Saturday, September 27, 2003
You'd rather Dubya watch Rather?
"It's incredible to think that the President of the United States gets his information in Reader's Digest format from people who work for him," according to a recent post from Linkmeister, who links to a transcript of Brit Hume's interview with Dubya on Monday night for Fox News and to a resulting editorial in Thursday's New York Times:
Mr. Bush and his aides also seem to go to great lengths to underline the degree to which the president closes himself off from the news media. In an interview with Fox News this week, the president said he learned most of what he needs to know from morning briefings by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and his chief of staff, Andrew Card.
As for newspapers, Mr. Bush said, "I glance at the headlines" but "rarely read the stories." The people who brief him on current events encounter many of the newsmakers personally, he said, and in any case "probably read the news themselves."
Some of this may be a pose that is designed to tweak the media by making the news appear to be below the president's notice. During the Iraqi invasion, when the rest of the nation was glued to TV, Mr. Bush's spokesman claimed that his boss had barely glanced at the pictures of what was going on.
But it is worrisome when one of the most incurious men ever to occupy the White House takes pains to insist that he gets his information on what the world is saying only in predigested bits from his appointees.
"I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves."—Washington, D.C., Sept. 21, 2003
Of all the criticisms I've ever seen of Dubya, this is probably the absolute stupidest.
For some considerable period of history, the President of the United States — whether it's been George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln — has had the best information-gathering and -digesting resources available to him that our nation can provide. Obviously those resources are far from perfect. As the Times somewhat grudgingly concedes, they include actual news-makers in addition to news-gatherers.
Card and Rice are just the conduits — not the selectors or pre-digesters of information themselves, for there are surely dozens of those just behind them, and literally tens of thousands of news- and information-gatherers behind those. The President's "appointees" for that process, as the Times smugly refers to them, would include all of the CIA, the NSA, the DoD, the State Department and, for that matter, every other cabinet department.
The Times may think the national interest would be better served if Dubya kept a clippings notebook, or maybe some index cards that he could add to as he spent six hours a day working through newspapers and magazines. "Oh, dang-nabbit! ... LAURA! Could you please come alphabetize these cards for me? Tony Blair's coming this afternoon, and Barney knocked over the dang box again!"
Or perhaps they'd rather see him hunched over a keyboard working his way through his daily blogroll. Maybe they'd manage to set him up with an aggregator. Let's see — should POTUS be reading CalPundit or Atrios to get his daily injection of spin from the left? Can he also read Drudge? InstaPundit? ... Mr. President, are you reading BeldarBlog? [I'm standing and saluting my monitor as I type this!]
Actually, I can imagine Jimmy Carter scanning through a blogroll in the Oval Office. And that characteristic was one key explanation for why Jimmy Carter — a brilliant and caring and curious man — became the worst President of my lifetime, possibly the worst of all time.
So how would you rather the President of the United States spend his time? Reading what the New York Times is speculating about, which is in turn based on what someone has leaked about what the CIA has just learned about the leadership of Iran? Or reading what the Director of Central Intelligence has just written about what the CIA has just learned about the leadership of Iran?
And maybe the President should've tuned in to the BBC to get Andrew Gilligan's take on how the Third Infantry Division was doing in its advance toward Baghdad, rather than relying on filtered information from Gen. Tommy Franks via Rumsfield. Yeah, that's the ticket!
Let's just dump that Rice chick anyway. PhD, schmee-H-dee. Who should meet Dubya for his breakfast briefing every day? Well, isn't it obvious?
Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to You'd rather Dubya watch Rather? and sent a trackback ping are listed here:
I see you're a trial lawyer. In court there are two advocates, right? One for the prosecution; one for the defense. The judge is then supposed to make his/her decision after hearing the conflicting arguments.
I think the President should hear conflicting points of view. If he's getting issues presented to him only by people who work for him, then I think his judgment may not be as sound as it could be had he heard all sides of the argument. If that means reading newspapers and watching some television news, so be it. After all, the public isn't seeing the secret briefings, so we get what the media presents. Wouldn't it be useful for the President to see what the people see?
I appreciate the comment opposing viewpoints, expressed with civility, are always welcome here and likewise, thank you for the response you left to my comment on your own blog, Linkmeister!
But the reason you believe that the President's staff is incapable of following an instruction to present competing views is .... ? One has to be a blogger or a newspaper writer or a network TV correspondent to do that?
Does it seem plausible to you, for instance, that Dubya picked both Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfield to serve in the top two cabinet posts for precisely that reason, and that they're serving precisely that function?
The adversary system presumes that the two advocates on either side of an issue have equivalent access to raw information. If they don't, the system produces flawed results. The President has access to vastly better sources than the news media do. Should he ignore those so that he can get a "balanced" presentation of competing viewpoints from people who are less well informed?
It's interesting that in your response to my comment on your own blog, you mentioned LBJ and his four constantly-blaring TV sets. If you've read much about LBJ, you'll of course know that despite his incredible political gifts, he was also incredibly insecure. His obsession with public opinion, and in particular with growing anti-war opinion, crippled the last half of his presidency and completely aborted his planned second term after he'd been elected to his first full term by the then-largest landslide in US history. I'm pretty sure he'd have been happier, less miserable, and more effective and America would probably have been better off if he'd turned the TVs off.
The CEO of any middle-sized successful company delegates the routine information-gathering and -analysis functions to subordinates. This ought to include competing and even dissenting views; despite what one sees in the movies and on TV, yes-men and toadies are obviously less valuable and genuinely less valued by their superiors at high levels. If the CEO of the United States can't find people who are competent indeed, brilliantly competent to gather and distill information for him, including multiple points of view that apprise him of a full range of options, then heaven help us all.
Even within the subfield of Presidential Politics in political science, there are those who spend most of their time actually studying organizational politics -- the manner in which Presidents organize their administrations, and how it affects their policymaking. Usually those studies lag a bit in time, and in the case of the Bush Administration, it will probably take a while for really informed analysis to emerge (memoirs will have to be written and studied, presidential papers released, etc). But I think over time scholars are likely to write some interesting things about his MBA Presidency -- and may well find that his staffing of cabinet level positions with strong executives in their own right (Powell, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft come to mind, all men who have considered running for President) served him well in terms of having strong personalities with competing views hashing out matters.
It's just a little early to know with any precision. But we will have some scholarship at some point.
Just as a random aside: Working in a field that relies on public press reports and some industry-specific proprietary scouting, I must say that I'd LOVE to trade my information for the President's. Knowing what some of my CIA buddies know would make my job a WHOLE lot easier!
As a slightly less random aside: The whole notion of Steve Cambone's shop being set up within DoD effectively to provide competitive assessments of raw intelligence caused an uproar among liberals a while back (who have forgotten and moved on to sexier topics). Now, it seems to be suggested that such competitive analysis might actually serve the President. Agreed! The hated Rumsfeld is one step ahead. :)
Hell, no, I'm not suggesting the President read (or assign a staff person to read) blogs, although, come to think of it, it might be enlightening. But I still think that people in the President's position are too often told only what they want to hear. Remember what happened to Cassandra? Who wants that to happen to oneself? There's little incentive to give him news he won't like.
Some executives surround themselves with "yes men", but as Kevin mentioned above, this president has surrounded himself with well-spined people.
I do hope (and assume) that somebody in the administration is watching the media, to verify that the messages the administration is sending are being understood. But that's not a role for the president himself.
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