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THE CULT OF THE OFFHAND COMMENT! Tenet writes clearly in his new book—and uncovers a threat to our freedoms: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 15, 2007

TEDDY’S LAMENT: Just a guess—in tonight’s Republican debate, Brit Hume will not embarrass himself the way Chris Matthews did on May 3 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/10/07). His questions will make a lot more sense; nor will he go to massive lengths to pander, kiss up, smooch and fawn to every major Republican honcho whose name briefly enters his head. He won’t call the RNC chairman “a great patriot”—or suggest that he should run for the White House. He won’t waste time making all ten hopefuls say if Arnold Schwarzenegger should run for president.

That said, an e-mailer asked a good question last week: Where have all the flowers gone?
E-MAIL: Thank you for your painstaking efforts to comb through the abysmal mess that was the first two primary debates...

It would be interesting to know more about the history of American presidential debates: who were its original moderators and where and why have they gone? I know that may not be a topic to cover in your column, and certainly prior debates must have had their own faults, but these recent lines of questioning and topic areas have gone beyond absurd. The country deserves an answer as to why we traded what we had for this.
As a general matter, we agree with those sentiments. We suggested the e-mailer review Teddy White’s iconic The Making of the President, 1960, which won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize. White’s comments about our first presidential debates seem especially ironic in the wake of this year’s clownish sessions.

Those first debates matched Kennedy and Nixon. Each man ended up in the White House. Yet White was troubled by what he saw when they staged their famous debates. He explained his concern in this passage:
WHITE (page 294): [R]arely in American history has there been a political campaign that discussed issues less or clarified them less.

The TV debates, in retrospect, were the greatest opportunity ever for such discussion, but it was an opportunity missed...All TV and radio discussion programs are compelled to snap question and answer back and forth as if the contestants were adversaries in an intellectual tennis match. Although every experienced newspaperman and inquirer knows that the most thoughtful and responsive answers to any difficult question comes after long pause, and that the longer the pause the more illuminating the thought that follows it, nonetheless the electronic media cannot bear to suffer a pause of more than five seconds; a pause of thirty seconds of dead time on air seems interminable. Thus, snapping their two-and-a-half-minute answers back and forth, both candidates could only react for the cameras and the people, they could not think. And, since two and a half minutes permit only a snatch of naked thought and a spatter of raw facts, both candidates, whenever caught out on a limb with a thought too heavy for two-minute exploration, a thought seemingly too bold or fresh to be accepted by the conditioned American mind, hastily scuttled back toward center as soon as they had enunciated the thought.
White thought these famous debates were a dud. The candidates only got two and a half minutes for their answers, he complained. And “two and a half minutes permit only a snatch of naked thought.”

Thank God White isn’t with us today! In our first two debates this year, candidates were given sixty seconds to answer—or preferably, much, much less. Indeed, the hapless moderators routinely tried to whittle the candidates’ time down from there. Laughably, we’ve now reached the point where the candidates are asked for “a show of hands” on complex issues. And the moderators demand one-word answers, sometimes to complex questions.

How dumb have our debates become? Again, let’s chuckle grimly at the question posed to Tom Tancredo (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/07). Yes, Jim VandeHei said this:
VANDEHEI (5/3/07): Congressman Tancredo, this reader requests a yes or no answer. Will you work to protect women's rights, as in fair wages and reproductive choice?
Asked about two complex matters, Tancredo was given the chance to say one word! He should only say “yes or no”—so VandeHei could ask further questions.

It’s hard to imagine Hume being that foolish. But Teddy White still won’t be happy.

DIONNE, RIGHT AND WRONG: In today’s column, E. J. Dionne raises an excellent question; he asks if Catholic clerics will dump on Giuliani for his pro-choice views, the same way they dumped on Candidate Kerry. But even Dionne seems bollixed here by the logic of abortion:
DIONNE (5/15/07): Giuliani's performance in the Republican presidential debate earlier this month showed how easy it is to fall off the abortion high wire.

When asked if it would be "a good day" for America if Roe v. Wade were overturned, Giuliani replied, diffidently, "It would be okay." He then added that it would also be okay if "a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent, and I think a judge has to make that decision."

In other words, Giuliani would take any position as long as he could paste the stale and meaningless phrase "strict constructionist" over it—and shuck off responsibility to a judge.

He knew this position could not stand, so by the end of last week, he had reaffirmed his support for abortion rights and extolled the fact that Americans "understand how to respect each other's differences."
From that, you’d surely think that Giuliani had somehow changed his position about those strict constructionist judges—or about Roe. But he hasn’t. He still says he’d appoint such judges, and he still says they might decide one way on Roe—or the other. If that is “diffidence,” Giuliani’s still diffident. If that represents “shuck[ing] off responsibility to a judge,” then Giuliani’s still shuckin’.

But then, almost all recent Republican candidates have “shucked off responsibility to a judge” when it comes to the matter of Roe. This includes Candidate Bush in Campaign 2000, who said he’d have no “litmus test” regarding Roe for his Court appointments. In other words, Bush would appoint strict constructionist judges, and they might decide one way—or the other. But that’s what Giuliani said at the May 3 Republican debate. And that remains his current stance. His position hasn’t changed one iota.

Abortion logic ain’t that hard—but it’s long been baffling inside the press corps. Dionne asks a good question about those Catholic clerics—but even he bungles when he suggests that Giuliani has somehow changed his position on those strict constructionist judges. It just ain’t so—but scribes love such claims. They’ve typed them for the past twenty years.

Note: In Campaign 2000, Candidate Bauer said he would have a “litmus test.” His Court appointees would have to be anti-Roe, he said. Candidate Bauer wasn’t “diffident.” Like Giuliani, Bush was.

Special report: The cult of the off-hand comment!


