April 20, 2006
The Jerk at the Podium: Scott McClellan Steps Away
"McClellan, Bush, Cheney, and Rove proved there were other ways. Replace news management with press nullification. Drop the persuasion model, in favor of the politics of assent. Choose non-communication to demonstrate that you ought not to be questioned (it only helps our enemies.)"
(New post following news of McClellan’s book, May 29, 2008. See What Happened to Scott McClellan in Longer Perspective: 100 Years of the White House Press.)
Scott McClellan was a different kind of press secretary, sent to do a different job than the one people had done from that podium before. Instead of grouping him with a succession of other White House spokesmen, a line to which he does not belong, we have to take McClellan’s job, call it a piece of the puzzle, and place it alongside other pieces until we recognize the larger political strategy he was a part of.
He’s gone; the policy—strategic non-communication—may still be in place.
First, McClellan was a necessary figure in what I have called Rollback— the attempt to downgrade the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country. It had once been accepted wisdom that by carefully “feeding the beast” an Administration would be rewarded with better coverage in the long run. Rollback, the policy for which McClellan signed on, means not feeding but starving the beast, while reducing its effectiveness as an interlocutor with the President and demonstrating to all that the fourth estate is a joke.
As Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun wrote this week, “No matter what the question, the president, his press secretary and other officials usually manage to deliver their position of the day without obstruction.” That’s part of Rollback.
“Back ‘em up, starve ‘em down, and drive up their negatives” is how I summarized it in my post, Rollback (July 16, 2005). “I believe the ultimate goal is to enhance executive power and maximize the president’s freedom of maneuver— not only in policy-making, and warfare, but on the terrain of fact itself.”
And I still believe that. So this is the first thing to understand about McClellan and the job he was given by Bush. He wasn’t put there to brief the White House press, but to frustrate, and belittle it, and provoke journalists into discrediting themselves on TV. The very premise of a White House “communications” office gets in the way of understanding the strategy that prevailed from July 2003, when McClellan took over from Ari Fleischer, until this week, when he announced his resignation.
McClellan’s specialty was non-communication; what’s remarkable about him as a choice for press secretary is that he had no special talent for explaining Bush’s policies to the world. In fact, he usually made things less clear by talking about them. We have to assume that this is the way the President wanted it; and if we do assume that it forces us to ask: why use a bad explainer and a rotten communicator as your spokesman before the entire world? Isn’t that just dumb— and bad politics? Wouldn’t it be suicidal in a media-driven age with its 24-hour news cycle?
You would think so, but if the goal is to skate through unquestioned—because the gaps in your explanations are so large to start with—then to refuse to explain is a demonstration of raw presidential power. (As in “never apologize, never explain.”) So this is another reason McClellan was there. Not to be persuasive, but to refute the assumption that there was anyone the White House needed or wanted to persuade— least of all the press! Politics demands assent, on one hand, and attack on the other. (And those are your choices with Bush and Rove: assent or be attacked.) The very notion of persuasion conceded more to democratic politics than the Bush forces wanted to concede.
The same goes for spin. Anyone who talks about McClellan “spinning” the press has got the wrong idea. The premise of spin is that by artful re-statement the facts can be made to look better for the President. But McClellan’s speaking style is artless in the extreme. He’s terrible at spin but it didn’t detract from the job he was there to do.
While claiming to hate spin, journalists grasp that the very practice of it is an implied credit to their profession; it means they’re important! By sticking someone up there who is inept at it, you downgrade the press to unspun: why bother?
McClellan went through the motions of spin sometimes. But he was far more comfortable with robotic repetition of some empty formula he had decided on in advance, like “We are focused on the priorities that the American people care most about and getting things done…” His favorite word was “again,” as in, “Again, David, the President is focused on…” That isn’t spin. That’s running out the clock.
Spinning is improvisational. It requires you to think on your feet. McClellan was terrible at that too: wooden and unconvincing. He was not a phrase-maker; and he had no natural eloquence. Grace under pressure? No, that would concede that the reporters pressing their questions are legitimate actors. And so under pressure McClellan got more excruciatingly thick-headed and often belligerent, provoking belligerence back.
In what sense are these qualifications for the job of press secretary? Well, McClellan was there to make executive power more illegible, which is the way Bush, Cheney (especially Cheney) and Rove want it. Being inarticulate in public is basic to that goal. Bush himself is that way when he’s not reading from a script. And as Madigan noted, Bush’s “aversion to detailed questions is palpable.”
Michael Wolff, in an effective profile of McClellan for Vanity Fair, noticed this. “Because Scott couldn’t talk, he wouldn’t be able to say anything for himself,” Wolff writes. “His lack of verbal acumen, his lack of dexterity with a subordinate clause, becomes another part of the way to control the White House message in a White House obsessed with such control.”
As Wolff notes, “He wouldn’t be able to cozy up to the press. That requires a serving-two-masters deftness. A special tonal range. A wink. A nod. An emphasis. A surgical use of modifiers, so that I say what I have to say in such a way that we all understand what I mean to say. A little Kabukiness.” There has been none of that “tonal range” under McClellan. The results are ugly, but the public ugliness is a clue.
McClellan himself, as though having some terrible social disability, has, standing miserably in the press briefing room every day, become a kick-me archetype. He’s Piggy in Lord of the Flies: a living victim, whose reason for being is, apparently, to shoulder public ridicule and pain (or, come to think of it, he’s Squealer from Animal Farm). He’s the person nobody would ever choose to be.
Right, the jerk at the podium. Ari Fleischer could stonewall with ease, but he wasn’t willing to be that jerk. (Plus, he had a twinkle in his eye when in a tough spot: no good.) And so the full development of Rollback and the illegible White House had to wait for McClellan, the true blue Texan and total Bush loyalist— considered “family” according to Time’s Mike Allen.
Now all this is humiliating for the press to have to endure but here the architects of rollback made a shrewd bet. This is how I explained it to John Harris, political editor of the Washington Post, in our aborted interview on these subjects: “In my view, the White House withdrew from a consensus understanding of how the executive branch had to deal with journalists. It correctly guessed that if it changed the game on you, you wouldn’t develop a new game of your own, or be able to react.”
