The White House vandal scandal that wasn't

How the incoming Bush team nudge-nudged a credulous press corps into swallowing a trashy Clinton story.

Published May 23, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

The "scandal" broke benignly enough, with an item in Lloyd Grove's dishy Reliable Source column in the Jan. 23 Washington Post, three days after the inauguration of George W. Bush.

"Incoming staffers of the Bush White House," Grove wrote, were "apparently victims of a practical joke." Bush aides in the Old Executive Office Building (EOB), adjacent to the White House, discovered that "many computer keyboards in their work spaces are missing the W key -- as in President Bush's middle initial."

Some W keys were discovered "taped on top of the doorways," while others were broken.

The report was more cute than cutting, with Grove quoting former Al Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, who quipped: "I think the missing W's can be explained by the vast left-wing conspiracy now at work."

But within two days, Grove's playful item had morphed into one more full-blown Clinton scandal. Suddenly newspapers and TV news shows were featuring extensive reports of Clinton administration "vandalism," stretching from the EOB offices of former Vice President Gore to the West Wing. Reports alleged expletive-ridden graffiti, sliced computer and telephone wires, file cabinets glued shut, presidential seals steamed off doors, stolen pictures and so-called porn bombs, which were never exactly described.

The technological problems the vandals wrought were so severe that, according to a report in the New York Daily News, "a telecommunications staffer with more than a quarter-century of service was seen sobbing."

"Phone lines cut, drawers filled with glue, door locks jimmied so that arriving Bush staff got locked inside their new offices," a disapproving Andrea Mitchell reported on NBC News. The message seemed clear: The trailer-trash Clintons and their staff had enjoyed one last bacchanal at taxpayer expense.

Now it seems those closely detailed stories were largely bunk. Last week it was revealed that a formal review by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative agency, "had found no damage to the offices of the White House's East or West Wings or EOB" and that Bush's own representatives had reported "there is no record of damage that may have been deliberately caused by the employees of the Clinton administration."

While cautious GSA staffers won't issue a blanket exoneration of the Clinton team, Bernard Ungar, the agency's director of physical infrastructure, told Salon the media clearly exaggerated the extent of the damage. According to the terse GSA statement that formed the basis of Ungar's conclusion, "the condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy."

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., the ardent Clinton foe who requested the GAO review, has tried to interpret the agency's findings to mean no "record of damage" had been compiled, not that no damage had occurred. But the lack of records "cataloging" any damages -- which Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer promised in January the White House would compile -- would seem to suggest one thing: Widespread acts of vandalism never occurred.

So how did the vandal scandal that wasn't get blown into a media firestorm?

"Certainly people inside the [Bush] administration fed this story," says an angry John Podesta, Clinton's former chief of staff. "At least they got what they wanted out of it."

A close look at the way the scandal mushroomed bolsters Podesta's view: The Bush administration helped the vandal scandal along, publicly appearing to try to douse the flames, while privately fanning them with detailed, off-the-record allegations of damage. On Tuesday, after the GAO's review was made public, Fleischer was left trying to spin himself out of a very deep hole, insisting he had tried to "knock down" the vandal story when it first emerged.

But a transcript of Fleischer's Jan. 25 briefing on the issue contradicts him. It shows the Bush spokesman coyly encouraging reporters' suspicions about the vandal scandal, while refusing to confirm or deny the reports of damage. According to one leading White House reporter, the story was also nudged along by two unnamed Bush aides.

Fleischer and the off-the-record Bush staffers, meanwhile, got a lot of help from a press corps eager for early scoops from a new administration. For some reporters and pundits, the White House vandalism story was just too good to pass up.

The Post's Grove gave the vandal scandal its debut, but it took off a day later thanks to Matt Drudge, who quoted a "close Bush adviser" saying the damage went "way beyond pranks, to vandalism."

Then online columnist Rich Galen, a former Republican strategist, reported that Tipper Gore personally called Lynne Cheney, wife of the new vice president, to apologize.

