Someone once said the White House is the only sieve that leaks from the top, but the Bush White House is, so far, famously leak-proof. Or rather almost leak-free.
And that is amazing.
How could it be? How did it happen? And is there any chance it will continue?
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The Bush White House doesn’t leak because George W. actively and affirmatively does not want it to.
From 1981 to 1993, George W. Bush spent 12 years of his life, from the ages of 35 to 47—the years of full adulthood when you absorb Life’s Major Lessons—watching leaks almost kill the administration in which his father was vice president, and then arguably destroy the administration in which his father was president.
Dubya learned to hate leaks. And to hate leakers. And boy do his people know.
Here are some of the leaks Dubya witnessed in the Reagan-Bush era. A year into Ronald Reagan’s first term, his most influential domestic adviser, David Stockman, went to the liberal Atlantic Monthly magazine and spilled into its pages the darkest night of his dark soul. The tax cuts were evil, the deficit irresponsible; spending can’t be controlled; we’re in “an economic Dunkirk”; supply-side theory is nothing more than “trickle-down economics.” Mr. Stockman was speaking of course at the exact moment in history when the economy, as Mr. Reagan prophesied, was beginning to burst from its old constraints and yield the Great Abundance, which, for all its ups and downs, is with us still.
But Mr. Stockman’s leak was truly destructive, not only to Mr. Reagan personally but to his administration’s standing as an earnest and believable entity. For it gave Mr. Reagan’s great nemesis, the American establishment, enough ammunition for the next 20 years of propaganda. “It was all smoke and mirrors, his own budget director admitted it.”
Mr. Reagan soon said he’d had it “up to my keister” with leaks, but, being Ronald Reagan, he ultimately treated Mr. Stockman with mercy. Mr. Stockman repaid him by suggesting in his memoirs that if Mr. Reagan had been a real leader he would have canned him. Mr. Stockman then left for Wall Street, where he prospered in the greatest peacetime economic expansion in all of U.S. history—which resulted from the policies he’d done so much to denigrate. Life is funny.
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George W. Bush saw that leak and more. He saw the ketchup-is-a-vegetable leak, the White-House-staff-in-constant-turmoil leaks, the Iran-contra leaks in which operatives on Capitol Hill and in the independent counsel’s office whispered to the press that Vice President Bush was soon to be named, subpoenaed, indicted.
It was all so damaging. The Reagan-Bush years were a leak feast, and every morning sophisticated White Houseians woke up to grab the Washington Post to find out what reporter David Hoffman had today. They’d read, interpret, analyze, deconstruct. I can remember conversations in the halls of the Old Executive Office Building in which Joe would say to Bob, “I know that was Frank’s unattributed quote in the Hoffman piece, no one else around here would use a word like ‘coruscating.’ ”
I knew a man who was an infrequent but truly gifted leaker. He was so good at it that he managed to leak in other people’s language. One of the man’s enemies was a guy down the hall who had the habit of punctuating other people’s remarks with “Absolutely!” My friend the leaker would use “Absolutely!” in his unattributed quotes so his enemy would be the first suspect.
George W. Bush in those days witnessed a political culture in which Lee Atwater was leaking against Ed Rollins to Time in one office and Ed was simultaneously leaking against Lee to Newsweek in another. I remember hearing one story of a 1984 Reagan campaign staffer who leaked so much and so often about strategy—he never came up with any strategy, he just heard about it at meetings and then spent the rest of the morning on the phone telling reporters what we were going to do next—that one day one of his bureaucratic foes locked him in his office and told him he was going to watch the outside lines, and if one of them lit up he’d come in and drag him straight to his boss. Everything was strangely quiet for a few hours, so the fellow poked his head into the leaker’s office and found him under his desk—literally under his desk—with someone else’s phone in his hand, leaking.
This really happened.
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Part of the reason for the leaking in the Reagan-Bush era, especially the Reagan era, was that both White Houses were riven by a left-right split, by philosophical and ideological divisions. People leaked bad stuff about Team Conservative to help Team Liberal. In the Bush administration it all culminated in the most destructive leak of all.
In 1991-92, when Budget Director Dick Darman, a liberal Republican, wished to give his version and view of Bush 41’s tax-cut pledge and its rescission, he went to his friend Bob Woodward, of the Washington Post. The Post of course is the Washington establishment newspaper, read by all Washington powers and all embassy staffs, which wire home its contents. And so when Mr. Darman leaked to the Post, part of his intention was to make his claims, memories and point of view the Official Version.
But Mr. Darman got tripped up. Mr. Woodward had told Mr. Darman he was interviewing him for a book to be published down the road and Mr. Darman, as an old friend, took this at face value. But once Mr. Woodward had everything he wanted from Mr. Darman and others, he informed the budget director that, unfortunately, he has an agreement with the Washington Post that any time he discovers major news while working on a book he has to share it with the paper’s news desk.
And so, shortly before Election Day 1992, with President Bush struggling against the odds to hold onto his presidency, the Post published a series saying that Mr. Bush never meant the tax pledge, never intended to keep it, and the president’s own pollster had been eager to raise taxes from day one.
It was devastating. And Dubya was watching it all. And he hated what he saw.
One of the things he saw, by the way, was not only that leaks were destructive, but they were uniquely destructive to conservatism. Liberals had big media, elite media, establishment media, from the newspapers to the networks, to leak to. It was the liberal pipeline: Turn it on in the Post or Times and it will flow into ABC and CBS. Conservatives didn’t have a media structure to effectively leak to. They had small weekly papers like Human Events, the fortnightly National Review, the brand-new Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. But there was no Non-Liberal News Alternative in those days, no conservative media infrastructure, no Rush, no Drudge, no Internet, no Fox News Channel.