And of course they didn’t.
The era of news management lasted 40 years— from 1963, when the networks first began their 30-minute nightly broadcasts, to 2003, when McClellan, Bush, Cheney, and Rove proved there were other ways. Replace news management with press nullification. Drop the persuasion model, in favor of the politics of assent. Choose non-communication to demonstrate that you ought not to be questioned (it only helps our enemies.)
Bush made no secret of his preference for government-by-assent. That’s why he created the Bush Bubble, a remarkable practice in which the White House routinely prevented non-believers from attending the President’s speeches and asking questions of him in public. (It’s now being relaxed somewhat.)
Other parts of the Bush presidency that fit in the puzzle with McClellan’s hapless style:
- The fixing of facts around the policy in the run-up to the war in Iraq; the cherry-picking and manipulation of intelligence;
- The expansion of executive secrecy and the conversion of public knowledge back into classified data;
- The routine refusal to provide Congress with information required for meaningful oversight, which is itself a casualty of this White House;
- The criminalization of reporting practices in the prosecution of journalists for unauthorized leaks;
- Dick Cheney’s conviction that executive power had been encroached upon after Vietnam and Watergate, and needed to be re-claimed: from Congress, from the press, from the pressure of public opinion itself;
- The new “stealth” model for the vice presidency that Cheney and Bush created, in which the VP’s schedule is secret and the press often doesn’t know where he is.
Put it all together and what do we have? In calling recently for Watergate-style Senate Hearings on the Bush Presidency, Carl Bernstein (also in Vanity Fair) wrote as follows:
“The first fundamental question that needs to be answered by and about the president, the vice president, and their political and national-security aides… is whether lying, disinformation, misinformation, and manipulation of information have been a basic matter of policy—- used to overwhelm dissent; to hide troublesome truths and inconvenient data from the press, public, and Congress; and to defend the president and his actions when he and they have gone awry or utterly failed.”
It’s a good question. But I don’t think its fundamental enough. McClellan was a cog in a machine for making the executive power more opaque, and the presidency itself less dialogic. (Fewer questions, no answers unless under subpoena.) We have to understand how this system works, and why it’s appeared now.
Bush and his staff did something new, I would even say visionary when they decided to “manage” the news by shutting down those portions of the presidency where the President can be asked the difficult but necessary questions he loathes so much. Scott McClellan, I believe, was sent into the briefing room to shut off that tap even while he stood there and took the beatings.
The intended result: a presidency that is less questioned in the eyes of the world. That’s not news management; it’s a new balance of power between them and us.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Dick Polman, until recently chief political writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, adds his testimony to Rollback. “McClellan’s mission was not to merely evade or spin information in the traditional sense. His core purpose was to be the point man for an assertive, even revolutionary, White House effort to delegitimize the mainstream conveyers of the news.” The key to assessing McClellan: “His job was to contest or deny the ‘terrain of fact,’ the empirical evidence, as traditionally defined.” Polman gives some examples of just that.
Now this is interesting. Mark Hamilton says that there are signs that Rollback is being tried by the new Canadian prime minister, conservative Stephen Harper. (A CBC radio journalist told me the same thing during an interview this week.) Here’s a run-down of developments that suggest something’s up. More on this from Fine Young Journalist and Salmon Arm up north.
The Soundtrack: Got this note from Brendan Greeley, blogger-in-chief and sound wiz for Open Source Radio, Chris Lydon’s show. (Now on WNYC.)
Jay - Read your post on strategic non-communication, and I thought I’d buttress your claim with some sound files.Two years ago I became obsessed with Scott McClellan and started
editing his briefings down to just the sound bites, the One Right
Thing that he repeats fifteen-twenty times a briefing. The
administration’s recognition, in effect, that you don’t even have to
look like you’re trying to answer the questions, you just have to get through twenty-seven minutes without getting caught on tape saying
the wrong thing.
So here are five McClellan briefings from early 2004, all edited down to just the talking points he repeats verbatim.
Fantastic, what a document. Thanks, Brendan.
Over at MetaFilter, the poster digaman (who is Wired writer Steve Silberman) says another piece belongs in my rollback puzzle. “Donald Rumsfeld’s bold, frequent, and rarely-challenged assertions that the American press is being expertly ‘manipulated’ by Al Qaeda ‘media committees’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.” He has in mind statements like this from Rumsfeld on the radio with Neil Boortz:
SEC. RUMSFELD: …The only way we can lose this is if we lack political will to see it through. The terrorists, the violent terrorists, the enemies of the Iraqi people and the legitimate Iraqi government and the new Iraqi constitution, they know that. They know precisely that their battle is not in Iraq. Their battle is here in the United States. They have media committees, they calculate how they can have the greatest impact on the media in the world, and they are very skillful at it and we’re not.
Crooks and Liars has Keith Olbermann’s video tribute to Scott McClellan.
CNN’s John Roberts thinks Scott McClellan is a “truthteller,” and he thinks he will get in trouble with liberal blogs for saying it. (via Media Matters)
Recommended: A Tomdispatch Interview with Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation. The description of what her day is like is fascinating in itself. In it she says PressThink is part of her daily routine, which is nice to know.
Kurtz: “He was painful to watch at times, gamely repeating the same stock phrases under a barrage of hostile media fire, grasping for new ways to deliver the same non-answers…” Also: “McClellan did not wink, nod or freelance, sticking closely to the day’s script.” Aye.
Dana Milbank tells us that when McClellan announced his departure most of the White House press corps was 30,000 feet in the air, on a charter flight to Tuskegee, Alabama, scheduled to land at 10:05 a.m. for a Bush speech later in the day. Graceful, huh? McClellan’s job was “made particularly challenging by Bush himself, who undermined his press secretary by arming him with little information to share with the public.”
Blogometer by National Journal has a good sampling of McClellan commentary from bloggers.