The Bush White House, for its part, handled initial questions about the damage with surprising good humor, at least publicly. When Fleischer was asked for his reaction, he told reporters, "It would have been 'Wow,' but the 'W' was removed, so now it's just 'O.'"

Meanwhile, Clinton was getting pummeled over his controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, and the vandalism story simmered for a day, bubbling up mostly on low-rent TV talk shows. But while Fleischer downplayed the seriousness of the supposed damage, two Bush staffers identified by White House reporters as "midlevel" aides started telling the media, off the record, that the damage went far beyond some missing keyboard W's. White House reporters quickly took the bait.

"There's a lot of criticism about the pack journalism when it comes to the press corps," says one White House reporter. "The dangerous thing is that you have a group of people who are itching to be the first to call something a big story. [Reporters] were so worried about not being the first one on the story that I think they jumped the gun."

That Thursday, Jan. 25, Fleischer gave reporters the tidbit they needed to move with a vandal scandal story. Asked whether there would be a "serious investigation" of the damage, Fleischer responded, "There is no investigation. What we are doing is cataloging that which took place."

That was enough: The White House found the damage vast enough to "catalog." Clearly, there was something worth writing about.

Then, asked to detail the damage, Fleischer responded, "I choose not to. I choose not to describe what acts were done that we found upon arrival because I think that's part of changing the tone in Washington."

That led to an avalanche of questions:

"Well, what's the catalog?"

"Yeah, why give them -- if you're going to give them a pass, why bother to catalogue?"

"How much? Is there a dollar figure?"

"Is there any estimate on how much this damage has done?"

"You've got to blame somebody," a reporter began, before being cut off by Fleischer. "President Bush is not going to come to Washington for the point of blaming somebody in this town," Fleischer said. "And it's a different way of governing, it's a different way of leading."

Fleischer was then questioned about the rumor started two days earlier in Galen's column that Tipper Gore had called Lynne Cheney.

"I know that a phone call was made to the vice president's office," he replied coyly, "but I really -- I don't recall who made it."

Asked where the most damage had been done, he responded: "You know, I really stopped paying attention to all the different places."

The briefing went on, hitting other topics before circling back to the alleged vandalism. Fleischer talked about the renovations going on in the office complex, to be expected during a presidential transition, and he noted that the work included carpets being torn out and rewiring. So, a reporter asked, could some of the rumored damages, besides the obvious pranks, be the result of renovations?

"Well," Fleischer responded, "I don't think that the people who were professionals, who make their business to go in and prepare a White House for new arrivals, would cut wires."

Fleischer's statement about "cut wires" indicated a greater breadth of damage than he had confirmed earlier. But before reporters could get in any more questions, the briefing ended. No matter: Fleischer had already given them more than enough.

The next day the Washington Post ran a front-page story by Mike Allen reporting that the White House was "cataloging numerous acts of apparent vandalism" that included "sliced phone and computer lines, obscene messages left in copy machines and champagne flutes missing from an Air Force jet."

The cute story that had appeared in the Post earlier in the week had officially ballooned into one more tawdry Clinton scandal. Now, according to the Post, "Bush officials described serious damage that has taken taxpayer money to repair." There was a full accounting of the pranks that some Democrats now, on background, confirmed: the missing "W" keys, the placement of phony signs on certain doors with titles like "Office of Strategery," "Office of Subliminable Messages" and "Division of Uniting," and reports that Clinton staffers had "interspersed blank photocopy paper with a fake Time magazine cover -- widely circulated on the Internet during the Florida recount litigation -- featuring a photo of an unhappy Bush saying "Oh shit."

Allen's front-page story included even more damaging allegations, quoting one unnamed Bush official who accused Clinton staffers "of taking White House paintings and trying to have them shipped to themselves. Others are said to have steamed official seals off office doors and tried to have them shipped." In fact, according to the story, "the incoming Bush administration ordered all packages X-rayed starting at noon" the day it moved in.

