`The Agenda' White House: Nothing Is Confidential

WASHINGTON Post editor Bob Woodward's new book on the Clinton White House, ``The Agenda,'' has been the big ``inside Washington'' story the past two weeks. Commentary has centered on what it says about the president and about his administration's processes of decisionmaking.

What's far more revealing, and disturbing, however, is the book's portrayal of vast changes taking place in high officials' sense of what public service requires. ``The Agenda'' describes an administration where virtually no one can keep his or her mouth shut - at least to a prestigious reporter who works for the big hometown paper.

A number of officials, such as National Economic Council chairman Robert Rubin and presidential counselor David Gergen, who have confirmed specific remarks that Mr. Woodward attributes to them, have said the book gets things wrong in the large, even if it's correct in the small.

Mr. Gergen says, for example, that while it is true he was startled when he witnessed the president exploding angrily at staffers who had made a relatively minor and easily correctable error, President Clinton's conduct was excusable because he was trying to do so much and understandably got frustrated. What's more, while Woodward does indeed show ``confusion,'' ``indecisiveness,'' and ``chaos'' in high administration circles, Gergen says ``I've been in three previous White Houses'' and ``I don't see much that's new.''

The Clinton administration may or may not be ``normal'' in its decisionmaking flaws. It certainly is not normal in its readiness to take a reporter inside one White House meeting after another and expose perceived shortcomings of colleagues and the president himself. What's more, most of this tale-telling took place when the administration was still in its infancy.

Woodward tells the story of then-candidate Clinton's reaction to articles that the writer had done for the Washington Post on the Bush economic team. Published just a month before the November 1992 balloting, the series portrayed backbiting and disarray among such key Bush officials as budget chief Richard Darman, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, and Council of Economic Advisers chairman Michael Boskin.

Speaking to senior strategist James Carville, ``The Agenda'' tells us, Mr. Clinton ridiculed and condemned the economic team for its apparent disloyalty. ``But they're rats,'' Clinton is supposed to have said, ``jumping ship. George Bush made them. They were nothing before.''

If this was the gist of his comments to Mr. Carville, how deeply he must resent the far greater ``disloyalty'' of his own staff. The revelations contained in the Oct. 4-7, 1992, Post stories about Bush associates seem positively restrained compared with those about Clinton's advisers.

Some examples. George Stephanopoulos, perhaps Clinton's closest aide, is said to have told incoming budget director Leon Panetta that the president-elect's worst failing is that he can never make a decision (Page 86). Senior political assistant Paul Begala opines that the president is so lacking in backbone that without his wife he would have had a career as the most popular law professor at the University of Arkansas (Page 111). Deputy budget director Alice Rivlin is reported to have told Mr. Begala that the Clinton campaign's numbers on the federal deficit were dishonest (Page 114). Political adviser Stanley Greenberg is said to have thought at one key juncture in 1993 that Hillary Clinton's strategy on health care was insane and dishonest (Page 122).

Again and again, high-ranking officials remark, in amazement and disapproval, on the president's uncontrolled fits of rage, and in particular on the tirades he supposedly directed against Mr. Stephanopoulas, whose chief qualification for his post, according to the book, is his willingness to submit to the most-demeaning treatment. The president and aides are routinely quoted punctuating their sentences with what is, apparently, this administration's favorite expletive.

Even when Woodward's description involves no disparaging remarks, it contains mind-boggling details on high-level, closed-door meetings.

It is easy to ridicule Woodward's fly-on-the-wall style of journalism, with its constant stream of ``Greenspan felt'' and ``Begala was steaming'' references, none attributed to any source. It is certainly not my idea of a good model. But almost no one in the administration is denying the book's most disturbing feature: that scores of middle- and high-level members of a new administration gave a reporter extensive blow-by-blow accounts of closed-door meetings and copies of memorandums intended to be confidential.

And for what purpose? Apparently for nothing higher than settling scores and gaining ego balm from being ``important'' enough to be able to embarrass colleagues, and even the president himself, to a celebrity reporter. ``The Agenda'' is bereft of any ``this is so bad I must resign and tell my real bosses, the people, why'' motivation.

Governments need to be able to have confidential discussions. Administration members need to be able to say things in private without wondering how it will look in print only months later. Lack of basic restraint, and the absence of a higher responsibility than insider one-upmanship, debases the governmental process.

The Clinton administration didn't start this problem. But Woodward suggests it is determined to carry it to new extremes.

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