On Thursday, June 6, 2002, FBI agent Coleen Rowley testified before Congress that 9/11 might have been avoided had her agency been better organized to manage the clues it had in hand. The whistleblower’s assertion reverberated all that weekend, threatening to flip the post-9/11 narrative from one of vigorous counteraction by manly officials to incompetent snafu by Republican bureaucrats.
By Monday, though, Americans would forget about Coleen Rowley. Her story was sidelined after then Attorney General John Ashcroft called an emergency press conference from Moscow to announce that federal agents had seized Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla and foiled a plot to set off a radioactive “dirty bomb.” The deliciously terrifying phrase immediately filled our airwaves and nightmares. And it redirected the news cycle’s focus from Rowley’s blonde hair to Padilla’s dark face, from talk of constructive government criticism to plots of urban mass destruction. A few people did stop to wonder why Ashcroft was making such a fuss, all the way from Moscow, about a man the United States had been holding in custody for a good month already. But back then, in 2002, most Americans still reacted skeptically to the Cassandras who suggested that Padilla was dragged out of obscurity precisely to shove Rowley’s story from the top of the broadcast. It is only today, after scores of similar examples, that Americans can look back at those moments and see the earliest beta tests of the Bush media-management model.
All presidents devise ways of distorting the public perception of reality for their own benefit. Nixon was famous for the Big Lie. Reagan perfected the Staged Reality, particularly the photo op. Clinton was a genius at the Tiny Truth, miniaturizing unpleasant facts into things hilariously puny. Such famous lines as “I didn’t inhale” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” were both technically true, but true in a way that made the truth so small you could flick it away, like a crumb off a tablecloth.
Under Bush, his advisers made a daring assumption: that in an era of seemingly unruly media proliferation (Internet, podcasts, MySpace, more and more cable), the arguments presented in the media could be controlled. The Bush strategy basically takes any argument that does not comport with the forward momentum of the Bush agenda and, by means of numerous tactics, seeks to tamp down, crush, sideline, segregate, circumscribe, cordon off, isolate, maroon, raze, shunt aside, eschew, or quarantine that idea. The classical idea of debate in America holds that opinions aired in a free and open environment will rise or fall depending on their strength—what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “marketplace of ideas.” The Bush strategy, by contrast, has been to cripple or kill off all arguments but his own, leaving the public debate to turn on only the minority positions that remain standing.
This has been accomplished through various specific tactics. For example, you might:
• issue a directive to government scientists ordering them not to discuss polar bears.
• order soldiers hospitalized at Walter Reed to quit talking to the media.
• doctor White House transcripts so that the press secretary’s response of “that’s accurate”—to an NBC correspondent’s assertion that Karl Rove did leak a spy’s identity—read, “I don’t think that’s accurate.”
• release Guantánamo detainee David Hicks (who said he was tortured) but force him to promise for the next year “not to communicate in any way with the media.”
The one tactic that has yielded the best results, though, is to enfeeble entire arguments by destroying the reputation of the most prominent person making them. The fallacy of the ad hominem argument has been around since before classical rhetoricians named it, but this administration has made it a mainstay of contemporary politics. Al Gore is now commonly known to have boasted that he “invented the Internet,” even though those words were artfully put in his mouth. By the exact same tactic, John Kerry went from Vietnam hero to wartime opportunist, while Howard Dean was branded mentally unbalanced on the basis of a single phoneme. After Paul O’Neill published his tell-all book, allegations of treason began to float, claiming that documents he took with him were classified (they weren’t). John Murtha is now being described as “dotty.” When Bill O’Reilly hears an argument he can’t answer, he calls the person “kooky” and then announces he will not engage the position precisely because the speaker is nuts. When former Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd publicly repudiated the president in April, White House counselor Dan Bartlett alluded to press accounts about Dowd’s divorce, his son’s deployment to Iraq, and the death of his premature daughter in dismissing Dowd’s remarks as the result of “personal turmoil.”
Literary critics will recognize this form of character assassination as a variation of the unreliable narrator. This is fun in novels, but for politicians it’s devastating. The sheer hint that one might be loony, devious, ditzy, effeminate, unhinged, treasonous, etc., is enough to stamp one’s forehead with the word “loser,” and thereafter anything one says is, by extension, tainted. Joe Wilson went to Niger only because his wife had the pull to get him this “junket”—almost out of pity. Wilson was such a uxorious git, such a pitiful wimp, that he had to rely on his wife to get work. Get it? Wilson’s opinions are not to be trusted because he is such a hopeless loser.
All of these strategies work toward one common end: to demolish the arguments around the Bush agenda. There is no “debate” because none of the other positions (or often people) are left standing. How could one argue in 2003 that there might not be weapons of mass destruction, or that containment of Saddam Hussein might work, when such views came from the unreliable maws of liars or weirdos?
By the next election, Americans will have spent eight years under this regime of public debatelessness. The highest virtue of the Bush Administration has been to stay “on message.” A generation of Americans has been raised to believe that listening to the other side, rolling an unfamiliar idea around in one’s mind, and then actually changing one’s considered opinion is not the pleasure of an open mind but the proof of a coward’s heart. And politicians, who typically refight the last war in every campaign, will in all likelihood try to imitate Bush’s strategy. When former Clinton supporter David Geffen defected and held an Obama fund-raiser in Beverly Hills, Hillary’s campaign immediately moved to force Obama into denouncing Geffen, even as the New York senator recited the hollow Bushian rhetoric about wanting to engage the nation in a “conversation.”
How out of practice are we? In April the very fact that John Kerry and Newt Gingrich intended to square off on the issue of global climate change was considered outlandish enough—news, in other words—to earn a mention in the Washington Post. The Republicans immediately loaded the ad hominem cannon: the day before the debate, under the title “Newt v. Losers,” a National Review contributor wrote on the magazine’s website that “if Gingrich wants to seem presidential he needs to debate presidential candidates not has-beens and never-wases.” But during the two-hour debate, a strange thing happened. Both Kerry and Gingrich felt compelled to avoid the brittle talking points of campaign pollsters. Gingrich freely admitted that an overwhelming majority of scientists acknowledged the existence of global climate change. Both men moved on to argue more nuanced points, about whether government or private enterprise should lead the way. They disagreed without degenerating into name-calling. They talked about solutions. Just as the cure for bad speech is more speech, it seems that the best antidote for our debatelessness may be, quite simply, debate.