subjected to a swift but thorough course of Republican thought-reform. The news cycle began with a story in The New York Times previewing Mr. Suskind’s long, engrossing investigation of how Karl Rove and his minions grind out policy sausage in the West Wing.

The paper reported that Mr. DiIulio had nicknamed the White House boss and his minions the “Mayberry Machiavellis.” He had given Mr. Suskind a vivid, detailed view of the political evisceration of domestic policy; the intellectual vacuum on the President’s staff; the absolute authority of the fearsome Mr. Rove; the dominating influence of the “religious right and libertarians”; and, in short, the Bush administration’s failure to achieve anything of significance on the home front.

That morning, Mr. DiIulio made matters slightly worse when the University of Pennsylvania, where he is a professor of political science, issued a brief statement on his behalf. He apologized for any hurt feelings and quibbled with two minor errors, but affirmed the Esquire story’s substance.

The White House quickly reasserted its will to control the news. At his noon briefing, Mr. Fleischer crisply informed the press corps that “any suggestion that the White House makes decisions that are not based on sound policy reasons is baseless and groundless.” Although Helen Thomas tried to press the issue, the questioning instantly reverted to Iraq, where Mr. Fleischer wanted it. He did reveal, however, that Mr. DiIulio “has spoken with officials in the office-the faith-based office, and talked with them.”

Within less than two hours, another release emerged from the Penn press office: “John DiIulio agrees that his criticisms were groundless and baseless due to poorly chosen words and examples. He sincerely apologizes and is deeply remorseful.” He promised never again to discuss or write about his frustrating experiences in the White House.

Can we now put all this behind us and forget we glimpsed that man behind the curtain? Not this time.

When a former government official is interviewed, and later retracts or denies what he or she said, that may create a reasonable doubt about a story. Frustrated people sometimes speak in haste and say things that may be inaccurate. Misunderstandings and

misquotes happen too often. That’s what the White House claimed when Mr. Suskind’s last Esquire article appeared in July, with candid quotes from chief of staff Andrew Card about his fear that the departure of Presidential counselor Karen Hughes would mean unchecked power for Mr. Rove.

But Mr. DiIulio did more than speak candidly with Mr. Suskind over a period of months. In late October, after mulling over their conversations, he sat down and wrote a seven-page, nearly 3,000-word letter that began with the words “For/On the Record.” (Its full text can be found at http://www.Esquire.com.) The devastating remarks and anecdotes faithfully quoted from that letter in the Suskind article were not ill-considered quips delivered on a barstool. They were the written recollections and reflections of a widely published and quite conservative academic.

Nor is Mr. Suskind a writer “with a notorious reputation”-as Robert Novak quickly said in attempting to discredit him-unless the 1995 Pulitzer Prize he won for feature writing at The Wall Street Journal lent

him a certain notoriety for skill, accuracy and polished prose. For all its negative aspects, his portrait of the Bush White House is nuanced and painstakingly fair. He quotes Mr. DiIulio at length on the finer qualities of George W. Bush. And he opens with a charming sketch of Mr. Rove putting up Christmas decorations with a group of children at the home of a former Clinton aide.

Consider for a moment how the national press corps would have treated such a story from within the Clinton White House in December 1994. They habitually gave far more attention and credibility to material of far less substance during the eight years of that administration. And there is no way that Mike McCurry or Joe Lockhart would have been able to shut down questioning about an article like Mr. Suskind’s as curtly as Mr. Fleischer did.

Then consider, after reading the Esquire article, which will soon appear on newsstands, what the press apparently cannot report (and probably doesn’t know) about the inner machinations of the Bush White House. The new occupants have changed the tone, indeed: It’s either happy talk or dead silence.