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SEE BOB GET DUNKED! Tenet has a very good sense of how they fed Woodward that story: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MAY 17, 2007

DIGGING UP LEIBOVICH: At some point in the future, medical science will dig them all up. Using advanced DNA techniques, researchers will try to determine what was wrong with the puzzling cohort which did our political reporting.

They might want to start with Mark Leibovich. On the front page of this morning’s Times, Leibovich offers a news report about things the hopefuls don’t like to discuss. And uh-oh! Perhaps you can guess where he took readers first. Here’s how the gentleman started:
LEIBOVICH (5/17/07): Stealing a page from the Soviet playbook, the current crop of presidential candidates has taken to eliminating whole chapters of their histories.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's turbulent final years as first lady? While Mrs. Clinton, a New York Democrat, frequently invokes husband Bill on the stump, she has managed to avoid any mention of his impeachment and the unpleasantness leading to it.
Let’s see if we can follow this. When she’s on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton doesn’t mention her husband’s conduct with Monica Lewinsky?

For the record, Leibovich is becoming the go-to guy for inane front-pagers on Clinton. Back in March, he penned a long, overwrought front-page profile in which he expressed his deep concern about the way the vexing hopeful once made a male aide hold her purse (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/6/07). Today, he returns to the original scene of the crime—to the thrilling matter which will make future scientists dig this cohort up. He expresses his cohort’s endless love of Lewinsky and all things which attend her. They can’t get the young lady out of their minds. They live to get her back in the newspaper.

On the whole, Leibovich’s piece is a pointless thumb-sucker. Repeatedly, he struggles to find examples of his generic offense, in which the hopefuls, Soviet-style, hide whole chapters of their history. (Example: In his 30-second ads, Romney says he was governor of a Democratic state—but he doesn’t say it was Massachusetts.) But surely, the secret to this piece lies in paragraph 2, where Leibovich was able to go there again. Again, he got to recall the glory days when oral sex was his cohort’s sole topic. Out on page one, this made paragraph two. Again, let’s make sure you’re clear on the facts: Hillary Clinton doesn’t bring up her husband’s past sexual misconduct.

By the way, how much does this cohort love that woman, Miss Lewinsky? Leibovich waited until paragraph 9 (inside the paper) to mention the things Giuliani won’t discuss. And when he did, in best Soviet style, he seemed to pull out his own air-brush:
LEIBOVICH: In recent days, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and a Republican candidate, has spoken forcefully of his support of abortion rights, something that placed him at odds with many in his party, and something he spoke little about until recently.

Still unspoken, for the most part is Mr. Giuliani's delicate family situation. His campaign Web site includes nothing about his children, with whom he reportedly has strained relations. They are, in effect, airbrushed from ''Rudy's Story'' (the heading of the biographical section on the Web site).
That’s the best he can manage about Giuliani: Giuliani doesn’t discuss his children. Of course, Giuliani also doesn’t discuss the embarrassing way he severed relations with his children’s mother. But that doesn’t make this report at all; Leibovish airbrushes Donna Hanover, just as Rudy has airbrushed his kids. And even this bowdlerized passage on Rudy’s Dark Secret is buried inside the paper.

Get the picture? Giuliani’s own weird conduct rates paragraph 9. But the weird conduct of Clinton’s husband? Of course! That goes into paragraph 2, right out there on page one! Someday, medical science will dig them all up, trying to explain this weird conduct. Using highly advanced types of swabbing, researchers will try to pin down the source of their childish obsessions.

SEELYE STARTS TO HEED OUR ADVICE: On the other hand, we’ve waited for years for the chance to say something nice about Katherine “Kit” Seelye. This morning, she gives us that opportunity with this fact-filled, informative report.

Seelye analyzes Giuliani’s claims about the way abortions declined and adoptions rose during his tenure as mayor. And omigod! She even noticed the way Giuliani’s adoption record has been improving in the past several weeks:
GIULIANI (5/3/07, GOP debate): When I was mayor of New York city, I encouraged adoptions; adoptions went up 65-70 percent, abortions went down 16 percent.

GIULIANI (5/13/07, Fox News Sunday): I think adoption is a much better option than abortion. I supported that position by helping adoptions increase in New York when I was the mayor by 66 percent. In fact, one way to look at it, and I just went back and analyzed all these things myself: During the eight years that I was the mayor, adoption, over the eight years before, went up 130 percent.

GIULIANI, 5/15/07, GOP debate): Adoptions went up 133 percent during the eight years that I was mayor, compared to the prior eight years.
How strong was Giuliani’s work in this area? Why, just in the past two weeks alone, his numbers from the 1990s have doubled! And omigod! Seelye noticed these changing claims. She sorts them out in this morning’s report.

