Heads Up! The End Of Obscurity

Dr. Louis Sullivan, the secretary of Health and Human Services, had been suffering from Washington's dread social disease, lack of visibility. Here he was, a well-trained, fair-minded physician with a good grasp of the issues - and he was getting neither ink nor air time. In his case, routine treatment was prescribed. The New York Times, somehow, got hold of an uncharacteristically stinging, "confidential letter" from Sullivan protesting proposed cuts in the HHS budget for the "aged and disabled." The result: instant front-page visibility.

Obscurity used to be fashionable in the Bush cabinet. The president, knowing the trouble caused by such highly visible Reaganites as Edwin Meese III, James Watt and Donald Regan, encouraged facelessness. But the ego-inflating folkways of the capital and the approach of a Bush re-election campaign have inspired a surge of profile raising, especially for "domestic" cabinet officers, who aren't lucky enough to be on CNN frequently from the gulf. As Bush weakens politically, it's Every Profile for Himself in dealing with a Democratic Congress. The president's political needs are changing too. He'll need campaign "surrogates," but they'll be useless if no one has heard of them. Some of the currently popular visibility-enhancement strategies:

Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. was getting less coverage than First Dog Millie, according to an actual media survey. But Lujan made the front pages last week when he attacked Japan's Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co., which acquired U.S. entertainment conglomerate MCA Inc. Lujan wants the Japanese to donate to the government MCA's lucrative rights to tourist services in Yosemite National Park.

If you want the clout of Secretary of State James Baker (and what cabinet officer doesn't?), it helps to hire someone like Margaret Tutwiler, his longtime aide and spokesperson. Detailed knowledge of what the department actually does is not required; that can be learned later. Better to be politically wired, media-wise, personable but tough. Sullivan recently hired Alixe Glen, a White House press-office veteran. She's an aspiring Tutwiler who says: "My job is to make Louis Sullivan a household name." Like campaigns, departments now have sales slogans. The HHS pitch: saving children and the "culture of character."

This worked for White House aide James Pinkerton, whose "New Paradigm" notion became well known only after it was ridiculed by budget director Richard Darman. Sullivan and his aides deny leaking his letter to Darman but were hardly apoplectic when it became public. Sullivan has even postponed a trip to Africa to bypass Darman and plead his budget case to Bush himself. That's the fast track to visibility - but it's risky. Crossing Darman is like playing with the neighbor's pit bull, and the only thing worse than no visibility is a visible loss.

It's Instant Visibility but also could be a ticket out of the increasingly middle-of-the-road Bush cabinet, where conservatives are suspect. Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, still beloved by the movement, could take this route but is lying low last he be seen as encouraging a revolt on the already restive right. "He can't afford that much fame right now," said one Kemp adviser.

This method, Bush's own, requires patience but yields long-lasting results. Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner has used it to become the consensus "comer" in the cabinet. A savvy Chicagoan, he knows that competence gets coverage - especially if you're close to the boss and have a sense of humor. So when a golf pro wanted to give Bush a new, high-tech "jumbo driver," Skinner personally ferried it to Kennebunkport. At Skinner's Christmas party for the press, someone (not Skinner himself) popped into the VCR a tape of the "Nightline" show about Madonna. Transportation-beat scribes, used to press releases about truck weights and crumbling bridges, were treated to a showing of the "Justify My Love" video. It didn't make headlines, but it may have been the visibility coup of the year.

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