Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 5, 2008
By: Paul Glastris

POLICY IS THE BEST HONESTY... A lot of journalists get lured into the profession by the excitement—the chance to cover wars, natural disasters, political campaigns, or the lives of powerful people. I'm not immune to such inducements and have done a bit of all of the above. But most of my time in the business has been spent engaged in what might be called "policy vetting." Does a particular government policy work as advertised? Would a proposed new idea work if it were actually tried? This is not the most Hunter Thompsonesque form of journalism. But it's one I find endlessly fascinating, in part because it provides a bracing check on one's ideological biases.

For instance, as a center-left guy, I generally favor expanding global trade but fear its downward pull on American wages. So I'm sympathetic to toughening labor standards in international trade deals, an idea Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both have called for. But are such standards really enforceable? That's an open question. In our cover story this month, T. A. Frank takes a step toward answering it. He does so by letting us in on the failures and successes of the profession he used to work in: private-sector consultants who monitor wages and working conditions in foreign factories for major U.S. companies. Also in this issue, Greg Anrig explains why hard empirical evidence is increasingly leading conservatives to give up on one of their favorite ideas, school vouchers. And Michael Waldman makes the case—one liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree on—for an ingenious new policy idea that is quietly catching on at the state level: legislation that would, in effect, kill off the Electoral College.

Waldman was my boss back when we both wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton. That was another experience in policy vetting. Modern White House speechwriters seldom have a direct hand in setting policy. Their job is mostly to find the words to sell proposals crafted by the various White House policy shops and approved by the president—a task that often forces the policy folks to think more clearly about what they're proposing. If I had any moral qualms about joining the administration in September 1998, they were not about the then-unfolding Monica Lewinsky investigation—I thought Washington's fixation on that scandal was a form of insanity—but the possibility that I might be asked to write speeches about policies that I thought were indefensible.

Thankfully, that never happened. The Clinton White House policy shops reflected the careful, obsessive wonkiness of the president himself. No proposal ever crossed my desk that didn't seem programmatically sound.

Well, almost none.

I once had to write a speech announcing new federal grants for local "gun buybacks." Such programs tend to reap lots of rusty, inoperable World War II-era revolvers from the attics of the elderly while doing virtually nothing to get guns off the street. One University of Pennsylvania expert on crime prevention program assessment called gun buybacks "the program that is best known to be ineffective." But buybacks are enormously popular with big-city voters and relatively unthreatening to gun rights activists, so we were for them. When I grumbled to the policy guy with whom I worked on the speech, he smiled and shook his head in agreement. Yeah, we know they're pretty useless, he said. But they're also harmless, they get the communities fired up, and, anyway, we're spending a relative pittance ($15 million) on the stupid things.

This helped salve my conscience—that and the fact that the speech was also a chance to advocate for something I really did believe in: the COPS program. The core of the administration's crime policy, it put nearly 100,000 additional cops on the streets with federal grants that also required police departments to adopt community policing strategies. It was a kind of domestic version of the "surge" in Iraq, and it is one of the reasons why the violent crime rate fell during the 1990s by more than 40 percent.

The connection between the vetting and selling of policy has been on my mind lately because it is the underlying theme of a marvelous new book by Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. It is a history of the modern presidency as seen through the eyes of White House speechwriters (the author, the son of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., comes by his subject honestly). One of many revealing anecdotes involves the now-famous deliberations among John F. Kennedy and his senior advisors in October 1962 upon learning that the Soviets had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. After several days, a rough consensus developed among the group that the central U.S. response would be a naval blockade. Ted Sorensen, a participant in those meetings, was dispatched to write the speech, but his pen faltered.

"Back in my office," he recalled, "the original difficulties with the blockade route stared me in the face: How should we relate it to the missiles? How would it help get them out? What would we do if they became operational? What should we say about our surveillance, about communications with Khrushchev?"

Sorensen returned to the group not with a speech, but with a list of the questions that had stayed his hand. This forced several days of further debate before Kennedy and his advisors settled on a better-calibrated response, including the threat of air strikes and a more careful choice of language: the word "blockade," with its Berlin references, was dropped in favor of "quarantine." The ensuing speech—and Kennedy's secret offer to Khrushchev to pull some NATO missiles out of Turkey—defused the most dangerous moment in the cold war.

