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Context of 'May 23, 2001: White House Press Secretary, Credulous Media Responsible for False ‘Vandal Scandal’ Stories, Say Clinton Official, Reporters'

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The media reports that the Bush White House has apparently been victimized by pranks. During the last days of the Clinton administration, some Clinton officials apparently removed the “W” keys from computer keyboards in the White House and in the Old Executive Office Building, in apparent reference to incoming President George W. Bush’s middle initial. An anonymous White House aide says, “There are dozens, if not hundreds, of keyboards with these missing keys,” and adds: “In some cases the W is marked out, but the most prevalent example is the key being removed. In some cases the W keys have been taped on top of the doorways, which are 12 feet tall.” Chris Lehane, the press secretary for former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, jokes: “My guess is that the White House did not have many reasons to use the letter W over the last couple of years. It’s possible they just fell off because of sheer atrophy.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/23/2001] Lehane laughingly tells the Washington Post, “I think the missing W’s can be explained by the vast left-wing conspiracy now at work.” [Salon, 5/23/2001] In the following days, the reports will mushroom from tales of a harmless prank into allegations of serious and systematic vandalism and theft by Clinton officials, becoming what many will call “Vandalgate,” or the “Clinton vandal scandal” (see January 26, 2001). These reports will be proven to be complete fabrications (see February 8, 2001, February 14, 2001, and May 18, 2001), apparently started by Bush officials and embellished by conservative reporters and pundits in order to besmirch the Clinton administration (see January 25, 2001).

Entity Tags: Chris Lehane, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., Bush administration (43), Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says he cannot confirm the extent of the alleged vandalism carried out by Clinton staffers in the last days of the Clinton administration (see January 23, 2001). President Bush intends to change the tone in Washington to a positive one, Fleischer says, and as a result, the White House will not comment on the charges of rampant vandalism and theft. “Whether things were done that were perhaps less gracious than should have been, it is not going to be what President Bush focuses on, nor will it be what his staff focuses on,” he says. “Whatever may have been done, we are going to just put our heads down and look ahead.” [NewsMax, 1/26/2001; Guardian, 1/26/2001]
Hints and Innuendos - However, the White House is “cataloguing” the damage allegedly done by Clinton staffers, Fleischer says. When asked what is being catalogued, Fleischer responds: “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.” Sensing more to the story, reporters hone in, asking why make a catalogue “if you’re going to give them a pass,” what the dollar estimate of damage might be, and other questions. When a reporter says, “You’ve got to blame somebody,” Fleischer cuts him off: “President Bush is not going to come to Washington for the point of blaming somebody in this town. And it’s a different way of governing, it’s a different way of leading.” When asked what he knows of the supposed apology offered to Vice President Cheney’s wife by former Vice President Gore’s wife (see January 24, 2001), Fleischer says, “I know that a phone call was made to the vice president’s office, but I really—I don’t recall who made it.” When asked where the majority of the alleged damage was, Fleischer says, “You know, I really stopped paying attention to all the different places.” Finally, when asked whether some of the damage could actually be the result of renovations and normal repairs, Fleischer says, “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 ends the briefing, having given reporters enough hints and implications of severe, widespread vandalism to whet their appetites. [Salon, 5/23/2001]
Story Fed by Fleischer, White House Officials - The allegations of vandalism and theft will prove to be almost entirely false (see February 14, 2001 and May 18, 2001). Salon will later report that while Fleischer and other White House officials publicly remain above the fray, in private they are feeding the controversy by giving detailed off-the-record interviews to selected reporters, pundits, and talk show hosts. One White House reporter will later admit that the story was pushed by at least two “unnamed Bush aides.” Salon correspondents Kerry Lauerman and Alicia Montgomery add: “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.” [Salon, 5/23/2001] A Washington Post report later states: “A high-level Republican who saw some of the damage said the White House was leery about putting information out about this because chief of staff Andrew Card Jr. did not want to appear to be ratting on the Clinton administration. ‘People wanted to talk about this, and Andy said no,’ an official said.” [Washington Post, 1/26/2001]
Stories Debunked - It will not be long before the stories are proven almost entirely false (see February 8, 2001, February 14, 2001, and May 18, 2001).

Entity Tags: Andrew Card, Bush administration (43), Clinton administration, Alicia Montgomery, Kerry Lauerman, George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

The final paragraph of Mike Allen’s Washington Post report on allegations of systematic White House vandalism carried out in the last days of the Clinton administration (see January 26, 2001) states: “Some GOP officials are portraying the damage as a sordid coda to the Clinton years. A Bush campaign official said the White House staff and Secret Service agents welcomed the Bush entourage especially warmly on Saturday. 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.”’” [Washington Post, 1/26/2001]
Skepticism of Allen's Reporting - Months later, skeptical Salon reporters Kerry Lauerman and Alicia Montgomery will observe of Allen’s report, “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.”
Desired Effect? - Lauerman and Montgomery will report that Allen’s reporting, and the entire “vandal scandal,” apparently had its desired effect: a rise in positive media approaches to the incoming Bush administration paired with a final slap at the outgoing Clintons. Days after the Allen report, conservative media pundit and publisher William Kristol will tell Fox that the “vandal scandal” worked well for Bush and his conservative supporters: “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.’” Lauerman and Alexander will write: “It couldn’t have gone better for members of the incoming Bush administration had they choreographed it themselves. And, in fact, they had” (see January 25, 2001). [Salon, 5/23/2001]

Entity Tags: Mike Allen, Alicia Montgomery, Bush administration (43), Kerry Lauerman, William Kristol, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

