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TRB: Holy Mackerel, Safire

That lumbering beast, the Washington scandal, is awake again and growling to be fed. Dinner--trembling and cowering and looking very tasty--is to be Charles Z. Wick, head of the United States Information Agency. Flogging the beast vigorously to keep it enraged and hungry is William Safire, conservative columnist for The New York Times.

Someone leaked Safire evidence that Wick had been tape-recording his phone calls. Confronted, Wick stupidly insisted that he had never recorded a conversation without telling the other pairty, then later admitted he sometimes had. Also stupidly, he said the taping had begun in 1983, though it went back to 1981. Newspapers have been ringing the changes on the "secret tapes" story for two weeks. A federal agency is investigating. Two Congressional committees plan hearings. One state is considering criminal charges. In a particularly ominous development, President Reagan has expressed his full support for Wick. All this is standard operating procedure. Meanwhile, Safire hints darkly of more revelations to come.

Wick was wrong to tape his phone calls, and wrong to lie. But the almighty fuss is way out of proportion, and its self-feeding momentum is downright frightening. Safire's motive in branding this vain and silly man as the Wicked Wick of the West is, at best, mysterious.

By all accounts, Wick is a jackass. One of Reagan's California socialite buddies, he's been a repeated embarrassment to his chum. He spent $32,000 on a security system for his rented house, believing himself Washington's second most likely target of a terrorist attack. In the so-called "kiddy- gate" episode, he gave jobs to children of Administration members and friends, including Alexander Haig, Caspar Weinberger, and William Clark. More recently, he blurted his view that British Prime Minister Thatcher only opposed the American invasion of Grenada because "she's a woman."

Employees and former employees describe Wick as a petty dictator in two senses: first, as a maniacal boss given to comic swaggering and lunatic rages; second, as a man with a dictaphone for a right arm, who likes to record his every passing thought and conversation and then have secretaries type up transcripts. His taping was not "secret" in the sense that he made any attempt to hide the practice. (It's wonderful how many people now recall having warned Wick that the taping was a bad idea.) There's no reason to doubt Wick's assertion that when he failed to alert people to the taping, it was an oversight.

There's a fundamental difference between taping your own conversation and bugging a conversation you're not a party to. The people talking to Wick knew he was listening and knew he could repeat what he heard. Nevertheless, surreptitious taping is a violation of confidence, though Safire's assertion that victims of secret tapes "are left with the feeling of the aborigine who fears that a picture taken of him steals his soul" is a bit theatrical. Richard Cohen of The Washington Post is closer to the mark when he argues that what taping steals from you is deniability. When it's on tape, "You can't lie."

If what's at stake here is freedom to lie (not a trivial freedom), maybe we need a bit of perspective on Wick's second transgression: lying when confronted. Imagine how easy it is to panic when William Safire drops by to announce that he's got you by the private parts and is planning to squeeze in the next morning's New York Times. Even lesser journalists can have the same effect. For example, I called up Gilbert Robinson last week to ask if he had leaked Wick's transcripts to Safire. Gilbert Robinson was deputy director of U.S.I.A. until last May, when Wick made him the fall guy for "kiddygate" and fired him. He's also an old friend of William Safire. In 1959, they helped organize the famous "kitchen debate" between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev at the U.S. exhibition in Moscow. (Robinson worked for the Eisenhower Administration. Safire represented the kitchen equipment manufacturer.) Later, they were partners in a public relations business.

When I said to Robinson, "You're aware that people are saying you're the leaker," he replied: "I was not aware, but it's not the case." Later, forgetting he'd said he wasn't even aware of these rumors, he complained of the burden of unjust suspicion: "I have friends who came up to me the first day and said, 'Ha ha ha'--they knew it was me. . . ." So Safire's friend Gilbert Robinson panicked and told me a fib.

The greatest sinner in this episode, though, is neither Wick nor Robinson but William Satire. Safire writes, "Secret taping is wrong--unethical--because it erodes trust and engenders suspicion, thereby reducing human communication." True enough. But all Wick did was to record these conversations for his own use. It Is Safire who is publishing them in The New York Times.

What contributes more to an atmosphere of distrust and paranoia: the possibility that conversations may be taped by people who are already privy to them, or the possibility that confidential information--taped or otherwise--will be leaked to the newspapers? Yet when it comes to leaks, Safire expresses less than zero concern about eroding trust and engendering suspicion. In a column on December 18, the week before the Wick circus began, he invited feder- al employees to mail "evidence of ... surreptitious taping to their local right-wing columnist," meaning him. After the story broke, he bragged about his "help-wanted ad" and predicted with glee that the leaker(s) "are surely not finished yet." The process Safire has set in motion guarantees that all of Wick's transcripts will be distributed to various investigating bodies, where many more of them will become public.