Fast-forward nearly forty years, to December 2001. Bush speechwriter David Frum is given an assignment by his boss, Michael Gerson, to write a memo summing up the case for going to war with Iraq. Frum rereads Roosevelt's speech to Congress after Pearl Harbor, and notices that FDR had said that the Axis powers Germany, Italy, and Japan were a menace because of their shared "recklessness." Perhaps, Frum reasoned, "terror states" like Iraq and Iran and "terror organizations" like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah formed a similar menace because of their shared hatred of freedom and desire for weapons of mass destruction—in other words, perhaps they comprised an "axis of hatred"? The comparison was, of course, tendentious: Iran and Iraq were bitter enemies, as were bin Laden and Saddam. Nevertheless, Frum's memo became the rhetorical foundation of Bush's "axis of evil" speech one month later, in which the president made the case for invading a country that had not attacked us.

Earlier this year, Gerson wrote a column in the Washington Post that I read as a defense of his role and style as Bush's former chief rhetorician. In the column, Gerson protested insinuations by Hillary Clinton and John McCain that Barack Obama was offering empty rhetoric. "Many political advisers in both parties employ 'rhetoric' as a synonym for 'folderol,'" Gerson wrote. He continued:

This is nonsense. From the Greek beginnings of political rhetoric, the wise have described a relationship between the discipline of writing and the discipline of thought. The construction of serious speeches forces candidates (or presidents) to grapple with their own beliefs, even when they don't write every word themselves. If those convictions cannot be marshaled in the orderly battalions of formal rhetoric, they are probably incoherent.

Great political rhetoric, however, demands more than grappling honestly with one's convictions. It means grappling honestly with reality. This is what the Bush administration failed to do. When Sorensen asked his fellow Kennedy advisors tough questions about their Cuba policy, he forced them to come to grips with flaws in their thinking. When Gerson and Frum gave Bush and his advisors high-toned nonsense about the "axis of evil," they simply provided a rhetorical smokescreen that allowed the administration to pursue its preferred course of action while diverting attention from the incoherence of those actions.

Not that the speechwriters could have changed the president's mind even if they had tried. From everything we know, the decision to invade Iraq was already set in stone. Whereas Kennedy was looking for the best way to resolve a crisis short of war, Bush was looking for a rationale to start a war. For Bush, policymaking was not about finding the best solutions to discrete problems. It was about advancing a preset ideological and political agenda. The system that was set up to vet his policies was, therefore, dysfunctional almost by design, as John DiIulio, a domestic policy advisor in Bush's first term, made clear. "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus," DiIulio told the journalist Ron Suskind. "What you've got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."

Perhaps no one could have predicted, back when he was first running for president in 2000, that Bush would prove to be such a catastrophically dishonest policymaker. But there were hints that his policies, and his way of talking about them, lacked a certain integrity. In his speeches during the campaign, Bush repeatedly portrayed his proposed tax cuts as broad based, when in fact they were heavily tilted toward the wealthy. When Al Gore pointed this out in the first debate with a blizzard of numerical evidence, Bush quipped: "Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think that not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math." That clever rhetorical response cued the press to cover the debate as one about character, the "straight-talking Texan" versus the "serial exaggerator." But, of course, as we now know, Gore was right on the facts.

As a former speechwriter, I'm the last person to argue against the use of stirring rhetoric to win the public's support. And I'm certainly under no illusions that policy can be made without political considerations being weighed in. But if the last seven years have taught us anything, it is that we shouldn't let rhetoric—especially dishonest, diversionary rhetoric—keep us from a hard scrutiny of a candidate's policy proposals. Yes, it can seem like a boring exercise, especially when voters seem to show such interest in revealing details about candidates' personalities and character. But there are many tests of character: how one treats one's family, for instance, or how one has overcome the difficulties in one's life. Surely another test of character for a politician, the most important one, I would argue, is how fully and honestly they think and talk about policy—that is, about what they plan to do with the awesome power they are asking us to hand them.

Note: This was published as an Editor's Note in the April print edition of the Washington Monthly.

Paul Glastris 7:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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Comments

Are presidential speechwriters in the same category as OLC attorneys who consider torture opinions? There is a website that is in effect a PR Hall of Fame. Spin control comes from many quarters. One would hope that the role of the journalist is to inform the public of spin in order to protect the public. But when the journalist spins, who protects the public?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline on May 5, 2008 at 7:48 AM | PERMALINK

Hunter Thompson, good-hearted guy that he was, was a major influence on the decline of American journalism. "Gonzo" journalism's emphasis on the writer's opinions and disdain for just-the-facts has led straight to Rupert Murdoch's Empire of Bullshit.
It's a shame, but it's true.

