Summertime Blues

If it's October, life in Washington must be returning to normal: endless budget bickering, political gamesmanship, attacks on the bureaucracy and the drone of the seemingly nonstop presidential campaign. All of these are indications that the city has recovered from its annual summer break.

Late summer in oppressively hot and humid Washington is a time of escape, to the beach or the mountains. The normal rhythms of government are interrupted-as are the ways the media covers them.

Throughout much of the year, many reporters are content to let the White House and members of Congress drive the news agenda. But in August, Congress leaves town and the President goes on vacation, leaving the media in a quandary.

Often, journalists simply resort to commenting on the lack of news. "Long Days on Vacation Short on Headlines" reported The Washington Times' Bill Sammon on Aug. 26. (The subhead to the story was even more direct: "Media desperate for Clinton news.")

"When it comes to making substantive news, [President Clinton's] getaway to Martha's Vineyard has been a certifiable flop," Sammon wrote. Reporters, he added, "have been reduced to writing about White House aides who took advantage of this year's lull to get haircuts."

But reporting on how little there is to report on is only a stopgap measure. Ultimately, something has to fill the news vacuum. This summer, it was the swirl of questions about whether presidential candidate George W. Bush ever used cocaine.

The story exploded in mid-August largely because there simply wasn't much else for journalists to talk about. After all, the rumors of Bush's cocaine use had been around for months. In fact, Bush had done an effective of job of deflecting repeated inquiries about drug use by simply refusing to answer such questions.

Reporters, however, wouldn't give up. They hammered Bush on the cocaine question for the better part of two weeks in August. Soon, he was forced into tortured syntax in order to avoid addressing the issue head-on. "I have learned from the mistakes I may or may not have made," he told an audience in Akron, Ohio, "and I'd like to share some wisdom with you: Don't do drugs."

But with most other political news on hold, the drumbeat of questions continued. The candidate was willing, some reporters noted, to deny marital infidelity categorically. Why wouldn't he do the same with drugs? Eventually, reporters backed Bush into a corner, until one of them finally asked the question that created a tiny crack in the wall of silence: Would Bush answer the same question posed to prospective political appointees during FBI background checks-that is, had he used illegal drugs in the past seven years?

With that, Bush finally relented-a little. "I will be glad to answer that question, and the answer is no," he said on Aug. 18. The next day he went even further, saying he could have passed a 15-year drug background check at the time of his father's inauguration in 1989.

Apparently that was enough to satisfy the media pack, because the cocaine questions all but stopped, and Bush returned to his no-comment ways. "I've told the American people all I'm going to tell them," he said on Aug. 22. "If they don't like it, they can go find somebody else to vote for."

While Bush clearly paid the price for the lack of Washington news, federal agencies may have benefited. One interesting side effect of the summer lull in political news is that it opens room for the kind of in-depth coverage of the operations of government that often falls by the wayside.

In mid-August, for example, The Washington Post ran extensive stories on such subjects as the federal worker complaint process at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pentagon's Theater High-Altitude Area Defense Program. The paper also stepped up its coverage of the Clinton administration's reinventing government campaign, with back-to-back stories on Aug. 17 and Aug. 18 about a General Accounting Office report charging the administration had double-counted certain savings from the REGO effort and a series of letters from Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., challenging agencies' progress in implementing performance plans.

Such stories, indeed, had legs even outside the Beltway. The Denver Rocky Mountain News, for example, picked up a wire-service report on the GAO study.

The Washington Times ran a front-page story on Aug. 23 about the impact of President Clinton's use of executive orders to implement wide-ranging policies affecting federal employees. "The President has used that extraordinary power to revamp civil service rules for workers with psychiatric disabilities, ban discrimination against homosexuals in civilian federal jobs, halt dealings with federal contractors who use products made by foreign child labor, declassify vast stacks of old files, change contracting practices to give Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders a bidding edge, revise food labeling, restrict smoking in government offices, revamp encryption export rules and intervene in a Philadelphia transit strike," the paper noted.

The two weeks in mid-August were, in short, an unusually fruitful period when it came to inside-the-bureaucracy stories. Too bad summer vacation had to end.

Tom Shoop is executive editor of Government

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