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'More champagne, Ms. Mitchell?' (investigation of White House travel office)

The other side of the Travelgate story and why the media didn't tell you about it.

The close reader could sight the traces of a guilty conscience. At the height of the controversy over President Clinton's dismissal of White House travel office staffers, White House correspondent Michael Frisby wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "Billy Dale, the travel office director, and his troops have frequently been called the 'best friends reporters have on the road.' "Trying to account for the uproar over the firings, Time magazine's Margaret Carlson revealed that the "White House failed to take into account that the travel office had a powerful protector in the press, which has long been pampered by the plush level of accommodations." Beyond these discrete admissions, readers had little to go on. Frisby briefly mentioned stories of reporters smuggling expensive foreign rugs past U.S. Customs as Billy Dale graciously looked the other way; Carlson offered a few digs about family members tagging along for a flat $100 rate, and favorite drinks being provided without reporters having to ask. But after a full week's coverage of what the press grandiosely dubbed "Travelgate," their own appetites, dalliances, and secrets were firmly under cover.

Was it a collective oversight that the vast majority of news accounts didn't tell readers what the travel office actually did? Or were reporters simply wary

of letting on that they had reason to miss the folks being given the heave-ho?

"The travel office had nothing to do but feed and care for the press in the most lavish way possible," said one correspondent who joined the press corps last year and who requested anonymity. "The travel is first class plus. One trip to Kennebunkport, I got on the plane, and there was lobster, roast beef, and really good wines whenever you wanted it. Money was no object."

Travelling reporters drop their baggage at the curb of Andrews Air Force Base, and it reappears upon arrival in their first-class hotel suites. Expensive overseas purchases are brought home without paying shipping costs or custom duties, since all baggage is quickly whisked past customs agents. Laundering and dry cleaning are taken care of. Like flights and hotel rooms, ground transportation is always pre-arranged.

And what about the job itself? Since 50 to 100 members of the corps follow the commander-in-chief on domestic trips--too many to be around him constantly--a "pool" of three or four reporters from different media stays at the president's side and acts as the eyes and ears for the rest. This means that the large majority of correspondents, who have just flown thousands of miles at great expense, generally retire to the filing center to watch the president on closed-circuit television. "It's actually possible to travel overseas with a president and never see him," says Newsweek's Tom DeFrank.

It's also possible to bolt the traveling circus altogether. With nothing much to do when they weren't in the pool for Clinton's recent dinner in Chicago with House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowskl, nearly two dozen reporters took off to see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field. In the third year of the Bush administration, a few regulars even created a prize--the Poppy--for the correspondent who wasted the most time following the president. Dan Goodgame, who covered President Bush for Time magazine, says when he lectures at journalism schools, his standard line is, "If you want to be lazy, the White House is the best beat in the world."

Time out

What justifies a huge retinue of pampered reporters trailing the president? Surely not great reporting. "When you get high stakes commercial competition, especially in television, but also in print, the large numbers mean that they compete for something every minute," says media critic Ben Bagdikian, who is also a former managing editor at The Washington Post. "That has increased enormously the amount of trivia and glitches made to look important. Even glitches are sometimes hard to spot within the traveling pack. The now infamous $200 haircut was actually uncovered by Washington Post gossip columnist Lois Romano. The press corps' plane took off before Cristophe climbed aboard Air Force One. And being glued to the president's schedule often leads to missing the political action that precedes a visit and the reactions that follow. The New York Post's Deborah Orin said she "did a better job covering [Clinton's recent] New York trip on the ground than aboard the press charter" because she was able to talk to local politicians before he arrived and then listen to him on a local radio show.

Still, keeping a troupe of reporters trained on the president does have some justifications. One is in the event that the president gets shot. Reporters also say that trips are essential for cultivating presidential aides as sources, and even allow them to do some in-depth reporting. Goodgame recalled that when he was in Kennebunkport during the summers, he would "go by the hotels where the president's advisers were staying, go hit golf balls with them at the driving range, have top advisers over to dinner. I spent a terrific couple of hours with Sununu out on the deck of his hotel room and learned more about their budget strategy than in a dozen phone calls in Washington."

Clinton hadn't apparently figured out any of this. He briefly banned journalists from their old quarters in the West Wing and the $100 travel rate for family members has been discontinued. So it should come as little surprise that the press has been so prickly. Clinton could learn a lesson or two from men like Richard Darman and James Baker, who were brilliant at feeding reporters enough to make them want to come back for more and therefore unlikely to file anything unflattering about them.

But the White House beat has perils that go beyond being used by a cabinet member. There is the risk that all the pampering will fundamentally alter a perspective. Journalists, once considered outsiders, now feel more a part of the Washington inner circle. "Everyone in the Washington press corps tends to be pretty well paid," says David Lauter of the Los Angeles Times. "We tend to live in comfortable suburbs, and a lot of us send our kids to private schools." Which helps explain what you heard--and what you didn't hear--about Travelgate.
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Author:Cogan, Dan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:1056
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