Stephen Spruiell at National Review’s Media Blog: “It’s not that Scott McClellan was a bad press secretary. It’s that he is not the right press secretary right now. A White House press corps this hostile and guileful calls for a press secretary who’s equally tough.”
Gerard Baker, Times of London: “At his daily press conference Mr McClellan conveyed a terror of speaking off the narrow line of his talking points that left the powerful impression of a man incapable of the most elementary of independent thought.” Which is the way Bush wanted it.
Ankush Khardori at Huff Post: Feel Bad for Scott McClellan. “Yes, he was routinely sent to the briefing room with half-truths and lies, but McClellan’s tragic earnestness revealed that, on most occasions, he actually bought the spin that the White House was putting out. Flawed and inept as McClellan was, his obliviousness was ultimately his most consistent feature.”
His post has this observation from Christopher Hitchens during a radio interview: “I’m not the only person in Washington who wonders every day how that guy got that job. I mean, it’s an insult to the intelligence of everyone who has to listen to him.” Well, yeah, Hitch. That’s how he got the job! Bush decided to insult anyone who came looking for answers to questions.
Elizabeth Bumiller in the New York Times reports: “Mr. Bolten, who has been given a free hand by Mr. Bush to make changes, has told associates he wants to change the White House communications operation and is interested in press officers who have longtime contacts and ties with reporters in Washington.”
Julie Hirschfeld Davis of the Baltimore Sun:
Since he came to office more than five years ago, Bush has placed a premium on secrecy.His team had, until recently, excelled at promoting a carefully honed message with a united voice. That often forced McClellan to go before reporters armed with talking points that bore little relation to reporters’ questions and sometimes to provide answers that turned out to be inaccurate.
Those talking points that “bore little relation to reporters’ questions?” That’s what I called non-communication. She has some other choice quotes. Like Ron Nessen, press secretary under Gerald Ford: “Part of this administration’s problem is it’s not been able to explain its policies and actions very well.” Nice try, but no. Not explaining very well isn’t a management foible. It was a strategic choice for the White House, part and parcel with the inexplicable actions themselves.
This is rehashing old territory I’m sure, but - re what countermoves the press could make, in response to this shift -
> “It requires the press to participate. And the press does so willingly.”
> “I’d love to see a few ideas from someone on what to do now that the game is uncovered.”
Who would have such ideas?
(a historian? given that “history is all the data that we have so far” (Paul Graham) this can’t be the first time in human history that this situation has come up; how has it been handled before, and with what success?)
And what would the ideas be?
(“not attending” is one, but voting with one set of feet doesn’t seem like a particularly effective way to change a situation; and “unionizing” (voting with many feet, or any other group strategy) isn’t likely to hold up…)
Some comments bearing on this, from Jay’s Rollback post:
“The press, even functioning at its “best,” simply isn’t configured to be a catch-all balance for all branches of government. It’s legal to lie to us, and reporters cannot force anyone to present their evidence.
I think we could improve our performance as journalists and this basic equation still would not change…”
“Perhaps the news media are like the military: the generals fight the new wars with the old tactics. Until they learn better.
I’m not sure the media are learning.”
(I think possible strategies were mentioned in some other past PressThink comment threads, but can’t recall where.)
“Don’t attend, since it’s useless; instead, get your info from informative sources” was the best strategy mentioned, as I recall.
But would there be a way to attend, and still make it into something of value?
(Greeley’s “McClellan sound bites” collection that Jay links to is one answer; are there others?)
Bush radicalized me, adr. And yes, we are in much worse shape than you thought.
I received this by e-mail and got permission to post it from the author. It’s one of the best notes I have gotten from a reader in three years of doing PressThink.
Dear Jay Rosen,
I really liked your post on Rollback, because it made me feel like you assembled nonsensical actions I have observed many times into a coherent, and convincing, story. It made me want to shout and say “Thank goodness somebody sees what’s happening!”
I also really liked Gwen Ifill’s question about AIDS to the vice-presidential candidates in the 2004 debate. It made me jump up and yell at my television because I was so happy that a moderator actually asked a personal, pointed question. (Too bad they didn’t answer it.)
So when I had the opportunity hear Gwen Ifill speak at the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church (near Philadelphia, PA) tonight, I decided to ask her about the issues you have identified.
My question was written on a cue card and was actually one of the two dozen or so chosen to be answered. I wrote: “[In your speech tonight], you said ‘The media is born to be adversarial.’ But the current administration responds to adversarial questions by deflecting them. The media has been trying the same strategy for 5+ years. What responsibility does the Washington media have to try a NEW strategy?”
I wrote down her answer, but I did not capture it verbatim… I don’t mind if you want to quote what I say, but please don’t quote her since I don’t have 100% accuracy in my notes.
She said (paraphrasing Gwen Ifill)
I covered Bill Clinton, and HE spent a lot of time deflecting questions. What the meaning of ‘is’ is. [laughter] Let’s go back to LBJ, to Nixon and his enemies list…. There is such a history of this that saying this administration is worse than any other is not true.
On live TV, they can spin out the answer [until time runs out] and you [just end up] saying “But Secretary Rice, you didn’t answer my question.” In print journalism, you can try to come at the question in several different ways [and sometimes get a better answer].
There has been a breakdown in agreement between journalists and the people they cover, where we know it’s their job to answer our questions, and they don’t.
What I found maddening about her answer was the initial total denial that anything about the playing field has changed. The “everybody evades” answer, is probably partly my fault because I did use the word “deflect” in my question but I was writing quickly and couldn’t think of a better word.
As she went on, she addressed the common (real) problem of how to get a professional politician off the track they want to go down. Which is fine, it’s a perfectly legitimate problem for journalists, but it wasn’t my question.
And then at the very end, she started to touch on what you have articulated so well. The administration does not accept the rules of journalism as (unconsciously) shared by the full-time, high-profile journalists working in Washington today. And the few journalists that recognize this seem just to be whining that “They’re not playing by the RUUUUULLLES”.
OK! They’re not. Meantime, decisions are being made that imprison people without trial, subject them to torture and death, and otherwise reshape the river channel that’s been guiding the progress of our republic for the last 225+ years.