And if an angel dies every time a lie is told, you can be sure that Safire's source, whoever that may be, has killed more angels over the past few weeks than Charlie Wick killed in his feeble cover-up attempt. Or does lying to cover up leaking not count?

Safire subscribes to an "invisible hand" theory of leaks, "The proper way" to maintain confidentiality, he writes, "is to stop the leak at the source. That requires the people at the top to keep their mouths shut when secrecy serves the public interest." Once leaked upon, the journalist needn't consider whether secrecy serves the public interest. It's a game: one side tries to keep people's mouths shut, the other side tries to pry them open, and an invisible hand presumably assures the right outcome.

In reality there's no such assurance. The fact of Wick's taping is a legitimate, though overplayed, news story. But if Bill Safire is so all-fired concerned about the privacy of people Wick talked to on the telephone, what public interest is served by publishing these conversations? Here the story gets ugly. Safire has been implying that the transcripts reveal serious misconduct, apart from the taping, although the transcripts he's published so far (I write on January 10) reveal nothing even suspicious.

The published transcripts concern a meeting Wick wanted to arrange between President Reagan and several media executives. Wick was hoping to raise private money in conjunction with "Project Democracy," an Administration program to promote democratic values around the world. Wick mentioned in a phone call to White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker that the meeting might also be useful to Rea- gan's reelection: "if you are interested in '84 in addition to doing what we are trying to do, can you imagine a better group of guys?" Wick signed off, idiotically, "We will win in '84." ("Mr. Baker: 'Goodbye.' ") In another conversation with an aide. Wick referred to having raised "other money."

From these sparse threads, Safire spins a web of innuendo. "What 'other money'?" he leers. "Transcripts . . . show he was planning to raise large sums from foreign and domestic media fatcats, using as bait a personal audience in the White House." Safire speculates about "some top-secret connection with 'Project Democracy.' " And he charges that "the President's crony gathered the media big-wigs with Mr. Reagan's 1984 campaign clearly in mind."

So what? In a column back in January 1983, Safire had high praise for Project Democracy (with a special tribute to his pal, Gilbert Robinson). If he now thinks there's something wrong with raising private funds to serve this goal, he hasn't said what it is. And if he suspects that Wick actually was raising money for some other "top-secrt't" purpose, he hasn't said why. Does Safire seriously think it's heinous to flatter useful people by inviting them to the White House? Or for a Presidential aide to think about politics as well as policy? If he does, he should say so, and suffer the apposite guffaws. As for the ominous "other money," Safire knows perfectly well that Wick has raised money for a variety of legitimate purposes, including the Reagan inauguration.

And yet, Safire's apparently baseless innuendos have now spread. The Washington Post has editorialized about "cryptic but eyebrow-raising references to raising political money." Syndicated columnist Mary McGrory called the Baker transcript "a murky but potentially explosive exchange" which "suggests that Wick may have confused his 'mission' of telling the truth about America with a mission to reelect Ron- ald Reagan."

Maybe these people know something I don't. One theory around town is that Safire has got other goods on Wick and is dribbling out the evidence Chinese- water-torture-style for better effect. Or, a related theory, he suspects further wrongdoing and hopes, by keeping the heat on, to smoke out some solid evidence. Neither theory flatters Safire's self-image as a demon for fair play and individual rights. Nor, of course, does the theory that Safire is avenging his shafted crony (a Safire word).

A more flattering theory is that Safire has never lost his sense of outrage at having been one of the Nixon aides whose phones were tapped at the request of Henry Kissinger. Perhaps. But Safire's outrage did not prevent him from attending Kissinger's gala sixtieth birthday party a while back. If Safire is really still mad about being bugged, why is he partying with the bugger and persecuting a man who only bugged himself?

My own theory is that Safire Is simply a good P.R. man. He knows how to hype a story and keep it hyped. He knows it's good for his image to keep people guessing by attacking the Republican Administration every now and then. An apparent obsession with civil liberties also puts a nice spin on the ball. But whatever his motive, he is misusing the power of his august office as a columnist for the nation's leading newspaper. He's behaving, not like a civil libertarian, but like a bully.