Saturday, November 8, 2008
Was The New Yorker's Support "taken for granted, like the other woman who will always be waiting for the phone to ring"?
The First Night of the Age of Obama, George Packer, The New Yorker, November 7, 2008.
Obama gave his first post-election press conference this afternoon. It’s been weeks since his last one. Many people accepted this long silence as the price of an election in its home stretch (and don’t forget that Palin, after being picked by McCain, never gave one at all, perhaps sensing that at least one reporter was bound to ask her to explain the difference between a country and a continent). One of the clichés of the campaign is that the press was “in the tank” for Obama (a phrase I inexplicably neglected to put on my linguistic death list, though “tank” is there, as in “the McCain-Palin ticket tanked”). And like most clichés, it had a considerable amount of truth, for reasons that are not hard to understand.
But the reverse wasn’t true: the Obama campaign was not “in the tank” for the press. In my limited experience, and in what I’ve heard from the more extensive experience of other reporters, editors, fact-checkers, etc., the Obama press operation made the current White House look like the early days of the Straight Talk Express. Friendlier than Bush’s, maybe, but tighter—as tight as a poker player who’s just been raised. No fact was too incontrovertible, no judgment too safe, no quotation too anodyne, to be questioned, challenged, changed, taken off the record, manipulated, denied, and finally denounced by the super-disciplined members of the Obama message team on the imperative mission of shaping the campaign narrative in their favor. Working for an Obama-friendly publication like this one didn’t help in the least. If anything, it meant we could be taken for granted, like the other woman who will always be waiting for the phone to ring.
So what? The strategy worked, didn’t it?
As of November 4th, it worked brilliantly. But what about after January 20th? Since the Clinton years, this has been the era of the permanent campaign, with the line between running for election and running the country practically erased. Bush took Karl Rove into the White House, turned policy into an arm of politics, and governed the same way he campaigned: treat the press as an out-of-favor interest group, control the message at all cost, repeat it incessantly regardless of changing facts, admit no mistakes, show no uncertainty, reward loyalists, and ignore critics or else, if necessary, destroy them. This approach to what’s known as strategic communications won Bush two elections; it also helped destroy his Presidency. Campaigning and governing are not the same. They are closer to being opposites.
In Iraq, Paul Bremer had a strategic-communications adviser named Dan Senor, who had come out of the world of Republican political operatives (a world he returned to after his year in Baghdad). Senor controlled the message coming out of the Republican Palace with all the determination of an Ari Fleischer. The message was: Iraq is on the road to democracy. Meanwhile, outside the Green Zone, the country was going up in flames. As a result, by May of 2004 no one believed what was coming out of Senor’s daily briefings. They had turned into the Iraq equivalent of the Five O’Clock Follies in Saigon.
It was worse than a simple breakdown of trust. The problem with strategic communications is that the White House that lives by it slowly becomes incapable of dealing with reality. When bad news comes, the impulse is to deny it, and that impulse turns into a mental habit. Eventually, those in power are the last to figure out the truth (in this sense, Katrina was a direct result of the kind of mentality that had already led to disaster in Iraq). The Administration can’t answer the arguments of its critics because it has long since stopped listening to them. It finds itself increasingly isolated, not just from potential supporters, but from the truth.
While researching my piece on the new liberalism in next week’s issue, I read H. W. Brands’s new biography of Roosevelt, “Traitor to His Class.” There’s a section that describes F.D.R.’s press conferences: twice weekly, beginning in the first week of his Presidency, with dozens of reporters crowded into the Oval Office and ground rules that allowed for a surprising degree of candor (though Roosevelt was a masterful manipulator of the press, in part because they were grateful for the access).
President Obama won’t go that far—no modern President would. But I hope he’ll live up to his Election Night promise to listen especially well to his critics, including in the press. He should make himself and his aides more, not less, available to reporters than they’ve been. Not just because I belong to that particular interest group and it would be the democratic thing to do. It’s because I want him to succeed.
George Packer writes about foreign affairs, politics, and books.
Text and Image Source: New Yorker November 7, 2008