Poor `Damage Control' by Clinton Keeps `Travelgate' Scandal Going

ON a scale of 1 to 10, as talkmeister John McLaughlin would say, how serious is the White House travel office flap?

If Watergate is a 10, this ranks around perhaps a 2 or a 3 on the scandal-meter, say Washington pundits. Some argue it isn't even a scandal at all: It's just incompetence, the result of an inexperienced White House staff that has not learned the art of damage control.

In summarily firing seven longtime staff members last week in its travel office, the White House broke no laws. It did violate its own pledge to keep the Department of Justice out of politics, by having direct contact with Federal Bureau of Investigation officials to initiate an investigation of the travel office and then in discussions on what to tell the public. Attorney General Janet Reno says she was bypassed, and she protested the handling of the affair to White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum.

Suzanne Garment, author of a book on Washington scandals, says that this one ranks pretty low. "But in terms of the principles being violated, I think we're getting up there," she says. "They ended up using the FBI not for cover up but for something worse, not to hide a crime, but in substance to accuse someone falsely of a crime."

The seven staffers fired - five of them were subsequently upgraded to "administrative leave" while investigations continue - were accused of financial irregularities in the office that handles travel for White House staff and press. But memos from Hollywood producer Harry Thomason and presidential cousin Catherine Cornelius, both of whom could benefit personally from a shake-up in the office, created the appearance of cronyism.

If, ultimately, "travelgate" is small potatoes, why is the story still with us more than a week after it broke? Because the White House failed in Rule No. 1 of damage control: Reveal everything as soon as possible so the press has nothing more to ferret out.

"What keeps a scandal going in part is the same thing that keeps any running news story going, which is something new every day, some little thing to give a top to the same old story," says Stephen Hess, a longtime observer of politics and the press at the Brookings Institution.

"These folks have been uniquely inept at constantly topping a story they'd just as soon have go away...," Mr. Hess says. "The way you handle that is you give everything you've go to give, and you've got the story for 48 hours. The story for one day, then rebuttals."

In its own internal investigation, the White House should not have had a hard time piecing together the whole story, since it all took place at the White House, Mr. Hess adds.

Some changes in White House staff may be in the offing, according to press reports, but not before President Clinton is finished getting his budget through Congress - the most important point of his presidency thus far.

How does Clinton get over this public-relations fiasco, made only worse by the $200 haircut that held up runway traffic last week at Los Angeles International Airport? A clear victory on a matter of real substance, such as the budget. Or, suggests Ms. Garment, "perhaps we'll get a wise and just health plan, in which case much will be forgiven."

Alan Lichtman, an American University political historian, calls the travel office flap more a blunder than a scandal. He partially faults the press for making it appear to be more important than it really is.

"The fact that this is still front-page news on the eve of the most important vote [on the budget package] of his presidency thus far is stunning," says Professor Lichtman.

Indeed, even as the White House was preoccupied with trying to work out a compromise with conservative House Democrats on spending and taxes, the vast majority of questions fired at Communications Director George Stephanopolous at Wednesday's White House press briefing were on the travel office.

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