Travel Office Flap Worsens Clinton's Press Relations

BETWEEN the president's runway haircut that kept two airplanes circling Los Angeles airport and the mass firings in the White House travel office, no public policy and very little public money are at stake in the issues that have dominated White House press briefings for the past week.

But the Clinton administration's never-comfortable relationship with the press has nose-dived to new levels of distrust and defensiveness.

White House spokesmen clearly have been stunned by the intense level of press concern about Wednesday's mass firing of the seven-member White House travel office.

Reporters, for their part, have been aggravated by daily revelations that further undercut the credibility of White House briefers.

White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers "behaved really in a reprehensible manner" on Wednesday, says Leo Rennert, Washington bureau chief of McClatchy News Service, when she made strong charges against the departing employees that went beyond the evidence the White House has produced.

"Dee Dee made a number of sweeping charges without much substantiation," says another reporter, who preferred to speak anonymously. But the evidence indicates "penny ante stuff so far," the reporter adds.

The bulk of the work of the nonpolitical White House travel office is to arrange the travel of the press corps covering the president. In firing the staff this week, Ms. Myers said the mismanagement of funds was so systemic that the whole staff was responsible and a criminal investigation was under way.

So far, the White House has documented discrepancies in the accounts of more than $18,000.

Over the past few days, however, evidence has emerged that friends and associates of the president and his aides have been pressing for months to gain access to the White House's travel business. That offers an alternative explanation for the firings.

THE credibility gap over the travel office only adds to the administration's press woes. From the beginning, Clinton staff members alienated the press by cutting off reporters from their traditional free access to the press secretary's office. The president also has sought to bypass the White House press corps and send his message directly to the country through town meetings and non-Washington news media. The atmosphere now "couldn't get any worse," says the reporter.

But does it matter much outside the cramped quarters of the White House briefing room?

Some in the press argue it doesn't. "Presidents rise and fall in the end on the substance of their records," says Carl Leubsdorff, Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. "Whether reporters liked President Bush, and a lot of them did, or whether they liked [Bush press secretary] Marlin Fitzwater, and most of them did, didn't keep Bush from losing the election."

But it helps the White House carry its message to the public if reporters believe its version of events, says Martha Kumar, a political scientist at Towson State University in Towson, Md., who is writing a book on the White House and the press.

As Myers's credibility has plummeted, she says, communications director George Stephanopoulos is tied even more tightly to the daily briefings that traditionally fall to the press secretary.

"This makes it more difficult for him ever to move into a long-range planning role," Dr. Kumar says.

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