The General Services Administration (GSA) reports that there was no truth to assertions that Clinton White House officials had vandalized the White House before departing in January 2001. Bush White House officials made those assertions in January (see January 25, 2001), claims which were picked up on and embellished by conservative talk radio hosts and other media reporters (see January 25-27, 2001 and January 26, 2001). The GSA investigated the claims at the request of House Representative Bob Barr (R-GA).
Normal Wear and Tear, Pranks Found - The GSA report finds that nothing unusual had occurred during the transition from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration. “The condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy,” the GSA report finds. Although some pranks were found to have taken place—“W” keys removed from computer keyboards and signs reading “Office of Strategery” placed on office doors, for example—none of the other alleged actions took place.
No Evidence for Allegations of Vandalism - No computers, copiers, or telephones were destroyed; no lewd graffiti or pornographic images were pasted to walls or displayed on computer monitors. Nothing was stolen either from the White House or from Air Force One, as many reports had insisted (see February 8, 2001 and February 14, 2001).
Attempt to Smear Clinton Administration? - Harvard University’s Alex Jones says: “I think it was this calculated effort to plant a damaging story. There was a sort of fertile ground for believing anything bad.” The General Accounting Office’s Bernard Unger, director for physical infrastructure, says of the GSA investigation, “They told me that there were papers that were not organized lying on the floor and on desks; there were some scratches here and there, but the bottom line was they didn’t see anything really in their view that was significant and that would appear to some as real extensive damage.” Clinton aide Mark Lindsay, who oversaw the transition between the Clinton and Bush administration, says he is pleased that the GSA has set the record straight. “Because of President Clinton, this was one of the smoothest transitions in the history of the presidency,” he says. “This was nothing more than just lies.” Conservative pundit Tony Snow, one of the harshest critics of the Clinton administration over the so-called “vandal scandal” (see January 26, 2001), says, “I’m perfectly willing to admit my error on the aircraft,” but insists that the information he disseminated about vandalism and wholesale theft at the White House was true. “What often happens in Washington is gossip becomes news,” he notes. “That’s not a good thing.” [Kansas City Star, 5/18/2001; New York Times, 5/19/2001] Former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta says: “Certainly people inside the [Bush] administration fed this story. At least they got what they wanted out of it.” [Salon, 5/23/2001]

Entity Tags: General Services Administration, Alex Jones, Bernard Ungar, Clinton administration, Tony Snow, Mark Lindsay, John Podesta, Bush administration (43), Robert “Bob” Barr

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer backs off of previous claims that Clinton administration officials vandalized the White House, and stole all manner of items, during the January 2001 transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations (see January 26, 2001). A General Services Administration report found the allegations virtually without merit (see May 18, 2001). Fleischer is asked about the report, and about his allegations that Bush officials had made a “catalogue” of the vandalism and theft that apparently does not exist. Fleischer now says that he had attempted to “knock… down” reports of alleged vandalism “and draw everybody back and away from this story because it was not something the White House was pursuing.” Fleischer continues: “And I indicated that there was no investigation going on, because there wasn’t. I said, if anything, somebody is cataloguing this. And the next day I further explained that meant that somebody was just keeping mental track of what was taking place. There were no written records about it all. But they were keeping on eye on and noting what did take place as this administration came into office.… The General Services Administration contacted the White House recently and asked if there were any written records of what took place. And just as I indicated, because there were no written records, the White House informed the General Services Administration that we had no written records to provide them. And I think that’s what their report indicated, the White House did not provide them any written records because there were none. Which is what I indicated at the time.” Fleischer says the White House intends “not to live in the past” and focus on “things that took place as this administration entered office…” [White House, 5/22/2001] Fleischer fails to acknowledge that it was his hints and innuendos to the White House press corps that encouraged the story to spread (see January 25, 2001).

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Ari Fleischer, General Services Administration, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

In the aftermath of the General Services Administration’s report that the Clinton “vandal scandal” never happened (see May 18, 2001), some wonder how involved the Bush administration was in pushing the falsehoods onto the press—and how willing the press was to run with the juicy, but baseless, allegations. Former Clinton press secretary Jake Siewert says: “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 also declines to lay blame on Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, “especially,” Siewert says, “if the guidance he got on the story was wrong” (see May 22, 2001). Washington Post reporter Lloyd Grove, whose short report sparked the entire controversy (see January 23, 2001), says Fleischer is at the heart of the story. “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 says. “I think it’s a fair point to ask to what extent Mr. Fleischer’s credibility has been damaged by this.” Washington Post reporter Mike Allen, who contributed much of the Post’s reporting of the alleged vandalism (see January 26, 2001), says Fleischer’s allegation that Clinton staffers “cut [the] wires” of telephones and computers sparked so much coverage (see January 25, 2001). “That seems tough to ignore,” Allen says. Journalism professor Geneva Overholser pins much of the blame on the press: “We wouldn’t have had to go through all this if we had done our job right in the first place.” The media should have pressed harder for documentation and should not have allowed White House sources to remain anonymous, she says. “It’s just amazing what we let people get away with saying.” One White House reporter says that Fleischer did not have to do much more than start the story rolling. “We’re often such willing co-conspirators,” the reporter says. “They don’t have to hatch anything.” [Salon, 5/23/2001; American Journalism Review, 7/2001]

Entity Tags: Geneva Overholser, Ari Fleischer, Bush administration (43), General Services Administration, Jake Siewert, Lloyd Grove, Mike Allen, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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