How Does A Pending Probe Affect White House?

The Clinton White House knew a thing or two about distractions.

Return seven years, to October 6, 1998. Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary at the time, was in the briefing room facing questions about Monica Lewinsky's grand jury testimony.

Lockhart said he simply couldn't answer them. "I am, frankly, not familiar with what her grand jury testimony is... and I could spend all day going through it."

A reporter rescued Lockhart. "Readout on Menem?" the reporter asked, referring to Argentine President Carlos Menem, who had met with Mr. Clinton that day.

"Yes," offered Lockhart. "They had a very warm meeting at the end of the IMF meeting. They discussed international economic issues, in particular Latin America. They discussed the talks between Peru and Ecuador of the peace talks, what they're both joint guarantees of, and they had a discussion on climate changeā€¦.."

Lockhart continued for a bit on this subject.

Such was the atmosphere in a White House struggling to carry on the nation's business in the face of unrelenting questions about an investigation it wished could go away.

Clinton was followed in office by George W. Bush, who campaigned on a promise to bring "dignity" back to the White House. That was a vow his aides continued to trumpet to reporters even after he took office.

"You all will use your own judgment in determining whether this administration is acting in a proper and ethical fashion," said Mr. Bush's press secretary at the time, Ari Fleischer. He was standing in the very spot where Lockhart had dodged Lewinsky questions almost daily.

"The president has said that he will return honor and dignity to the White House," Fleischer continued. "I think, by every fair measure, the American people are satisfied that that is what he is doing."

Whether observers agree or not, that was the image the Bush White House has always tried to burnish: Honor and dignity.

It is apparent in visible ways. In previous administrations, presidential aides wore blue jeans. In the Bush White House, dark suits are the rule. Mr. Bush has ridiculed reporters who show up with loosened ties in the Oval Office.

The 43rd president is religious about being on time. If you are meeting with him inside the White House, the meeting will be formal and efficient.

Taking their cues from the chief executive, others in the White House also maintain an air of formality and a certain distance from reporters. In every way, their message is: We are conducting the nation's all-important business. And with this message goes a question, asked almost as an aside: Why must journalists persist in pursuing irrelevant sideshows?

Reporters hoping to dig behind the scenes, to understand how the president reached a decision, or to learn who on his staff argued which position will be told that such questions are off the point.

Reporters asking about Mr. Bush's relationship with his daughters, or about the twins' extracurricular activities, are scolded.

It's a tightly-controlled ship. And aides have always seemed confident they could manage the information coming out.

Even in the worst hours — when violence in Iraq raged, or when Americans were deeply worried about the economy — the White House response was shaped and rehearsed in private and delivered with precision in the briefing room.

Now, a grand jury investigation has raised questions about some of the most trusted officials in the Bush White House — including the president's political maestro, Karl Rove, and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has also asked questions about what Cheney knew. He has interviewed Cheney and the president, though there is nothing to suggest Mr. Bush himself did anything inappropriate or illegal.

For a president who likes his aides to dress well, be on time and act above dirty politics, for a White House that draws a clear distinction between public and private, the revelations about Rove and Libby and their background conversations with reporters have been troublesome, striking a blow to the persona Mr. Bush has striven to project.

Ronald Reagan survived the Iran-Contra scandal, and emerged to rebuild public support and polish off a second term with high approval ratings. Mr. Clinton was not so unscathed, but even he recovered politically and left office popular. In truth, nobody knows what Fitzgerald will conclude, and how it will impact the Bush White House. And that's the point — nobody knows, including the Bush White House. This makes them transparently uncomfortable, and off balance.

In good times and bad, this meticulously-planned White House always looked ahead and laid out a message strategy for weeks to come. When it comes to the grand jury, the Bush White House doesn't know what next week will bring.

And for the first time since George W. Bush took office, the White House briefing room is full of questions about a grand jury, possible indictments, and the reputations of top officials.

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