PART 1—GEORGE TENET DISCOVERS A THREAT TO OUR FREEDOMS: A surprising fact emerges from George Tenet’s new book, At the Center of the Storm. Here it is: The former head of the CIA is a much better writer—a much clearer writer—than our Greatest Known Living Journalist. We say that after comparing Tenet’s Chapter 19, “Slam Dunk,” with Bob Woodward’s famous account, in Plan of Attack, of the meeting at which Tenet used that now-famous phrase in the presence of President Bush.

Woodward’s account of that now-famous meeting became the most widely-cited part of his book. But his account of the meeting was strangely murky. Tenet—apparently a much better writer—provides the normal types of context and background information which were AWOL in Plan of Attack. For example, Tenet actually explains why that meeting was held:
TENET (page 360): On Saturday, December 21,2002, I went to the White House for the usual briefing that we delivered to the president six days a week. But that day an additional meeting had also been scheduled after the morning briefing. About two and a half weeks earlier, NSC officials had asked us to start assembling a public case that might be made against Saddam regarding his possession and possible use of WMD. Although this presentation by CIA would eventually evolved into the speech that Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered to the United Nations, at the time it was not clear who the ultimate audience would be—or even who would present the case...

In the intervening few weeks, a small team of senior analysts had pulled together the requested material. Now it was our turn to deliver it to the president, the vice president, Andy Card, Condi Rice, and a few others.
Clear as a bell! The meeting was held to preview a possible public presentation concerning Saddam’s WMD. That background was strangely missing from Woodward’s murky account, which made no real attempt to explain why this meeting was held. And not only that; at the very start of his short chapter, Tenet presents some basic background information—information which undercuts the silly spin that was widely put on Woodward’s narrative. Here’s how Tenet’s chapter begins:
TENET (page 359): Many people believe that my use of the phrase “slam dunk” was the seminal moment for steeling the president’s determination to remove Saddam Hussein and to launch the Iraq war. It certainly makes for a memorable sound bite, but it is belied by the facts. Those two words and a meeting that took place in the Oval Office in December 2002 had nothing to do with the president’s decision to send American troops into Iraq. That decision had already been made. In fact, the Oval Office meeting came: ...
Tenet is speculating when he says that Bush had already made the decision for war. But at this point, he lists some basic background information, noting (for example) that this now-famous meeting took place “four months after the vice president’s Veterans of Foreign Wars speech in which he said there was ‘no doubt’ that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.” This basic chronology was missing from Woodward’s account, in which an excitable CIA chief convinces a conscientious president that Saddam really does have those WMD. In reality, Bush and Cheney had already been making that claim in public for the previous four months.

Woodward’s account reads like a fairy tale—like something Straight Outta Hansel & Gretel. Tenet performs like an actual writer. His account even makes basic sense.

But Tenet doesn’t just write well in this chapter. At long last, he uncovers a type of plot—a threat to our American freedoms. He does this when he stumbles upon a widespread—and troubling—contemporary practice. This is the unfortunate practice we will call “The Cult of the Offhand Comment.”

Perhaps understandably, Tenet is shocked at how much has been made of his two-word remark. “It certainly makes for a memorable sound bite,” he says in the passage we’ve cited above. But jeezy-weezy! “As so often happens with these matters, the context has disappeared, and all that is left are the words themselves, two words that have taken on a significance that far exceeds their import at the time.” That two-word phrase “was later taken completely out of context,” Tenet says again, a few pages later. “Whoever later described the scene to Bob Woodward painted a caricature of me leaping into the air,” he complains—and he says we should “credit Woodward’s source with a fine sense of the ridiculous.” A bit later, Tenet asks the key question: “How is it, then, that an offhand comment made in a closed-door meeting...has come to symbolize so much?”

It was just two words, Tenet says in his book. It was just an offhand comment—an offhand comment that was later taken completely out of context. The comment was reshaped by Woodward’s source, who had a fine sense of the ridiculous. Whoever fed this tale to Woodward painted a caricature, Tenet says—a caricature that “made for a memorable soundbite,” but is “belied by the facts.”

Woodward’s account of this offhand comment became “a simple explanation” for why we went to war, Tenet correctly says in this chapter. And uh-oh! “I have another two-word reaction,” he writes as his chapter ends. “The first word is bull.”

We’ll guess that the second word would be “roar”—that Tenet is calling this story pure bull-roar. But we’re surprised to see that Tenet is shocked by this use of his offhand remark.

On balance, of course, we agree with Tenet. Woodward’s strangely murky account never made any chronological sense; it always read like a silly tale designed to make Tenet look like a fool—and designed to make Bush seem wise and cautious. (In Woodward’s account of that meeting, Bush wisely tells Tenet, “several times,” not to stretch any intelligence.) But we’re not sure why Tenet is so shocked when his words are used in this manner. After all, it’s a basic part of our culture; over the course of the past twenty years, off-hand comments have often been used to create silly caricatures of public figures—to create “memorable soundbites” which are “belied by the actual facts.” In the past fifteen years, our world has sometimes been turned upside down by the use of these well-crafted caricatures; the use of Tenet’s two-word phrase comes rather late in this history. And one other thing is part of this story; the success of these “memorable soundbites” is always conditioned on the press corps’ willingness to accept and promote them. In this case, the press corps fell in love with Tenet’s offhand comment. Our Greatest Known Journalist typed a transparently silly tale—and his colleagues took over from there.

So here’s the good news: Tenet has finally stumbled upon a major threat to American freedoms. We’ll call it “The Cult of the Offhand Comment.” With a new presidential election unfolding, we’ll suggest that this cult may strike again. For that reason, we’ll spend the rest of the week examining how this cult does its work.

TOMORROW—PART 2: It was just “an offhand comment,” Tumulty laudably said.