Pssst!

WORD is out (from a very good source) that George Bush is really steamed over those on his transition team who've been leaking to the press. Has there ever been a president who didn't feel this way? Who didn't find the words spoken in private barely out of his mouth before they showed up in print or on the nightly news?

One has to feel some sympathy for the man in the Oval Office. Courtiers over the centuries have probably done more harm than good with such whispering. The effects can range from the merely annoying to the politically embarrassing to being downright dangerous to the republic. Never mind that the biggest leaker has occasionally (like Henry Kissinger, William Casey, and even some recent presidents) been the top man himself.

The Reagan administration, with its more muscular activities abroad (mining Nicaraguan harbors, etc.) and its internal wrangling over economic and arms control policy, had more than its share of self-induced leaking. Remember the battle of the ``two Richards'' - Perle at Defense and Burt at State - over arms control? Or David Stockman's trip to the woodshed after he passed more than the salt to a magazine writer over lunch?

It had to be more than nosy reporters and behind-the-scenes blabbermouths that led to overreaction by the White House then: threats of lie-detector tests and firing of staff, prosecution of news organizations on dubious ``national security'' grounds.

The President-elect is right to want to assert control over his team from Day 1. And staff chief John Sununu strikes one as a person that White House underlings ought not to fool with. Because the vice-president is a better manager and more on top of the details of policy, he is already better equipped to head off leaking.

But Mr. Bush can do more to help prevent the kind of leaking that's caused by frustration inside the White House (lack of clear direction and leadership) and outside as well (lack of regular and reliable information). The ``Great Communicator,'' for all his brilliance on the stump and on the tube, had problems in both areas. See the Tower Commission report on management shortfalls during Iran-contra, and note the number of times presidential spokesmen had to correct President Reagan after his infrequent press conferences.

For starters, Bush can meet the press more often, and not just in the overly structured, high-pressure, prime-time press conferences. He should sit down regularly with reporters armed only with pencils and notebooks. Old fashioned, maybe, but checking tape recorders and cameras at the door makes for a fuller and freer (and more informative) discussion. Radio and TV folks will holler, but it will make them better reporters.

He should also make expert officials - even those from the Pentagon and intelligence agencies - more available for background briefings. This has happened in the past, and journalists have kept their end of the bargain by not revealing sensitive ``sources and methods'' of intelligence gathering.

And last, Mr. Bush can lighten up a bit on the subject. Leaking will always be part of the Washington game. No need to go ballistic.

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