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Radley Balko: Americans Should Stop Paying for White House Press Secretaries

The release of former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan's tell-all memoir has Washington buzzing, though there's a certain Capt. Renault-like phoniness to all the indignation: Are we really all that surprised that this administration—or for that matter, any administration—would ask its press secretary to lie, mislead, or dissemble in front of the media?

Should we really be shocked—shocked!—that the White House might also keep its press secretary out of the loop when it comes to brewing political scandals, so he can convincingly feign ignorance when the press queries him about them?

While ostensibly serving as a liaison between the press and the president, White House press secretaries serve really only one function: to boost the president's image. White House press offices are little more than public relations machines for the administration they're serving.

They're wells of information when the president's announcing a new federal program or policy or when he's doing well in the polls—when the tone and tenor of the political climate. But at the first hint of controversy, they shut down. Presidents by now know to keep damning information as far from their press offices as possible.

When the tough questions come, press secretaries can then credibly assert that they "have no knowledge" or that they "weren't briefed" on the nasty stuff. For historical examples, see Clinton spokesmen Mike McCurry or Joe Lockhart during the sexual harassment scandals and, later, the impeachment trial. Or Regan press secretaries Larry Speakes and Marlon Fitzwater during Iran Contra.

Perhaps the last truly honorable press secretary was Jerald terHorst, who resigned from the Ford administration after just a month in office. terHorst had strong objections to Ford's pardoning of Richard Nixon, and felt he could no longer in good conscience defend Ford's policies to the media. So he stepped down.

Bush's most widely praised press secretaries thus far have been Tony Snow and Ari Fleischer. But they aren't praised for their efforts at getting important, impartial information to the public. They're praised for the way they were able to flack with conviction—to be evasive without actually sounding evasive. The best press secretaries can spin like dervishes while having you believe you're getting it straight.

When under fire, the best press spokesmen thrive by appearing to communicate with us—while actually saying nothing substantive at all. In other words, the best presidential secretaries aren't notable for their public service, but for their talents at misleading the public.

So why are we paying for all of this? Why are taxpayers asked to foot the bill for the president's public relations machine?

Granted, in the grand scheme of things, it isn't that much money. The press secretary makes around $165,000 per year, deputies $70,000 to $130,000. Still, it's the principle of it all. We shouldn't be paying a White House press staff and press office whose main objective is to lie to us (of course, you could make a good argument that we pay most politicians to do the same thing, but that's another matter.)

I say we stop up the spigot. No more tax dollars for political flacks. If the president, his cabinet, and their staffs want press spokesmen, let them pay for them with campaign funds, or out of their own pockets. The purpose of a political campaign, after all, is to sell a candidate to the public.

The president's press office's job is to sell the president to the public. They serve the same purpose. It's insulting that what essentially are campaign staff are paid with taxpayer dollars under the false and farcical guise of "transparency." Fact is, when a press office is most important—during a scandal, or allegations of corruption or abuse of power—its main objective is obfuscation, the opposite of transparency.

While we're at it, we shouldn't be using public funds to pay the press secretaries and communications officers on House and Senate staff, either. They aren't nearly as prominent as the White House press spokesmen and women, but here too, their job isn't to give the public access to its lawmakers so much as it is to tout and promote the lawmakers themselves.

Taxpayer-funded press offices also contribute to an incumbency advantage. Yes, there's supposed to be a hard and fast line between a politician's campaign press and his official-duties press. But let's be honest. Touting the latest federal earmark for the water sanitation plant back home in a press release wins votes. Challengers have to pay for all of their press work from campaign funds. Incumbents should, too.

I suppose some would argue that without press offices, our politicians would be even less answerable and accountable to the public than they already are. I'll concede that my plan certainly wouldn't make them more accountable. But I doubt it will make them much less accountable, either. Politicians will still want to distribute information about how wonderful they are. Congressional representatives will still want their home districts to know how much federal pork they've procured for the local college, police department, and public works project. They'll still find a way to get that information out.

In other words, we'd still have press offices, and they'd still be doing much of the same thing they do today—touting the wisdom, good looks, and selfless public service of the boss. The main difference is that instead of pushing on taxpayers the indignity of forcing us to pay for being propagandized to, the agitprop would come from a campaign office, and be paid for with campaign money.

No one else gets a well-oiled PR machine at taxpayer expense. Why should politicians?

Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine and maintains at Web log at TheAgitator.com.