Am I crazy to be so angry at journalists for this? I don’t watch television but I read widely and voraciously and I give money to the League of Women Voters and I write letters to the editor and I always, always vote.
I know journalists face pressure to be commercially appealing and pressure in a lot of other directions too, but — who was it that said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? It feels like that’s what the journalists who have the most visible daily access to the federal government are doing. Why aren’t they trying something different? And if they won’t or can’t, why can’t I fire the White House press corps and send in some people who will?
Sorry for ranting at you when you are just the person who has most successfully framed the problem. I did think you might want to know that there is a nonpartisan, non-journalist reader of your blog who loves what you have to say and is trying to take it out into the world.
That sentiment from Ifill—“We know it’s their job to answer our questions, and they don’t”—says it all. As I told Harris: They changed the game on you, and they knew you wouldn’t react.
I don't know about Drumheller. The CBS report--keeping in mind that it was CBS which attempted to throw an election by means of forged documents--misrepresented the issue.
What Drumheller said and what CBS added as context is too mixed to separate.
But the Niger issue is one in which they are screwing the pooch in the same old way.
Wilson told the CIA that there were contacts with Niger. The no-contacts stuff was an op-ed.
Subsequent intel discovered the same thing.
The presumption was--and presumption is all there can be--is that Iraq was not looking at commercial deals regarding Niger's other exports, but was talking about uranium. Nothing else makes sense, and that's the kind of thing intelligence does.
Drumheller refers to some reports that WMD did not exist, and either he or CBS makes it sound as if that was the only report going up the chain, which is untrue. The WH was in the positon of choosing which intel sounded most likely.
The Iraqis did, actually, have a bunch of yellowcake, which we know because in other times the libs have pilloried the admin for not guarding it when the invasion got that far. That they had it seems more important than arguments about where it came from.
What do you think?
Now, we also know, although you hope we don't, that uranium comes from other places in Africa, which is what Bush was referring to during the famous sixteen words. He did not mention "Niger", but "Africa".
This one's worn out, guys. Forget it.
Too, there are continuing reports that, alternatively, SH was trying to fool both the UN (don't gots'em) and his neighbors (I be bad with WMD), and ended up fooling the WH, too. What a tangled web....
Or that his scientists had both him and his security services fooled that they had the stuff. This seems unlikely, considering the apparent ubiquity of the security services and the penalties for annoying them, but if true, we can hardly be surprised that the rest of the world was fooled, too.
Cherrypicking? Me? Like I'm alone in this?
If you're referring to the aspirin factory, then forget that one, too. You can always accuse somebody of cherrypicking when he provides some examples. The alternative, of course, is to list all four million cases of whatever, a technique few actually follow.
Info flow has been done for years. You're losing bigtime if you try to convince anybody this is new and different.
If this reasonable couple of paragraphs is directed at me, thanks for the good words.
I do get people angry, from time to time, because I post on boards where people would likely have the opposite view.
And, of course, hearing inconvenient facts is going to get some people angry.
I don't often provide support, if you mean in the form of links, because I generally refer to facts generally known.
For example, we all know that there are more places to get uranium in Africa than in Niger, and we all know the president didn't say "Niger", so I don't need to provide a link. I just remind people of the facts they already know and that others know them, too.
That can certainly annoy some people, but it's hardly illegitimate.
Considering all this, I don't know why Jay puts up with it, either. It kind of disharmonizes the chorus. Shame.
Perhaps he thinks it's good training.
BTW. How do you know I don't believe what I write?
Long ago, I came to the conclusion that people who were involved in mostly one-way communication, which meant politicians, journalists, writers, clergy, weren't aware of the number of people who weren't in a position to make clear they, the speakers or writers, were not believed.
I know about hearing from readers, or constituents, or whatever, but I rarely heard anybody say the input had any merit whatsoever. Any argument is by definition false. Therefore, all argument is illegitimate, and therefore the writer/politician/cleric/journalist is not wrong, or not found out, anyway.
Really finding out what the targets of your communication have been thinking all these years is no doubt disconcerting. Possibly even disorienting.
That's progress. No pain, no gain. Your turn, now.
I've had a comment stored for a bit...
Before I got a chance to post it, the thread wandered into general politics. Oh well. I am another who is on the "other side" from the main stream media group-think echo chamber, and in fact have a very low opinion of the product of what we call "journalism" these days - a "discipline" where even the concept of "objectivity" is no longer a paramount goal, with social justice accepted as a reasonable motive for biased reporting, and "balance" being an artifice (as so well pointed out by Dr. Rosen in the past). None of this is to demean any particular journalist (with a few notable exceptions), but rather the low, biased and these days, sometimes downright anti-american state of the US MSM.
Tony Snow looks like a good pick. He understands the news business, politics, how the White House operates (from his Reagan speechwriter experience) and has been a conservative talk radio host for quite a while - which should leave him well prepared to deal with the remarkable and surprisingly personal animus which the left.... err, main stream media holds against George Bush.
As talk show hosts go, Tony appears to be quite a gentleman - which will put him in strong contrast to the savages in the White House press corps. And who knows, he might care enough about getting the message out that he will kiss journo butt if that's what is required.
On another blog, someone posted a sign of a good press secretary: recognizing a certain well known questioner by saying "Helen, you slut..." I like the idea, but Tony's too much of a gentleman for that.
........and now to my prepared remarks :-).....
It is hard to find sympathy for journalists who are so dependent upon the White House press secretary, and yet so angry when the press secretary does his job. The press secretary’s isn’t there to tell anyone every detail and rumor about the Administration. Nor to feed journalists what they want to hear… more on that later.
The complaint that somehow this administration is unusual in its lack of transparency is overblown. All engage in news management and spin, and the press often goes along. FDR, for example, did not allow himself to be photographed with his wheel chair visible. The press corps complied. JFK had numerous scandalous sexual activities, some with potential national security implications. Again, a compliant press corps concealed that. Perhaps "coverage" was ironically a better term to use in those days.