This is an informative, basically fair report about some claims a big hopeful has made. Our newspapers rarely provide this service. Today, responding to a decade of our helpful encouragement, Katherine “Kit” Seelye gets it right!

Special report: The Cult of the Offhand Comment!


PART 3—SEE BOB GET DUNKED: Let’s face it—your press corps loves to turn offhand comments into those “memorable sound-bites” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/16/07). For two years, they did it to Candidate Gore, who had made an accurate offhand comment about the film Love Story. They did it to Naomi Wolf, when she made an offhand comment including the phrase “alpha male.” And they did it to Tenet in April 04, after Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack made his “slam dunk” statement so famous. They seized on Tenet’s offhand comment—and turned it into an explanation for how we went to war:
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...had nothing to do with the president’s decision,” Tenet says—and we’d have to say his case is strong. Woodward’s famous, murky anecdote never made chronological sense, no matter how many times it was cited. So we’d have to say that Tenet has pretty much nailed the treatment of his comment: “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.”

As Tenet says, this “often happens;” our press corps loves to make Major Big Deals out of trivial actions or comments. But here’s the good news: Tenet has given a lot of thought to how this happened to him. “How is it, then, that an offhand comment...has come to symbolize so much?” he asks. He hashes this out in Chapter 19 of his new book—and in the process, he makes minor mincemeat out of Bob Woodward, our Greatest Known Living Famous Journalist.

How did Tenet’s comment take on so much meaning? Tenet starts to suggest his answer in this pithy paragraph:
TENET (page 364): How is it, then, that an offhand comment made in a closed-door meeting on a Saturday morning has come to symbolize so much? I don’t think it was an accident. Back in early 2001, when my old mentor Senator David Boren advised me to assist the new administration for six months before resigning, he added a cautionary note: “Be careful, you are not one of the inner circle going back to the campaign. It doesn’t matter how the president may feel; if it suits their group, they will throw you overboard.”
Tenet was thrown to the wolves by the Bush inner circle, the chief suggests in that passage. Two pages earlier, he has already shared his sense of how that worked:
TENET (page 362): Whoever later described the scene to Bob Woodward painted a caricature of me leaping in the air and emulating a slam dunk, not once but twice, with my arms flailing. Credit Woodward’s source with a fine sense of the ridiculous, but don’t credit him or her with a deep sense of obligation to the truth. Even though I am often blunt and prone to talk with my hands, both [John] McLaughlin and I know that this basketball pantomime never happened...I certainly don’t deny using the term “slam dunk,” or strongly believing that Saddam had WMD. But the phrase has, in my view, been intentionally misused and thus completely misunderstood by the public at large.
Let’s simplify: According to Tenet, someone within the inner circle intentionally misdescribed the “slam dunk” meeting. But Woodward accepted the embellished story, and featured it prominently in his book. As a result, the incident has been “completely misunderstood by the public at large.” They got a picture of the march to war which didn’t comport with the facts.

According to Tenet, this part of the march to war was “misunderstood by the public.” And of course, that would have the been the purpose of Woodward’s dishonest source. After all, the silly story which Woodward accepted painted Bush in a very favorable light. Not only did Tenet jump up off the couch and insist on something that just wasn’t so. In Woodward’s telling, Bush wisely warns Tenet, “several times,” that he just mustn’t stretch the intelligence. Of course, Bush is saying this three months after he himself began to stretch the intelligence. So no, this never made chronological sense. But it made Bush look like quite honest—and Woodward typed it on up.

Of course, this leaves us pondering one more question: Why did Woodward fall for this story? Chronologically, the “slam dunk” story didn’t really make sense—but Woodward featured it anyway! Why in the world would Woodward do that? Uh-oh! In chapter 19, Tenet shares his thoughts about that vexing question.

Ouch! As he continues, Woodward describes the remarkable help the White House gave Woodward with Plan of Attack—the same kind of help they gave him with his previous tome, Bush at War. “I was not at all certain that cooperating this time was a good idea,” Tenet writes. “Nonetheless, we kept getting calls from the White House saying, ‘We’re cooperating fully with Woodward, and we would like CIA to do so too.’” As a result, Tenet says he “provided some senior officials to give Woodward background information” about the preparation for and conduct of the war. Then, Tenet describes the thanks he got from Woodward from all this assistance.