Posted by: npr on May 5, 2008 at 8:42 AM | PERMALINK

"Perhaps no one could have predicted, back when he was first running for president in 2000, that Bush would prove to be such a catastrophically dishonest policymaker" - PG

Perhaps the likes of Molly Ivins or Mark C. Miller


"From everything we know, the decision to invade Iraq was already set in stone. & Great political rhetoric, however, demands more than grappling honestly with one's convictions. It means grappling honestly with reality" -PG

I believe those two statements represent only the tip of that administrations iceberg...more importantly the judicial manipulation and compliant legislative demeanor that afforded legal and political cover for the evolving agendas and protocols that have left us with a possible illegal war, torture, constitutional degradation and unprecedented executive privilege (for the reality of our over blown crisis), certainly come to mind. Not to mention the unaccountability afforded this group's malfeasance and fairly consistent incompetence. It all seems well beyond the grappling of "reality" vs "conviction" Although the Kennedy situation is a wonderful analogy to hold up as to how our government should work, the Bush regime was so staged or planned, I don't know if those kind of realities even existed in their own minds. I still believe that the current administration had an agenda that bordered criminal intent on a conspiratorial level from the beginning, and Bush was correct about one thing ...he had much political capitol, and was going to use it...all the while garnishing their "legal" bed as they went. These people would make Machiavelli blush.

Posted by: benmerc on May 5, 2008 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

We are a representative democracy, known as a Republic. The electorla college, quaint ass it is, is part of that Republic. Dismantling it will take us another step down the road toward democracy. Remember the oft-quoted adage: republics decay into democracies, which decay into tyrannies.

Posted by: Chris on May 5, 2008 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

NPR hits it on the head. I can barely look at my local paper (The Washington Post) anymore because it seems that all of the the writers in the Sports and Style sections insist on inserting themselves in every single thing they write. So it's never a story about a celebrity or star athelete anymore, it's always a story about THE REPORTER'S conversation with the celebrity or athelete, and how the REPORTER felt about their assignment, and their impressions of the interview, their hip snark, and so forth. It's arrogant and annoying. Worst of all, its almost unreadable.

Posted by: Pat on May 5, 2008 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

Bush's "clever rhetorical response" was a pretty generic ad hominem, and would have been recognized as disqualifying Bush had the press not been already predisposed to hate Gore. Bush the ignorant thug was enabled by an utterly dysfunctional media establishment, both then and during Bush's entire time in office. (Even today this same establishment, either as a conscious decision or simply through collective instinct, is running a highly coherent campaign aimed at destroying Obama through repetition of ridiculous irrelevancies.)

These people would make Machiavelli blush.

I suspect they would have inspired contempt rather than embarrassment. Bush has managed to push through a disastrous set of policies, but in the process he has discredited himself, all his allies, and the country he leads. "The Prince" was about maintaining power, not pissing it away in a single greedy grab.

Posted by: jimBOB on May 5, 2008 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

The United States has the most undemocratic constitution of all the old democracies. The organization of the electoral college and the Senate, which are based on similar principles, were debated at the founding of the Republic. Many of the founders had great problems with the arrangement which, it turns out, they could not avoid. Over time the undemocratic character of these institutions has grown. The US also has the most undemocratic and corruptible voting system of all the old democracies. Most foreign observes regard it as a third world voting system. All these things are unreformed and unreformable.

The defense of republicanism against democracy is also something of a joke. It is invoked by economic liberal fundamentalists against state control of wealth accumulation. By which we understand the lower orders using the power of the state through democratic institutions to appropriate and redistribute the wealth of the upper class. The kind of minimalist state evoked here has nothing to do with Res Publica or Commonwealth. A Commonwealth is a form of government under the authority of law that, since the Renaissance, takes into account justice and economic fairness and even emphasizes redistribution. A republic is a unit working together for the benefit of all. It was just this vision of collectivism the old 19th century economic liberals were in the business of undermining. Their modern descendants, who falsely call themselves libertarians, are little more than class royalists and social darwinians. If you or your family have the moxy for success than you ascend to the top of society, unlimited by the state, as natural rulers. Divine right of rule is replaced by the natural right to rule. Indeed at its heart it is not a political argument at all, but an economic argument. Unhindered wealth accumulation can exist under any form of government from dictatorship to a pure democracy. Indeed the authority needed to limit interference in wealth accumulation is best delivered by a government with authoritarian powers.

Posted by: bellumregio on May 5, 2008 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

NPR have you ever heard of satire,irony and sarcasm. I doubt if Hunter Thompson ever considered himself an actual journalist even if you do.