That the Bush administration has been unusually good at preventing leaks is hardly a crime - it just makes a reporter’s job harder. Too bad - if they are being spoon fed, they may be comfortable but they are hardly likely to write the whole story - as if anyone in the MSM cares about accuracy these days.
The Bush Administration has done a terrible job of helping itself with its communications policy. A major factor appears to be its inability to adequately deal with the media. This White House hasn’t had a good strategy for handling a predictably and implacably hostile media.
The press secretary’s job is to get the President "better" press, in a political sense, and in a leadership sense. That job includes "spin" and other methods of *managing* the press. It does not include, as is implied, being "frank" with "the American people" ( read: slavering press corps ). Our government is political, the President has political responsibilities, and to complain about the political nature of press interactions is to be dishonestly naïve.
If the press secretary is a jerk to reporters, maybe they deserve it. In any case, whining about it is pathetic.
Those who are upset about the press secretary’s product seem insulted - the administration doesn't recognize their personal importance!. And lets not forget the absurd significance attached to one White House staffer's comment about "reality based," etc.
Bush needs to communicate a whole lot more. Almost everyone seems to agree on that. But not because he is "dissing" journalists. He needs to get his message out from behind the iron curtain of the MSM. The administration needs to recognize that the current war (not to mention the Democrat plans to win the Senate and completely hobble the administration via investigations) involves a large measure of political action domestically and psychological warfare internationally.
As others have pointed out, the White House press corps is not really that important. They are an anachronism in the age of modern communications and information flow. But they are a very powerful and self-important anachronism, and when their pride is deflated, they strike back viciously. The White House should have coddled them - "felt their pain" and generally stroked this silly but powerful group.
Then they should have figured out how to get their real message to the people - whether through the flattered narcissists of the press corps or some other channel.
Okay, Dave, let me break it into smaller pieces:
Journalist says something.
Journalist presumes the reader is a nutcase. Who else would object?
After ten times of hearing objections, always presuming the objectors are nutcases, the journalist comes to the conclusion that only nutcases object.
That being the case, anybody who objects is a nutcase.
Only nutcases object.
What is there to learn from nutcases? Nothing.
Therefore, there is nothing, and will never be anything, to learn from people who object, since they are all nutcases.
The feedback has no effect. You don't know what the public thinks since the only people who object are nutcases and nutcases don't reflect the public.
It's a matter of definitions. Objectors are, by definition, nutcases.
If I am in the public, I am the target of communication from anybody who writes expecting the result will be out in the public.
He or she will be trying to persuade me of something, if only the chances of rain tomorrow.
If you don't think what you write applies to me, then you must think it applies to others, or what are you getting paid for?
They are targets of your communication. I submit you don't know, haven't known, what the targets think of you. They're not as happy with you as you think.
From time to time, there will be a survey of people on the following question: If the media report on something about which you know a good deal, were in the middle of, is your job, witnessed clearly, is your passion and hobby, how often do they get it right. The best I've heard is that the surveyed folks think you get it right about twenty percent of the time, when they're in a position to know, themselves. I first ran into that in 1971. Some years ago in SPJ, somebody wrote a brief piece about talking to a bunch of news consumers at some kind of forum. His result was zero times the media get it right.
The logical conclusion, which, lucky for you, few folks seem to have reached is, if they can't get it right when I know what happened, how can I take their word for it when I don't know what happened.
I'd like to see you guys get it right more often.
'way more often.
Steve, you’re not really getting to the point of what I am trying to express, and having difficulty with (and expressing, too).
Plukasiak/ami/whatever is saying that we can’t really use subsequent polling data on the president to see if people "like Bush more" because Americans never really liked his policies anyway, which he/she says is demonstrated by lots of polls prior to Bush being “saved” by 9-11 (strange logic considering he was elected twice). I do agree with polling data unreliably (and am consistent even when polls show support for positions I take). Polls offer little to me, as a “truth discerner,” other than “kind-of-a-general-sort-of “feeling” approach” to gaining feedback from a non-random group of Americans.
So you would want to hear…..what?
You say, he’ll explain what goes on in the inner circle… (paraphrase) So you would believe that it’s not faux engagement if Snow says…..
“The president was told by Karl Rove that he’s losing his base so he has to take a bit tougher stance on immigration and he respects Mr. Rove so he’s going to follow that advice.....”….
“The president wants to (blah blah blah) Iran b/c (insert name here) in his inner circle says….”. …
I’m asking this seriously. Walk me through an example on an issue you pick—something simple. I’m trying to decide how Snow could explain something that would make The Press say “You know, we may not agree with this president on his policies, but we can definitely see how he arrives at them now but before we never understood…”
Or does The Press simply want him to change his policies? Is it one and the same, in your mind?
(To anyone, not just Steve…)
If this presidency is totally different than any other and you believe in “Rollback” as a master strategy to, as Jay says, “to enhance executive power and maximize the president’s freedom of maneuver— not only in policy-making, and warfare, but on the terrain of fact itself,” doesn’t it follow that nothing Snow or others do will contradict it?
And, therefore, if they do something that contradicts the theory, doesn’t that make the theory weak?
(BTW, I actually think that it’s much more likely that Bush picked Tony Snow, someone who has been very vocal in his opposition and disappointment in the president at times, as further evidence that he may be one of those “productive narcissists,” like Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Trump, Oprah, with both stengths and weaknesses, that really has to be forced to make course corrections. )
It sounds like The Press is too ready to believe Bush just picked Snow as even more proof that Bush is so diabolical that he’d give us just enough to “feed the beast,” but not too much. That’s intellectually dishonest to me.
Interesting quote from 2003—
"President Clinton's press secretary Mike McCurry said, “The Democrats mistakenly think the press is on their side, and they get burned as a result," he said. (Now why would he think that?) The Republicans never have that delusion, and treat you as the caged beef that you are. They feed you once a day and tell you to go away.
Many of my arguments are interpretations, of course.
But I supplied quite a set of facts which contradict prevailing narratives or were selectively reported or totally ignored by the MSM. Do you dispute them?
As you know, I won’t argue (again) about the Kerry facts, but I will answer your question. The link shows how an undemocratic country justified their brutal actions using Kerry’s very much under-reported behavior. They conflated that with the media’s very much over-hyped story about one non-systemic, properly punished instance of atrocious behavior by a small group of US soldiers. They did so during the campaign year, and it was not reported by the MSM. You obviously didn’t read the whole article.
About the president’s authority, take it up with the FISA court of appeals, which ruled against your interpretation. As for declaration of war, countries don’t do that any more, and the US has conducted most of its wars without such a declaration - including many actions by FDR, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. But congressional authorization for war against the terrorists was passed by Congress in 2001, and most certainly authorized the president to conduct a war - no geographical limits specified.
Conducting a war does not mean doing it in handcuffs, it means taking appropriate action. When your enemy has already conducted a grievous surprise attack on your homeland, don’t you think that maybe, possibly, just perhaps it might be a good idea to tune in on his communications? The idea, part of Bush Derangement Syndrome, that W is somehow acting like a dictator is preposterous. Why don’t you look at history (did you actually study it?) and see what wartime presidents have done. Monitoring phone calls that cross our borders is, well, justified in peacetime. In wartime, presidents have done much more. Republican Abe Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus. Democrat FDR sent Japanese to prison camps. Kennedy intervened overseas in brushfire wars and tried to kill Fidel. Furthermore, this terrible, egregious action of listening in on the international conversations of suspected terrorists would never have even been an issue just 40 years ago. Until the around Nixon era, wiretaps, domestic and international, were routine and often with no judicial or statutory support - and they were upheld by courts.
But we have become a decadent nation. We have too many people who imagine that the threats to us are internal, when the reality is, and has been for a long time, that they are primarily external. That our democracy has survived as long as it has, and that we have more civil liberties now than at any other time in our history (due to 20th century re-interpretations and statutes) should perhaps suggest that we have been, in a broader perspective, spoiled. We have gotten to the point where common sense measures (roving wiretaps, for example) are seen as more threatening than the very real prospect of the conjunction of suicidal Salafist terrorists with WMDs. Bush may not be that great on other issues, and conservatives criticize him a lot, but he certainly understands the threat - and the biggest threat is WMD + terrorist - primarily nuclear explosive WMD or contagious biological WMD. Don’t you think we perhaps should try pretty hard to prevent that inevitable conjunction as much as possible.
Argh… but now we have totally drifted from journalism.
The reason to bring up history, for those who say it is pathetic to do so, is, as was pointed out, to show the lack of principle and the selective memory or conscience of those who attack Bush for the same things others have done without MSM complaint.
As for threatening journos with jail… what should happen if a duly constituted court orders them to reveal facts and they refuse to do so? Do you believe in the rule of law, or have journalists inherited the throne and purple robe? Do you really think it is Bush who is making the threats? It sounds to me like the only threats are from the courts, unless you think Bush can somehow order a member of a hidden Illuminati cabal to take journalists and put them in some castle dungeon!
Steve, your response illustrates why it’s hard to take these Press Think discussions all that seriously, at least from the standpoint that they can have any actual, tangible result in the next day’s news stories or a change in the way journalists are being trained across the US. But human nature being what it is, we’ll keep on trying!
You don’t really have a specific “measurement,” a benchmark, let’s say, for what would constitute a challenge to this whole “Rollback” theory. Correct? Does anyone? Or is it more a "I'll know it when I see it" kind of thing. Can anyone tell me what Tony Snow could do or say that would cause you to believe that the President is “changing course” and is actually trying to get his “message” out more effectively now? That Snow isn’t just a pseudo-non-explainer…
It sounds to me like despite anything he does or says, you would only “trust” his message if it was one that you yourself actually endorsed. Is that, or should that be, an honest goal of the Press? The best you can do?
And, if you can’t think of anything besides the silly remark I put out, or the one where you added “Mr. Rove was demoted because he has his hands full doing his homework for grand jury appearances” … Are we not exactly in the place that Richard described in his post?
When the public (not the press) “noise” gets loud enough, this president usually adjusts course, albeit ineffectively sometimes (witness Harriet Myers, Katrina, current gas crunch, etc.). That’s his weakness, I believe. His “range” of leading behavior, as opposed to following, reacting, is more narrow than I’d like, that’s for sure.
I wonder if it's the fact that he’s been fairly successful at pushing his agenda (e.g., War on Terror, supreme court picks, tax cuts), not only without the Press, but in spite of it, that is particularly galling.
I also want to tell Neuro-conservative that I always enjoy his thoughts and links.
And I also want to say that John Moore goes to the heart of a lot of issues. Many people, and certainly many Democrats, and people posting here on this forum, don’t really believe that we’re in a “war.” I mean really believe it; believe it in the way that Americans believed it after Pearl Harbor, or the English believed it when London was being bombed by Germany. "Fight back with all your might or be killed, believe it."
BJ - you are putting words into my mouth.
I think Bush made a mistake by not taking the steps you talk about (except the draft). But make no mistake... just because we haven't done some of the traditional things of past wars doesn't mean we are not in a war. We are simply in a 21st century war. Beyond that, your post is not even worth responding to.
Andrew, I think the majority of the blue-staters treat the term "war" as a metaphor. A whole lot of the rest us certainly do not. We, understand that war doesn't mean an action like World War II any more than World War II resembled the Punic wars. Notice the targets: a major commercial center, the headquarters of our military, and the White House (flight 93). That’s a decapitation attack and an economic attack, not mere criminality! Likewise the first WTC attack, the massive bombings of our embassies, and the targeting of the USS Cole were warfare. Criminals go for money or notoriety. Warriors have political motives, often ideologiical.
War has literally been declared on us. Acts of war have been made against us, with one notorious success that was more deadly than Pearl Harbor. The war was poorly named (I said Bush wasn't good at that side of thing). We are at war with people who subscribe to a particular ideology/theology, which includes most definitely their view of being in a state of war with us, as some of stated. That includes the current regime in Iran. A theatre which right now resembles the "phoney war" before the outbreak of fighting on the western front in WW-II.
Also, the WTC was ordered by agents who were allied with and served as special forces (and enforcers) for a state - the Taliban regime of Afghanistan. It was, as its perpetrators and planners understood well, an act of war with state backing.
But the crucial thing to understand about this current war is that it is global and highly asymmetrical. It is largely carried out in the shadows (as Bush said) - for example, we are at war across the width of Africa in the Sahel. We are at war in the Philippines. The Salafists are waging war at almost every border of Islam. Sudan, Nigeria, Israel, the Phillipines, Indonesia, and Thailand, to name a few areas.
As one who has watched these trends from an international warfare perspective, I was not surprised by 9-11. Sure, the date was a surprise, and the specific targets. But the attempt by Al Qaeda to cause a major mass casualty event, by Islamofascists, was expected. I just thought it would probably involve a contagious biological weapon.
I am sure it is comforting to view Al Qaeda’s efforts as merely criminal. Then we can forget this war nonsense and tend to our domestic affairs, leaving the problem to the cops. Pull our troops home. Get rid of all the obnoxious security. Stop our work on bio-defense and other WMD defense. Stop running around with radiation detectors. After all, criminals have no reason to blow us up, poison us, irradiate us or kill zillions of civilians. Those are political acts - acts of war.
You ask about Moussaui's status. If this were WW-II, he would already be worm food, having been executed as a failed saboteur. The other detainees are also all violators of the Geneva Convention. It is appropriate to treat such violators harshly, unless we just don’t care about international agreements. War does not imply POWs, because POW status, per international law, requires certain behavior, such as wearing identifying uniforms or symbols such as consistently colored arm bands. Those who wage war while violating this (and other) rules are to be punished, to encourage the behavior required under that law.
Per Thomas">http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/sowell061302.asp">Thomas Sowell:
"During the Battle of the Bulge, near the end of World War II, some specially trained German soldiers who spoke English put on American uniforms and infiltrated the American lines to disrupt and confuse U.S. military operations. When caught, they were lined up in front of a firing squad and shot. The protections of the Geneva Convention's rules of war are for those who play by those rules"
In other words, the warriors were not POWs, just as the detainees in this war are not. They are entitled to neither that protection nor that of our constitution.
By the way, it is no doubt news to New Yorkers, but there are a whole lot of who do not wait breathlessly for the wisdom from the big city..
“Neuro-conservative,” you can’t leave me in suspense. Please tell me you’re not a fake. I mean, I know you’re not me, ‘cause I’m the only Me here, and no one had better steal my identity! I really do like your thoughts, though, so I’ll forgive you if you’re really some other poster (whose posts, chances are, I also like :)).
Continuing this OT thread….I’m currently reading The DaVinci Code and if there’s one thing Dan Brown has right, it’s that the world is way too heavy on the testosterone if these obsessions with fake personas are any indication. We need some “sacred feminine” wife and mother to stand up and say, “I know boys will be boys, but enough carousing, Be Serious, and Get The Damn Job Done!
As far as the rendition question, Dave, to satisfy your curiosity, I’m actually not 100% sure where I sit on that. I know that that Clinton’s version must have been so tightly controlled, and used so infrequently that, really, did it have much effect other than making him feel like he was doing something, anything? All through his presidency AQ grew exponentially and American targets were hit repeatedly without a response enough to deter. Then we had Sept 11th here at home.
I certainly don’t want to have “numerous” innocent people tortured. Has there been a lot of that due to Bush’s alleged rendition program?
Andrew, I’m not sure I follow how I understated the point. Defining whether we’re truly at war or not, really is the absolute heart of the matter, no? Wouldn’t much of the contentious partisanship that’s really behind most of these debates dissolve if we could agree that we are truly At War?
And Steve Schwenk…. “… in the nostalgic sense you glorify….?” The way you interpret people’s comments is strange sometimes. I know I’m certainly not the best writer here by any stretch, but glorify, nostalgic? Weird.
"but until you have breathed the dust from 9/11, save your breath telling those of us who did about the wisdom accumulated by those outside "the big city."
If I was talking about how New Yorkers felt, you would be right.
But I'm talking about whether we are at war or not, and whether the 9-11 attack was an act of war, and now must point out that New Yorkers have not a speck of additional insight on that question. Typical New Yorker, you forgot that other parts of the country were affected. My wife was trapped for days 2500 miles from home because of 9-11 air travel bans. The Pentagon crash also killed people, including the wife of the US Solicitor General. Don't give me that nonsense, because my observations have *nothing* to do with how New Yorkers felt or were personally impacted by 9-11.
However, I must admit that I use my unique personal experiences in arguments too. For example, get into the torture narrative and I'm going to ask if you have been trained in enduring tortue, and been tortured, because I have been. The first involves general knowledge of the subject and is applicable to the discussion. The second, as it turns out, gives me a small amount of insight about the very minor torture a high ranking Al Qaeda experienced (and cracked under), but otherwise it's just a bragging point involving personal feelings - sorta like breathing the dust of 9-11.
Likewise, when I see folks pontificating about Kerry's Naval experience, I can tell that most reporters and editorialists have never served. I served in the Navy and Vietnam at one of the same places as Kerry, a few months before he did.
Woo hoo! I must be a Vietnam War expert.
Nope, but I do know enough about military and especially Naval culture and procedures to ferret out some BS when I hear it, and to recognize those who don't have a clue.
My service was about the same time. Infantry, got out as 1LT. I was on orders, OCS, jump school, hearts&minds, language, when my brother was killed.
So I got off orders. I don't know about my accumulated funeral time, but I did a couple after my brother's as notification and survivor assistance, and some around here.
Point is, about your service, that it means the excuse I've been imputing to you--invincible and convenient ignorance--doesn't actually hold.
After all, Kerry served, and ought to know a bunch of stuff, but he came home and orchestrated the giant lie of Winter Soldier. He wasn't ignorant. He was/is a liar.
As to applicability, I had dinner with an Abrams gunner a year ago and quit tank talk after the first question. He started talking about intervehicle satellite commo or something. I tried to explain to him that when I was in, the Airborne company anti-tank weapon was the 106 on a mechanical mule, a sort of large, motorized coffee table. We did not connect.
But then my father's point comes to me. He knew everything there was to know about WW II in an area three hundred yards wide and three hundred miles long. Occasionally he'd get a letter from one of a diminishing number of friends in other theaters, but he really knew little of the war until he got home and started studying it.
Which is to say, if you keep up as a civilian, which I have attempted to do, what you know will apply here. If you have any interest in applying it honestly.
Which, as I hope I have made clear, the MSM shows no interest in doing.
Your "back burner" remark about A-stan is a recent example.
However, speaking of McClellan, the rollback, and, as somebody mentioned, the Killian memos.
Recall the WH's response. Deer-in-the-headlights? Oblivious? Gobsmacked? Confused? Whatever it was, they did not haul out the big shooters at St. Louis or wherever the records were to straighten the thing out immediately. Which they probably could have done.
It would have left you guys with ample room to mutter about whitewash and suborning the DOD personnel personnel and falsifying federal documents and so forth. Not that any of that would have been true, of course, if any journos cared.
Instead, the WH let you braid the rope, build the scaffold, send out invitations, stand on the trap door, and, with trumpets, pull the lever. And have not a single administration fingerprint on the entire process.
Was this a deliberate and canny tactic? Or was it an inadvertent result of incompetence? Are you sure?
Kristen, you said --
"Andrew, I’m not sure I follow how I understated the point. Defining whether we’re truly at war or not, really is the absolute heart of the matter, no? Wouldn’t much of the contentious partisanship that’s really behind most of these debates dissolve if we could agree that we are truly At War?"
I merely pointed out that when you said "many" people do not believe we are at war, that "many" was an understatement. "Most" is probably more like it.
Accordingly, one can state your question the other way round: "Isn't that fact that we cannot agree that we are really at war the cause of the contentious partisanship that is really behind most of these debates?"
At a minimum, it seems, if a Commander in Chief were to lead us into a real war, it would be his job to communicate to us why, and against whom and to what end. For John Moore to dismiss this incumbent's failure with these words: it "was poorly named (I said Bush wasn't good at that side of things)" seems lenient in the extreme.
I argue that Bush's use of language actively supported the view that he sees "war" as a metaphorical usage not a literal one. And having his Justice Department prosecute Moussaoui for criminal conspiracy (not following Moore's preference of summary execution for wartime sabotage) seems to indicate that the Bush Administration as a whole, does not treat this War on Terrorism as a literal war.
I understand Moore's arguments explaining his view that war is what it is. I merely argue that there is no evidence that it is the majority view, or even that of the current administration.
Which, I suppose, in a convoluted fashion, returns us to the supposed topic here. As our leader Professor Rosen has so wisely pointed out, the Rollback communications strategy of this Commander in Chief has been to lead by Assent rather than Persuasion. So he has never seen it as appropriate to explain to us, via the press or any other means, what precisely he understands himself to be doing.
To say that Iraq diminishes the effort in Afghanistan requires some proof.
We could start by seeing what the objective in Afghanistan is. Capturing obl would be nice, but it wouldn't solve the problem. The problem is assisting the government to be able exert its writ over the entire country. The opposition is small units, very small units, many of which spend some time in Pakistan. The terrain forbids use of the major types of forces that work so well in Iraq. It requires special ops types, airmobile and light Infantry, air support immediately available--although if you follow the reports the air support frequently consists of two missiles and a bomb. If you follow the reports, it appears that we've had bomb-laden aircraft stooging around the Afghan skies 24-7 since autumn of 2001. Reports on the employment of air support indicate far too little time between request and arrival of ordnance to have called the a/c off carriers or from a base in the 'stans, or, heaven help us, from Diego Garcia.
It doesn't take a military genius to figure out after a bit of looking that Iraq has between little and zilch to do with the force level and the progress in Afghanistan.
The assertion does give the prospect of fooling the uninitiated, which is no doubt why it is so often used. As I keep saying, there are fewer uninitiated than you journos would like.
Why Iraq? As I hear the administration, and the between-the-lines remarks, they have a remarkably long-sighted and intelligent policy.
The wackjobs of the Muslim world are reputed to come mostly from the Salafist and Wahabist strains of Islam, which is about 10% of the total population of Muslims, call it 110 million.
Presume we have nothing to worry about with the rest.
We cannot, many think, stand to deal with, year after year, world without end, the number of nutcases generated by 110 million wackjobs each year. How many do they need to generate to give us serious trouble, considering the technology available? Twenty? A thousand, including cells around the world and the logisitical guys? Think 110 million folks could provide that many who want to kill us wholesale each year?
It's an impossible prospect. The administration seems to want to change the world. If it can be changed so that the number of nutcases is reduced, we're safer. It's big, it's ambitious, and it's the least dangerous of the two. Not that it's not dangerous, but it has at least the possibility of an eventual end.
Changing the Islamic world can't be done by fiat. That's why we have people working, one way or another, in at least eighty countries.
The primary fuel for anti-western homicidal mania is the results of corrupt, inefficient, repressive, and misogynist regimes. Unless you're in with the in-crowd, you're screwed. And you can't even think about it, because if you do, and something slips past your teeth, one of your neighbors may rat you to the secret police. Repressing this can't be permanent. Governments lead their people to vent the anger on Israel and the West.
Men are unable to get jobs, are unable to find a woman for whom he can grow up and become a man instead of an angry adolescent. There is a report that an early bunch of Arafat's guys was disbanded and efforts were made to find them wives, that being Arafat's idea of the best way to settle them down.
Angry, unfulfilled men lashed by the hatemongering imams are not what we need.
Governments need to change, economies need to change, attitudes toward women need to change. We can't do it, but we may be able to remove some obstacles to the process so that the people can do it.
The alternative is to wait behind walls--which a good many don't think ought to be built either literally or figuratively--for the next bunch of nutcases.
In that context, our efforts in Iraq fit.