Fairly plainly, Tenet suggests that Woodward avoided fact-checking the White House account of the “slam dunk” incident (text below). And then, in a truly painful passage, Tenet imagines how Woodward was fed this fake, misleading narrative. Ouch! Tenet knows the inside game, and his instincts here seem quite good. In one major way, the following passage has now been semi-corroborated:
TENET (page 366): Woodward quotes the president in his book as saying that my “slam dunk” comment was a very important matter. I truly doubt President Bush had any better recollection of the comment than I did. Nor will I ever believe it shaped his view about either the legitimacy or timing of waging war. Far more likely, the president’s staff brought up the “slam dunk” scene in the course of prepping him for the Woodward interview—quite possibly the same staff member or members who originally fed the scene to Woodward. They might even have suggested that the president work “slam dunk” into one of his answers if the question was never directly asked. Then, with all the prep work done, the memories “refreshed,” Woodward was ushered into the Oval Office, the tape recorder was turned on, and the rest is history.
Ouch! That’s the portrait of a dupe. In this case, the dupe would be Woodward.

There’s no way to know how Bush was prepped for his session with Woodward. But Tenet was prescient when he pictured the president “work[ing] ‘slam dunk’ into one of his answers.” In fact, when Woodward reviewed Tenet’s book for the Post, he described President Bush working “slam dunk” into many of his answers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/11/07). What follows is an embarrassing portrait. In our view, this is the portrait of a willing dupe:
WOODWARD (5/6/07): When I interviewed President Bush in December 2003, he quoted the "slam dunk" phrase four times, and then in a fifth citation the president said, "And Tenet said, 'Don't worry, it's a slam dunk.' And that was very important."
Very important—and very embarrassing. Tenet pictured Bush working “slam dunk” into one answer. But the CIA chief was a hopeless naif. According to Woodward, Bush worked it in at least five different times.

Plainly, Bush wanted Woodward to type that story—and Woodward ran right home and typed it. And he didn’t fact-check the story with Tenet, the CIA chief plainly says (text below). Result? When Plan of Attack was published, the Post pimped the “slam dunk” anecdote hard, and the nation’s pundits began to recite it. The story never made chronological sense, but soon, all the voters had heard it. And the “memorable soundbite” they were now hearing was perfect for Bush’s 04 re-election. The famous Cult of the Offhand Comment had worked its strange will once again.

In Chapter 19, Tenet paints a fascinating portrait of the way an offhand comment can be stripped of all context and transformed into a memorable soundbite—a soundbite which provides “a simple [if incorrect] explanation” of an important event. But we still haven’t answered that question: Why would Woodward be such a dupe? Tomorrow, we’ll spend some time on that. And we’ll consider the way libs and Dems should react when The Cult of the Offhand Comment strikes during Campaign 08.

TOMORROW—PART 4: Libs and Dems should get prepared now. This cult will strike again.

WHAT WE HAVE HERE IS A FAILURE TO FACT-CHECK: Plainly, Tenet suggests that Woodward played fast and loose with the “slam dunk” anecdote he had been handed. In this passage, he describes a failure to fact-check:
TENET (pages 365-366): Woodward was in frequent contact with my spokesman, Bill Harlow, chasing down things he had heard elsewhere and trying to set up interviews. In one background session with a senior CIA official in early 2004, at which I was not present, Woodward off-handedly raised the subject of the December 21, 2002, meeting and the phrase “slam dunk.” He made no special issue of it. Nor did he request that Harlow ask me about the meeting or the context in which the words had been used.

After his manuscript had gone to print, Woodward mentioned to Harlow that there was going to be something in it that we might find a bit dicey, and he described in greater detail the supposed “slam dunk” scene. Still, he downplayed it and said it was not a big deal. Maybe that really is how he felt, but when the book came out, following extensive excerpting in the Washington Post, “slam dunk” seemed to be all anyone talked about it.
“Maybe that really is how he felt.” Or then again, maybe it isn’t. When Plan of Attack came out in April 04, the Post pushed the “slam dunk” anecdote hard. Clearly, it was one of the passages the book’s promotion had been built around. Of course, Woodward had played this game before—for example, when he took an offhand comment by Hillary Clinton and turned it into the “seance with Eleanor Roosevelt” nonsense which drove the pimping of his preternaturally dull 1996 book, The Choice. The Cult of the Offhand Comment had struck again—and Woodward had used its powerful tools to make himself richer and famouser.

How much else was he willing to do? Tomorrow, we’ll review another “memorable soundbite” from Plan of Attack. It too presented Bush as a god-like Wise Leader—and it too was used to pimp Woodward’s book. Hmm. Why in the world would a guy like Woodward print such transparent bull-roar?