Posted by: Gandalf on May 5, 2008 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

"Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think that not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math." That clever rhetorical response cued the press to cover the debate as one about character, the "straight-talking Texan" versus the "serial exaggerator."

Bush is a dishonest "policymaker".The press are idiots. We Americans are cretins. This is what I take away from this well reasoned and written post.

Posted by: kingcobra on May 5, 2008 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

I agree with you JimB... Machiavelli is typically mis interpreted & not well understood by many. I was using the common culture association...which is pretty much a bastardization of the details the man wrote about. But, I was associating it with the article use, I suppose.

Posted by: benmerc on May 5, 2008 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

Gandalf: I doubt if Hunter Thompson ever considered himself an actual journalist even if you do.

Very true. But unfortunately, a lot of people do. Some of them grow up to be "journalists" and model themselves after Doctor Gonzo without really understanding what he was doing.

An analogy could be drawn with people who turn their guitars up real loud and think they're Jimi Hendrix.

Posted by: thersites on May 5, 2008 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

The "problem" with O'Reilly, et al. is not the injection of opinion. It's the blending (in Fox News' case the deliberate blending) of news and editorial. In no way did Thompson ever try to pass himself off as a "straight" news reporter (in any sense of the term). Had say, The New York Times put Thompson in the news section of their paper talking about tying Nixon cronies to the back bumpers of trucks and taking them for a drag, then you could say he led to O'Reilly.

On another topic, it's hard to compare the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Iraq War without being struck by the difference between a president who makes decisions because evidence lands on his desk and one who makes decisions first then looks for evidence to support it.

Posted by: BrianInAtlanta on May 5, 2008 at 10:44 AM | PERMALINK

A lot of journalists get lured into the profession by the excitement - the chance to cover wars, natural disasters, political campaigns, or the lives of powerful people. I'm not immune to such inducements and have done a bit of all of the above. But most of my time in the business has been spent engaged in what might be called "policy vetting."

Well, by the standards of today's journalists, you're a weirdo. Most people in the business now really want to be scriptwriters for a sitcom or gameshow hosts, not policy wonks. It's a disaster for the country.

Posted by: PeakVT on May 5, 2008 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

Chris: The electorla [sic] college, quaint ass [sic] it is, is part of that Republic. Dismantling it will take us another step down the road toward democracy.

Hmmm, having people vote for the president will destroy our representative system of government. Interesting logic.

Remember the oft-quoted adage: republics decay into democracies, which decay into tyrannies.

Like the Roman Republic (oops, went straight from Republic to tyranny, never mind). Like the US after the States adopted popular election of electors and then (gasp!) popular election of senators (oops, never mind). Like Britain after the Reform Act of 1832 (oops, never mind).

Oh well, I'm sure you can find an example somewhere.

Posted by: alex on May 5, 2008 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

I for one favor retaining the Electoral College. It has a long record of fostering stability, in particular by discouraging the growth of multiple weak parties, and when one looks around the world and sees so many weak democracies, that is not to be sneered at. What's wrong with a system that essentially forces two parties to compete for votes in the center? Why would it be beneficial to encourage the growth of many small, ideologically pure parties?

Getting rid of the Electoral College would bring a host of unintended problems. It's a bad idea whose time will never come.

Posted by: DBL on May 5, 2008 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

i didn't say that Thompson caused the decline of journalism, intentionally or un-. But a journalist who aspires to be like Thompson, but who lacks his talent or perspective, most likely becomes a shallow jerkoff with a press pass. And American journalism is full of shallow, press pass-clutching jerkoffs.

Thompson's influence, not his responsibility.

Posted by: npr on May 5, 2008 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

NPR hits it on the head. I can barely look at my local paper (The Washington Post) anymore because it seems that all of the the writers in the Sports and Style sections insist on inserting themselves in every single thing they write.

Hell, look at the WaPost's car reviews. I inevitably end up knowing more about how that guy spent his weekend then the actual characteristics and quality of the car he's supposed to be reviewing. It's completely epidemic.

I think this is actually related to the press's idea of "objectivity": one side says one thing, the other side says another, here's what they said about each other. Why do any boring research into whether one side or the other is actually, like, right.

In both cases everything the press is writing about is divorced from any idea of true or false. We've got the writers' personal experiences, informed or not, plus the "objective" duelling opinions on the other, again divorced from truth or falsehood.

Posted by: ericblair on May 5, 2008 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK
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