Press Box

Was the White House Trashing Story Garbage?

According to numerous press accounts from Week 1 of the Bush administration, the Clintonites trashed the White House on the way out. The first stories recounted a modest prank in which departing aides plucked a few “W” keys from computer keyboards as a dig to George W. Bush. But as the full horror emerged, the White House began to resemble the Continental Hyatt House after a weekend visit by Led Zeppelin.

According to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, the White House was “downplaying” the vandalism but unnamed “sources” were reporting “phone lines cut, drawers filled with glue, door locks jimmied so that arriving Bush staff got locked inside their new offices. Obscene messages left behind on copying machine paper.” Another unnamed source “with close ties to the Bush White House,” told CNN’s Kelly Wallace that there was “trash everywhere.”

Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer elliptically confirmed the stories and declared that the White House was cataloguing the vandalism. But he also announced that the Bushies were turning the other cheek and declined to open a formal investigation. “Part of changing the tone in Washington,” Fleischer said, “is to allow some things that others may have made a focus of, to let pass.” The pliant press promptly adopted the new script: Mike Allen of the Washington Post reported that a “high-level Republican” who had seen the damage was “leery about putting information out about the mess because chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. is gentlemanly and doesn’t want to appear to be ratting on the Clinton administration.”

Or maybe gentlemanliness had nothing to do with Card’s retreat. Maybe the new administration had no evidence of a campaign of vandalism, which is what a review of the Prankgate news stories suggests. Case in point: The press secretary’s ceremonial flak jacket, allegedly stolen by the Clintonites as part of Prankgate, turned out to have been picked up accidentally by the cleaning crew, which returned it.

Now, it could be that on their way out of town the Clintonites did rip through the White House like a Bengali typhoon. After all, Clinton staffers confirm that they de-“W”-ed some keyboards and posted some snarky signs. But, as John Harris reported in a Washington Post story that documented the Bush administration’s climb-down from the sabotage charge, when Karen Tramontano, an aide to outgoing Chief of Staff John Podesta, phoned the White House and pressed for details about the alleged vandalism, she was told only of a single copier cord being cut and one severed phone line. Fleischer insisted that he had been told of more than one instance of cord-whacking but agreed that “the story has become bigger than life.” When reporters asked Fleischer if these more limited damages could simply have been caused by the movers on Inauguration Day, he said, “I don’t believe that the people who are professionals, who make it their business to go in and prepare the White House for new arrivals, would cut wires.” (Has Ari Fleischer ever dealt with movers?)

So, yes, there were some pranks. But there’s nothing unprecedented about the old administration pranking the new administration, as subsequent reports indicated. When Clinton-Gore staffers showed up for work in 1993, they found offices in disarray, computers disabled, and office furniture helpfully decorated with numerous Bush-Quayle bumper stickers. It appears that in this transition, the White House press corps took a similar situation and hyped it into a full-bore scandal without requiring one White House staffer to go on the record about specific vandalism or to provide any physical evidence.

In the absence of proof, why did the White House press corps advance the sabotage claims? 1) The Bushies insist on talking on a not-for-attribution basis if they talk at all, and this allowed them to embellish the scope of Prankgate’s “destruction” without suffering any blowback. 2) For all the pomp and pageantry of inauguration week, there wasn’t much news for the press corps to report. So, mindful of who their masters will be for the next four years, they accepted the Bushies’ blind accounts. 3) Reporters are suckers for stories that conform to their prejudices: It stood to reason that the Clinton crew would make a graceless exit and that the grown-ups from Texas would rise above it. 4) By Jan. 20 the ultra-efficient Clinton spin machine had been unplugged and there was nobody to provide an alternative account.

The story here wasn’t Clintonite shenanigans. It was the new White House’s smearing of their predecessors and Fleischer’s refusal to put up or shut up when it came time to start giving details.

(Note to the White House press corps: It’s still not too late to redeem yourselves!)