As if the portrait of Clinton's staff members loading their pickups with White House valuables wasn't enough, readers were treated to the heartwarming image of a service staff grateful that their rightful rulers had returned. "Some of the kitchen staff hugged members of the Bush family, the official said, adding, 'You could sense an attitude, like, 'Thank God you're here.'"

Other news reports were more muted. The Los Angeles Times quoted Fleischer's remarks and ran a list of many of the alleged acts of vandalism, but kept them in the "rumor" category. But it also debunked Galen's Tipper Gore-Lynne Cheney story -- which Fleischer had notably not debunked when given the chance -- by placing a call to Al Gore. (Dick Cheney also later disputed the rumor, but Galen still says he stands by his story.)

The Associated Press' coverage repeated Fleischer's comments uncritically, but did include near the end of its report a comment from Karen Tramontano, counselor to Clinton's chief of staff Podesta, saying, "We left everything in good condition." The New York Times mentioned the vandalism "cataloging" only briefly in a Week in Review feature.

The day after running an inflammatory front-page story, the Washington Post ran another scandal story inside, noting that Fleischer "had scaled back his description of a review the White House is conducting of purported vandalism." The "cataloging" Fleischer had previously discussed now consisted of an aide "keeping track in his head" of any damage.

But the vandal scandal story was already in play, snowballing along with allegations about the looting of Air Force One by departing Clintonites (an erroneous tale that would be debunked by Bush himself two weeks later) and the Clintons' "gift scandal" (which was also inaccurately reported) into a final damning picture that seemed to confirm everything his Republican critics had been saying about the Democratic president.

Editorialists across the country were soon in high dudgeon. Typical was the Indianapolis Star, which opined: "President Bush is being too civil and a bit too charitable in putting a lid on the trashing of the White House and looting of Air Force One ... These vandals deserve to be exposed."

"Such trashy behavior and disrespect for the White House comes as little surprise," scolded the Houston Chronicle. "Sad that what was supposed to have been 'the most ethical administration in history' ends as the gang that couldn't loot straight."

The scandal played well for the new administration. "We learned more about the pardons. We learned about the gifts. We learned about a little bit of vandalizing of the White House and the Old Executive Office Building," Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol pointed out to Fox News. "It's been really great for Bush to have people -- and including many Gore voters, I think -- just look up and think, 'You know what? Maybe I didn't want Bush to be president, but I am glad that Bill Clinton is gone.'"

By the time the scandals began to fade from the media, in the first weeks of February, Bush's favorability ranking had soared (to 60 percent according to CNN/Time). It couldn't have gone better for members of the incoming Bush administration had they choreographed it themselves. And, in fact, they had.

On April 27, the GAO's Bernard Ungar finally informed Rep. Barr's office that there wasn't any damage to the White House, or, to be precise, there were "no records of damage." It took three more weeks for Barr to finally respond, citing his dissatisfaction with the investigation but, ultimately, giving up. According to Ungar, an inspection of the White House by the General Services Administration, the federal government's property managers, did find "that there were papers all over the place, and that it was really messy." But there was scant proof of active mischief.

In an interview with Salon, Ungar stopped short of claiming that all the vandalism rumors had been proven false. "There was a sign or two here or there that had been altered," he said, declining to detail the alterations, "but that type of thing was not extensive." In any event, Ungar said, there was not enough information to justify a continued probe.

The GSA's inspection covered only the "real property" in the White House -- the walls, the carpet, heavy furniture and doors. Records of damage to other property, such as office equipment, computers and phones, were to be provided by Bush's White House staff. But Ungar was told they did not have detailed records. "They do have reports of repair work being done," Ungar said. "But those wouldn't show the cause of the damage, whether it was intentional or accidental."

So rumors of extensive damage inflicted on the White House by rowdy Clinton staffers in the end turn out to be just that -- rumors.

The vandal scandal that wasn't has left former Clinton aides angry and bitter. Says former Clinton press secretary Jake Siewert, "The media left a very damaging and false impression. I'd hope the reporters [would] go back and try to figure out what went wrong." Siewert is less critical of the Bush administration's role in the scandal, saying that "it's hard to put any blame on the administration." Siewert is even reluctant to blame his successor, Fleischer, "especially if the guidance he got on the story was wrong."

