ENRON, PRETZEL, PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, FULL DISCLOSURE

"I just have one question for you," a good friend of mine in Los Angeles told me. "Was he drunk?" She didn't buy the pretzel theory: that President Bush had passed out, fallen off the couch and cut his cheek on his glasses when the salty snack went down the wrong way.

Word got back to President Bush about the reporter's impertinent question. He and his staff were indignant, in part because they felt the article made it seem like the doctor had specifically tested for alcohol. One cartoon in The Washington Post was much more suggestive. It had a picture of two drunks at a bar, one had fallen off the stool and the other was telling him to lay off the pretzels. "The press plane chatter was that he had either had a heart attack or was drinking," says a miffed senior administration official. The president says he gave up drinking in 1986; friends insist that they have never seen him take a sip since, though he'll have a nonalcoholic beer now and then. Having seen how disciplined the president can be (he's almost obsessive about his running), I tend to believe them. Still, I think the impertinent question had to be asked-and answered.

Silly as it may seem, Pretzelgate has highlighted the daily tug of war between the White House and reporters over full disclosure. Some reporters complained-in all seriousness-that the White House took too long to reveal if the culprit pretzel was a straight stick, a nugget or bow-tie shaped (it was the latter). It also took them awhile to figure out if it was large or small. (Bush eats both, and he was alone in the room with his dogs when it happened, so they had to go to the commander in chief himself.) They continue to refuse to release the brand name despite harangues by reporters especially from Pennsylvania, home of several nervous pretzel producers. "We're not coughing it up," Press Secretary Ari Fleischer quipped last week.

Sunday, Jan. 13th, the day of the pretzel incident, no one in the White House was flip. Bush's personal doctor called chief of staff Andy Card, who called counselor Karen Hughes, who called Fleischer. "We have to get it out," Fleischer recalls them all agreeing. It took a couple hours to figure out a strategy, but he got the Associated Press and Reuters on the phone and got the news out over the wires. Just a few weeks before, reporters had berated Fleischer for not immediately disclosing that the president had lesions removed from his face. It was only when reporters saw the marks on the president's face that it came out. (Fleischer says he hadn't seen the president until then either.) Now they tell us when the president gets his teeth cleaned. But most reporters remain convinced that if an injury isn't visible, we may never know.

ANOTHER SORE POINT

Yesterday in West Virginia, as we toured a factory in a town called Belle, I could see that the president's cut has healed. But disclosure-this time over Enron-remains an open sore. As he looked over some of the machine parts they make at the Walker Machinery Co., he decided he'd answer a few questions shouted by reporters. Even though he was there to talk about creating jobs, he made news instead by revealing that his own mother-in-law had bought stock in Enron. "She didn't know all the facts. And a lot of shareholders didn't know all the facts. And that's wrong," he said. About an hour later, flying home on Air Force One, an aide happily provided us with all the details: Back in 1999, she had bought 200 shares for $40.90 each, and sold them on Dec. 4 for 42 cents each. She lost more than $8,000. Message: Even the Bush family has been a victim of Enron's shady accounting.

But when a reporter asked him if he shouldn't be equally illuminating about Vice President Cheney's energy task force (the dealings of which are secret), he said: "If somebody has got an accusation about some wrongdoing, just let me know." The task force had a half dozen contacts with Enron, and some have suggested that the company had undue influence in Bush's energy policy-which has passed the House and is now in the Senate, where Democrats are tossing around their own bills. The White House denies any partiality and has repeatedly said it won't release the task force information "on principle."

Now it's not just reporters who want full disclosure. The General Accounting Office-the investigative arm of Congress-is thinking about suing for access to the energy task force's records. Comptroller General David Walker says he'll decide in the next couple weeks whether to take that unprecedented step. The GAO started asking for the information last summer, but the Enron mess has given the demands new impetus. The GAO can act independently of Congress, but it would be better to have some heavy hitters on the Hill backing it. Rep. Henry Waxman-a California Democrat-is gung ho. And today, four senators including presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman sent a letter to Walker urging him on. The White House finds Waxman more of an annoyance than a threat. But the GAO doesn't like being ignored and may go ahead with the suit even without much public clamor. "Careers have been ruined by not taking us seriously," one GAO official says.

Nobody at the White House seems to be quaking. They argue that the GAO has no legal claim to the records. Unlike Hillary Clinton's controversial health-care task force, the vice president's energy task force is made up of government officials, not outside advisers. They invoke the "principle" that elected officials like Cheney have the right to confidential communications. That won't keep the GAO at bay. And it certainly hasn't stopped reporters from continually asking Fleischer about the task-force disclosure in his briefings. "I really think the public does not share the judgment that there is somehow some political malfeasance here," Fleischer said recently.

White House officials like to tell those of us in the national press corps that we go "crazy" and get "obsessed" about certain issues that the American public doesn't care about. To them, the energy task force is one of those issues. They'd rather run the risk of looking arrogant like Hillary Clinton than opening the door to endless "fishing expeditions," as Fleischer calls them. But at least my friend in L.A..-one of my outside the beltway barometers-is just as suspicious of Enron's influence over the energy task force as she is about the pretzel defense.