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Fitzwater: US summit voice

Marlin Fitzwater is no Larry Speakes. When the White House press spokesman takes the podium for his daily briefings at the Moscow summit next week, one thing is certain: He will not fabricate quotes for the President of the United States - as Larry Speakes acknowledged he did at the Geneva superpower summit in 1985.

Mr. Fitzwater, who called the impact of the Speakes action on White House credibility a ``damn outrage,'' says that his own position has been strengthened as a result of the furor over Speakes's book, ``Speaking Out.''

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While it has ``probably bred some skepticism about information,'' Fitzwater says, it has also ``made the press examine my operation more closely, and I hope at least they have more confidence in me than before.''

Fitzwater is no newcomer to the grueling task of explaining government policies and actions. Before joining the President's staff in January 1987, he had similar jobs in five other governmental agencies. While helpful, Fitzwater says, the experience could not prepare him for what is in effect a daily press conference at the White House.

Every day, the spokesman laments, he is asked for the President's views on virtually every issue. ``Should the President have views on every issue?'' he asks. ``Does that serve the country well or does it serve him well? Politically, is it smart? Those are valid media questions that scholars should take a look at.''

There are times, Fitzwater says, when he has no new information to give out. One day the President's schedule was light so reporters ended up asking him about a hijacking and about changes in the rules of US naval engagement for warfare in the Gulf.

``The chances of my making some slip of the tongue on a word that would be injurious to the hijacking situation make that risk not worth taking,'' says Fitzwater. ``So we would have been better off saying there's nothing to talk about today. The republic would have been better off.''

Unlike his predecessors, Fitzwater is rarely seen on television network news or talk shows. He makes it a point not to let cameras roll often in the White House briefing room. ``I think a spokesman speaks for his principal and shouldn't have a personality cult of his own,'' he remarks.

White House briefings are marked by a lot of banter and a lively, free-wheeling style that contrasts sharply with the sedate briefings at the State Department or Pentagon. Fitzwater believes the briefings would suffer if he assumed the more studied and cautious manner of the State Department spokesman, whose words reverberate around the world and can cause diplomatic chaos if not scrupulously accurate.

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``If I did what the State Department does ... I'd start appearing as a person whose ideas have more value than they do,'' Fitzwater says. ``So I consciously try to play down my public image.''

The jolly presidential aide admits his role is to make the President and his policies look good. ``I'm a flak and I don't deny that,'' he says. ``You work for the President and you work for the interests of the press and the public. You have to balance all three but first I work for the President.''

But Fitzwater feels he has won the trust of the press corps and of the President and his top aides - the most essential credential for a press spokesman. Because he has come to be trusted with how he handles the news, he has won access to meetings of the National Security Council, between the President and heads of state, and meetings of the White House chief of staff with his inner circle. This, in turn, gives journalists confidence that he is well clued in.

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