But Post columnist Grove, whose item launched the entire saga, firmly lays the blame with the Bush press secretary. "The person who really needs to explain what he was doing was Ari, why he let the story percolate, and why he juiced it with his coy responses," Grove said. "I think it's a fair point to ask to what extent Mr. Fleischer's credibility has been damaged by this."

In his Tuesday briefing, following the release of the GAO review, Fleischer said he had in fact tried to dispute the vandal scandal allegations that first appeared in the Drudge Report. "I was trying to knock that down and draw everybody back and away from this story because it was not something the White House was pursuing," Fleischer told reporters. "And I indicated that there was no investigation going on, because there wasn't. I said, if anything, somebody is cataloging this. And the next day I further explained that meant that somebody was just keeping mental track of what was taking place."

Fleischer refused to acknowledge how he stirred press interest in the vandal story, finally urging the press to drop the matter. "It was the White House's goal then, and it remains the White House's goal, not to live in the past," he told reporters. "And those things that took place as this administration entered office were not things that this White House was ever focused on."

Apparently, just like the White House, the media that reported on the vandal scandal so aggressively in January doesn't want to "live in the past" either -- and has largely ignored the GAO review that cleared the Clinton team. Last Friday, the Kansas City Star ran a story on the vandal scandal that wasn't, and the story moved on the Knight-Ridder and Associated Press wires. Other than that, the country's newsrooms have remained nearly silent. "The New York Times never gave the story much play, so they didn't really have the same obligation to correct it," says Siewert. "But the Washington Post -- they didn't even bother to have one of their own reporters do a follow-up on [the GAO report]."

The Post did run the AP wire item on the GAO review in Friday's print edition, and also ran a two-paragraph mention the same day in the Internet-only "Political Insider" column written by Charles Babington. The Post's failure to correct its vandalism coverage didn't escape the attention of media critics, including its own Howard Kurtz. On Monday, Kurtz mentioned the dearth of his paper's coverage in his online column.

But the Post wasn't alone. With the exception of Fox News, none of the media outlets that hyped this nonstory have moved aggressively in the past week to rectify their errors. The conservative cable news channel mentioned the vandalism story in 13 separate programs or segments in the first week after it broke. To its credit, Fox acknowledged on Friday -- the same day the GAO report became public -- that there had been little evidence to support its vandalism claims. Later "Fox News Sunday" host Tony Snow went even further, apologizing to former Clinton staffers for his error. "OK, I'm sorry," Snow said on the program. "The ex-president's pals have a legitimate beef."

In contrast, NBC News, which ran two reports about the vandalism scandal in January, has not yet covered the latest developments. The Los Angeles Times, which also ran two stories mentioning the scandal -- one just a 118-word item about an offer by Clinton to investigate the charges -- has yet to run anything about the new GAO conclusions. USA Today reported one story on Jan. 26 about White House vandalism, but has since not followed up.

The New York Daily News ran stories on Jan. 25 and 27 that repeated some of the more damaging vandalism rumors -- including the tale of the "sobbing" telecommunications worker. Tom DeFrank, the Daily News Washington bureau chief who reported both stories, said he has made calls to his original sources and that the GSA statement had "raised his eyebrows." But so far, DeFrank has written nothing, though the Daily News ran the Knight-Ridder wire story.

"Somehow," complained Siewert, "there's a reward system. Reporters get big play on a story. But when it's reported that it's not true, it gets buried somewhere."

According to Podesta, news organizations that gleefully covered the trashing of the White House story "ought to be asking two questions. The first: What on earth possessed them? The other: Why is it being corrected by a Knight-Ridder wire story?"

At least one White House reporter is less inclined to blame the Bush administration than turn the criticism inward. "We're often such willing co-conspirators," the reporter said. "They don't have to hatch anything."

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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