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Actions tell the White House story

From the president who promised a White House team that looks more like America, meet the latest communications whiz, David Gergen. But a funny thing happened to the White House PR-ace on his first day on the job. He made a big gaffe.

Gergen's first day at school has a familiar ring to it: A White House aide said something that flew in the face of the president's campaign promises, had staffers flailing and eventually resulted in a shame-ridden and disingenuous reversal. In this case, Gergen disclosed Monday that he had just joined the Bohemian Club, a crusty Bay Area institution famed for its summer retreats at the Bohemian Grove, its well-heeled, power-broker members and its refusal to admit women. While its membership is supposed to be secret, known clubbers include Ronald Reagan, George Bush, former California guv Pat Brown, Walter Cronkite and Henry Kissinger.

By Thursday, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers announced that Gergen had said sayonara to all his clubs "in keeping with White House tradition." She added the decision to resign "was not a decision made specifically in reference to any organization." (This is the new White House? They think people believe that sort of line?)

Some obligatory background: Yes, I think it's healthy for men to socialize exclusively with men and for women to socialize exclusively with women at times. And I do believe in the right to free association and that social clubs have the right to discriminate. But having the legal right to do something and being right are two different animals. While the Bohemian Club may have a right to exclude women, it shouldn't. Moreover, it was unseemly for a man who works for a United States president, especially one who campaigned as Mr. Middle America, to join a snooty suits' club that discriminates against half the population.

It all comes down to whether you believe the Bohemian Club is, as it claims, a social organization with an affinity for the arts. Member and "volunteer PR guy" Dick Arnold said yesterday that claims that the club is a haven for power-brokers are "exaggerated." Citing the club's motto, "Weaving spiders, come not here," Arnold noted that retreat attendees who bring up work are "frowned upon."

I don't buy it. Think about it: If you really wanted to relax or enjoy the arts for a few weeks, would you invite Henry Kissinger? Would you wait through an enrollment process that spans two to three years, as Gergen did? The club boasts a longer waiting list _ there are 3,000 wannabe Bohemians _ than its membership rolls of 2,300. Surely regular guys in search of relaxation could find an easier, not to mention cheaper (initiation fees range from zero dollars to $10,000) getaway.

Ultralefties have accused the club of nefarious doings. Some say members run nude through the woods. "Ridiculous," Arnold replied. Others have accused the club of holding cabal-type sessions at which it plots world events.

I don't buy into the cabal line for a minute. In the case of the naked gamboling rumor, I don't want to believe. I don't want to imagine.

But I also don't believe that club retreats are simple social gatherings where guys get to be guys. Go fishing with some gym teachers, if you want guy stuff; become a Scout leader. But camping with White House alumni? That's networking. Entree-city. Business, baby. So maybe it is "frowned upon" to be too blatant about business at the grove. So you don't go peddling proposals from tent to tent. When you're rubbing elbows with CEOs, you can afford to wait for the right post-retreat moment.

"We consider ourselves a men's club and we don't see what is so horrible or pernicious about that," Arnold remarked. One hanging with ex-presidents on the inside looking out wouldn't see the problem.

While Gergen's hiring was supposed to herald change, it looks like back-pedaling as usual on Pennsylvania Avenue, even if Gergen no longer is a Bohemian.

Besides, the whole idea of hiring Gergen stands as proof that Clinton doesn't get it. His problems don't come from bad communications, but bad policy. Changing PR gurus can't paper over an empty wall.

What Team Clinton doesn't seem to understand about communications is that actions speak louder than words. Here, Gergen's actions _ that is, those made before the heat was turned up _ show that he is like so many orbs in the White House clique: They want to suck up the votes of the electorate, so that they can swill with the power elite. That's their ideology.

Debra Saunders is Editorial Page columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle