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September 12, 2007

The Master Narrative that Went Missing During the Bush Years Turns Up in Charlie Savage's Book

Unbuilding the Bush presidency: does your candidate support that? Which parts? And if you don't know, isn't that a case of: Iowa, we have a problem?

Some new developments this week in the continuing story of how the press was overawed by the Administration of George W. Bush. For those who have followed it, the story has two tracks: what happened then (2002-05, as the case for war was made and then fell to pieces) and what’s still happening now, despite broad awareness of how badly the press failed itself, and the country, back “then.”

Boston Globe Reporter Charlie Savage did something great on Track One Monday. He actually supplied at TPM Cafe the missing master narrative for the Bush years: “The agenda of concentrating more unchecked power in the White House.”

In one of the first posts I wrote when I started blogging (Sep. 2003), I defined the master narrative in press coverage as “the story that produces all the other stories.” In campaign news on the horse race model, the base narrative is winning; how the campaign is won is the “master” from which thousands of copies—horse race stories themselves—are made.

My thought was: change the master, come up with a better one, and maybe you can change the reporting. Well, Savage came up with a better one for this Administration: the drive to concentrate unchecked power in the White House, commanded by Cheney, backed by Bush, centered in the OVP— and a radical project. Not a “new” story but a thread for connecting lots of stories and piecing together better explanations for what was going down.

I think that was the narrative the press needed to get back in the game after being gamed in the build-up to the War. The story that produces lots of other stories should have been the attempted expansion of executive power, and the go-it-alone politics that followed from it.

Savage is planning a five-week tour around the country. You should try to catch him. But first catch what he’s saying— and the responses. For if we can’t get the presidential candidates of both parties on record about steps to reverse this agenda, if we can’t make a proper issue out of it in 2008, we’re probably screwed. (See Savage on this very point.)

Unbuilding the Bush presidency: does your candidate support that? Which parts? And if you don’t know, isn’t that a case of: Iowa, we have a problem?

PressThink readers would know Charlie Savage as the Globe reporter in Washington who figured out that Bush’s signing statements were part of a pattern. He put some of the pieces together and got a Pulitzer for it, which was just.

I thought his new book, Takeover, was going to be the fuller story of signing statements, but no. It’s about “the Bush administration’s very broad view of executive power,” and the effort to put that view into practice by overcoming all constraints. Savage began calling it the Cheney project because Dick Cheney had “articulated a vision of nearly limitless commander-in-chief power two decades earlier.”

In 2005, Savage followed the fight over John McCain’s efforts to get a ban on torture enacted by Congress. “We all thought the story was over when Bush signed the bill into law, but then the president issued a signing statement telling interrogators that he could authorize them to ignore the law.” Then it happened again with oversight provisions in the Patriot Act.

Savage reported on both actions for the Globe. “Those two stories got a huge response, and so after that my bureau chief relieved me of daily reporting responsibilities for a month to go find and decipher all the other signing statements Bush had issued since taking office.”

(Why do I say bloggers vs. journalists is stupid and should be declared over? Because the two “sides” are already part of one news system. A large portion of that “huge” response he got was the blogosphere roaring its approval for the digging and synthesizing Charlie Savage did, which influenced the bureau chief to spend the manpower on more stories like that. The big response online amplifies the Globe’s voice in the national conversation, and expands the circle of people who care about the newspaper’s reporting.)

Savage learned that the president had challenged more laws than all previous presidents combined. If the owner of the policy was Bush and its originator Cheney, the enforcer was David Addington (see Jane Mayer’s profile), a man who does not even speak to the press. The policy predated September 11, after which the attacks became the spectacular (and bottomless) justification.

Savage put it this way in the Boston Globe (Nov. 26, 2006): “Over the course of his career, Cheney came to believe that the modern world is too dangerous and complex for a president’s hands to be tied. He embraced a belief that presidents have vast ‘inherent’ powers, not spelled out in the Constitution, that allow them to defy Congress.”

A theme Savage develops is the inadequacy of a string of episodes. “Like many reporters, I had been focused in on a close-up of one or two controversies, but had been missing the broader context,” he writes. In fact, journalists have to decide not only what “the broader context” is, but whether there is a broader context building up, a thread connecting these things, or just a series of news stories, episodes that are worth a few cycles but ultimately have to make way for other episodes.

Savage tells us what happened when he allowed the “full panorama” into view. It changed what he saw in incidents that had made news. (My italics…)

Suddenly, what the Bush administration had been doing across a huge range of issues made much more sense – not just the 9/11-related controversies, but Cheney’s fight to keep his energy task force papers a secret, the attacks on open-government laws such as FOIA and the Presidential Records Act, the use of executive orders instead of legislation to push the faith-based initiative, the decision to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty without consulting the Senate, the choices for Supreme Court nominations, unprecedented efforts to impose greater White House control over Justice Department lawyers and other executive branch bureaucrats, and many other things. These disparate controversies were all connected. The administration, from its very beginning, had set out to set precedents and take actions that would permanently expand presidential power for the long-term, even when such tactics brought them extra short-term difficulties. A quiet but sweeping constitutional revolution was well underway.

See why master narratives matter?

While Savage develops his argument for what was going on, Jack Goldsmith’s testimony is unfolding at Slate. They complete each other, clashing only in one respect: the view each has of presidential power.

Here we have a conservative, a Republican, and a Bush Administration insider—head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, until he resigned because of the Cheney project—developing what is largely the same narrative, and bringing you into the meetings where key events in it happened.

“Why don’t we just go to Congress and get it to sign off on the whole detention program?” Goldsmith asked at one sit down. “Why are you trying to give away the president’s power?” Addington replied. This is the heart of his book, which is a work of dissent from within the Bush camp.

Presidential candidates will think twice about “giving away the president’s power,” Savage believes. Once they are successfully asserted, new presidential prerogatives are hard to get rid of. (Especially with a war on.) Which is why Savage thinks Bush and Cheney have largely won. “The expansive presidential powers claimed and exercised by the Bush- Cheney White House are now an immutable part of American history — not controversies, but facts.”

Even if the victor in the 2008 presidential election declines to make use of the aggrandized executive powers established by the Bush- Cheney administration, in the long run such forbearance might make little difference. The accretion of presidential power, history has shown, often acts like a one-way ratchet: It can be increased far more easily than it can be reduced.

In a statement that struck some people as strange, Savage said “I do not think that presidential power is a partisan issue.” Why? Because “future Democratic presidents will be able to invoke the same novel powers that the Bush administration has pioneered in order to unilaterally impose their own agendas.” They will be able to, but are they as likely to? Savage says it doesn’t matter; the powers are there. But if it doesn’t matter, and if we don’t have live controversies but accomplished facts, then how is there any “issue” at all, partisan or not? Charlie has three days left; he should address this.

When Goldsmith suggested going to Congress, he thought he was expanding White House power by adding hugely to its legitimacy without sacrificing much at all. But this is where the radical part in the Cheney project emerged. The very act of seeking broader legitimacy diminished the president’s power, giving it away, according to Cheney and Addington. Goldsmith is good on this:

Addington once expressed his general attitude toward accommodation when he said, “We’re going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop.” He and, I presumed, his boss viewed power as the absence of constraint. These men believed that the president would be best equipped to identify and defeat the uncertain, shifting, and lethal new enemy by eliminating all hurdles to the exercise of his power. They had no sense of trading constraint for power. It seemed never to occur to them that it might be possible to increase the president’s strength and effectiveness by accepting small limits on his prerogatives in order to secure more significant support from Congress, the courts, or allies.

Calling it a “truism among political scientists and historians who study the American presidency,” that “a president’s authority is not measured primarily by his hard power found in the Constitution, statutes, and precedents, but rather by his softer powers to convince the other institutions of our society to come around to his point of view,” Goldsmith points out how great a departure was made under this president.

The Bush administration has operated on an entirely different concept of power that relies on minimal deliberation, unilateral action, and legalistic defense. This approach largely eschews politics: the need to explain, to justify, to convince, to get people on board, to compromise.

Only by shifting the narrative could this “entirely different concept of power” come into view and make news, as it were. It has been a truism among Washington journalists that the Bush White House was “good” at politics. (It had discipline, it had Rove, it won twice: case closed.) Goldsmith shows how thin this view was. The Bush White House actually declined to participate in normal politics, but this is not something it ever told the country it was going to do. In any case, the move was a disaster whether you were part of the Bush coalition, or stood outside it. Which might be part of what Savage means by “not a partisan issue.”

You can’t run a press system that assumes the President feels a need to explain himself to the nation when the White House is running a system in which no such need is felt. Just one of the many ways in which by declining to develop a more savage narrative the press failed to figure out what was happening to itself under Bush.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 12, 2007 1:09 AM