So Dubya learned that not only did leaks destroy but they tended to destroy conservatives. And Dubya was a conservative.
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From the minute he went into politics, in Texas, at the top, the governorship, George W. Bush let his people know: Leak and you are out. He told them they could be frank with him and frank with each other in meetings, that he needed their candor and expected disagreement. But as soon as he read about it on the front page of the Houston Chronicle, you are out of here. He let them know he would find out who did the leaking, for leaking is something he understood. He had spent 12 years watching the masters.
Mr. Bush also surrounded himself in Texas with tight, talented and competent people as opposed to visionaries and venturesome thinkers. Visionaries and venturesome thinkers talk; communicating is what they do. They fall in love with their ideas, and come to dislike those who oppose them. They sometimes lash out at them; they sometimes leak.
When he got to the White House, Mr. Bush kept his Texas staff and added on people he respected from his father’s term—people who to a man hated the culture of leaks and had been damaged by them in their previous lives.
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So: Mr. Bush’s White House doesn’t leak. But how does Mr. Bush enforce his No Leak Law? In a way he doesn’t have to. It enforces itself. It’s in place; he brought it with him; it’s there.
But there’s more. On deep background I spoke to someone I know/have never met/once had lunch with in the Bush White House/Executive Office Building/Cabinet. He/she/it did not want to be identified. I asked, “How do you guys/gals/things get the word that you can’t leak? How does the White House enforce it?”
The man/woman/top aide/peon answered—this is a real quote, which on the rules of background I’m not supposed to use but so what: “Let me close my door. The reason this place doesn’t leak is because people have to look up and down the hall before they talk. Killing leakers might have a deterrent effect!”
But he/she/it said it was interesting, no one ever tells you not to leak, it’s just something you pick up. There are signs and signals. They are expressed institutionally.
Certainly Mr. Bush showed his resolve on leaks when, after Sept. 11, classified information he’d shared with some congressmen wound up in the press. Mr. Bush came down hard, spared no feelings, slammed the Hill and ordered a directive limiting the dissemination of U.S. intelligence. Jake Tapper of Salon compared him to “a master hitting his dog with a rolled up newspaper.”
The Bush White House is a White House of empires—Karen Hughes’s empire, Karl Rove’s, Josh Bolton’s, Andy Card’s. The people who work for them take their cues from them. If Ms. Hughes doesn’t leak, her empire doesn’t leak. And Karen doesn’t leak.
I called Mary Matalin and asked her why this White House doesn’t leak when every other White House she ever worked in did. She said, “There’s this notion (in the press) that this White House is just so well disciplined and well organized. They think it’s run like a camp!” But the real key to the success of the No Leak Law is simple: “Because we have a common agenda we’re not trying to advance any position but the president’s. So we don’t use the vehicle of leaks to advance our own agenda. The Washington press thinks of leaking as ‘conflict leaking’—you leak to them to advance an agenda that is apart from the president’s, or to force an argument in a certain direction. We don’t have that. There aren’t any separate ideological or policy vents, we’re here to advance his policy. Previous administrations, you didn’t like the way it was going you’d leak it out in the press.”
Then she said something no White House aide in modern history has ever felt compelled to say, “We do leak!” she insisted. “We leak stuff all the time about what we’re doing and why, but it’s not conflict leaking.”
And they leak what Mr. Bush wants leaked. “He speaks in English not just to America but to us. He makes the agenda clear. It’s not unclear, there’s no guessing, what he’s thinking or wanting or going—he’s straightforward.”
There’s another way Mr. Bush enforces the No Leak Law, and it’s that he appears to obey it himself. He doesn’t leak. He doesn’t share with an aide details of a conversation he had with a Democratic senator and then wave his hand as if to say, “Make sure the Post finds out.” He doesn’t leak against Democrats. He doesn’t leak against Republicans. He doesn’t against his staff.
Previous presidents have, thinking they had to become part of the game. Mr. Bush just thinks he had to shut the game down.
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What is the public benefit of the No Leak Law?
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy often chose not to meet with his top military and civilian advisers as they gathered down the hall trying to come up with options on what to do about the Soviet missiles aimed at America from 90 miles off the Florida coast. JFK’s instinct: When the president is in the meeting some people become inhibited, some are afraid to be candid. And what he needed was their uninhibited candor.
So he didn’t go. He was briefed later, by his brother and others, and made his best choices based on the best thinking.
In the Bush White House it’s the press that isn’t there, at the meeting. It is “briefed later,” by “others,” such as Don Rumsfeld in his daily news conferences.
The president gets what he needs to hear, the public gets what it needs to hear, and there are fewer harem-scarem headlines, which in wartime even more than at other times is a good thing.
But—a big but—has a bright and industrious little serpent attempted to invade this leakless Eden?
Guess who’s working on a book on Dubya’s first year, or Dubya’s first year and the war, or the Afghan war, or the continual fighting between State, Defense and the National Security Council over Dubya’s first year, the war and Afghanistan?
Big Bad Bob. Woodward, that is. He is reported to be hammering all over the place looking for leaks, trying to make them spring. Who would be his sources? I can guess and so can you, but the more sophisticated and experienced guesser would be one George W. Bush.
I wonder how he intends to handle it. I wonder what he’s doing about it. I wonder if the No Leak Law will prevail or, if it doesn’t, I wonder if Mr. Bush will choose to cooperate, and have his people cooperate, on the old theory that if you cooperate with certain people you’re paying a kind of protection money: Talk and the whole story won’t be told to your disadvantage, refuse to talk and you’ll be portrayed as the fool. “In this town,” as Bob Novak once famously said, “you’re either a source or a target.”
Wonder what Mr. Bush and his people will choose to be. Wonder if they’ll figure out a way to be neither.