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Daily Howler: Robert Draper's a bit Ceci-esque in his report about Rummy
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THE UNBEARABLE VAGUENESS OF DRAPER! Robert Draper’s a bit Ceci-esque in his report about Rummy: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MAY 20, 2009

The latest from Dylan’s poor immigrant: In our view, Josh Marshall shows good sense in staying out of the latest Dowd flap. In this post, he comments “very briefly.” There’s no reason for him to say more.

In a way, it’s sad to see the large group hubbub surrounding Dowd’s latest blunder. Dowd has done a vast amount of harm in the past twenty years. Her most consequential act occurred in December 1997, when she and Frank Rich joined clownish forces to invent a deeply consequential claim: Al Gore said he inspired Love Story! (Melinda Henneberger and/or her editor helped a great deal too. Then Cokie started purring.) Gore had said no such thing—but the pair of Gotham hyenas thus ginned up a deeply consequential pseudo-journalistic template. Fifteen months later, Gore began his White House campaign—and this famously stupid claim was added to two more press corps inventions, thus creating the punishing framework used to send Bush where he went.

Al Gore said he inspired Love Story! It started your nation’s downward spiral. And it came to you straight from Dowd.

Of course, that was just Dowd’s most consequential invention. She has invented many other bogus stories, and she has degraded the discourse in endless ways. For example, she’s a flat-out gender nut, a point she’s made quite clear through the years. In Dowd’s oeuvre, Democratic men are all girls—and Democratic women are men. Most gruesomely, she had Gore singing “I feel pretty” the Sunday before the 2000 vote. But she endlessly made Edwards “the Breck girl”—and she started in on girlie-man Obama, until she saw history turning against her. Sorry—she started in on “Obamabi,” on the “Hollywood starlet”—on “the diffident debutante.” Or, if race-clowning is your metier, on “Scarlett O’Hara”—the man she described as being “legally blonde.”

Maureen Dowd is Dylan’s “poor immigrant” (click here). It’s sad that she is, of course. We don’t really believe in good or bad people here; in the end, it’s a shame that Dowd is so deeply confused. But the lady has been a long national nightmare. It says something bad about our culture that we only created a unified uproar when she did something relatively trivial—thoroughly inconsequential. When she copied 42 words, then invented a string of tales about how she had managed to do that.

Some people have gone fairly easy on Dowd. Inside the circle, climbers cling to power. And Maureen Dowd, Bob Dylan’s lost soul, remains a large force in the broken-souled world we still describe as a “press corps.” People who long to attend her parties aren’t likely to speak up now—or ever. They’ve kept their big traps shut all along. Their traps remain shut this week.

Again, three cheers to the New York Times’ last public editor. Last June, Clark Hoyt trashed Dowd but good in the Times, for her gender-trashing of Hillary Clinton. Finally, someone visible did the right thing (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/23/08). And when he did, Clark Hoyt got results! You know what to do—just click here.

Annals of the feminized and the uncoiffed: Dowd has endlessly been a poor immigrant. But we still marvel at the way she went after Judith Steinberg Dean, Howard Dean’s thoroughly admirable wife. Truly, this was a startling performance, even by Dowd’s standards:

DOWD (1/15/04): The doctors Dean seem to be in need of some tips on togetherness and building a healthy political marriage, if that's not an oxymoron.

Even by the transcendentally wacky standard for political unions set by Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Deans have an unusual relationship.

She is a ghost in his political career. She has never even been to Iowa, and most reporters who have covered Howard Dean's quest here the last two years would not recognize her if she walked in the door, which she is not likely to do, since she prefers examining patients to being cross-examined by voters and reporters.

The first hard evidence most people had that Howard Dean was actually married came with a startling picture of his wife on the front page of Tuesday's Times, accompanying a Jodi Wilgoren profile.

In worn jeans and old sneakers, the shy and retiring Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean looked like a crunchy Vermont hippie, blithely uncoiffed, unadorned, unstyled and unconcerned about not being at her husband's side—the anti-Laura. You could easily imagine the din of Rush Limbaugh and Co. demonizing her as a counterculture fem-lib role model for the blue states.

Imagine! Dean’s wife had never gone to Iowa! She preferred to keep serving her patients! And darlings, what a fright she was, blithely uncoiffed in that startling photo! And omigod! It was on the front page! Darlings, please! Make it stop!

We’ll admit it. Back in 2004, we were still completely clueless. We had no idea about the degree of mockery the progressive world was willing to see extended toward women. We’ve been schooled since then, of course—schooled by Keith and his legion of enablers. Let’s face it. If Keith began executing beauty queens and unintelligent actresses, we progressives would stand in line to say it was “just good TV.”

As a group, we’re yelling about those 42 words. Why didn’t we yell as a group about Dowd’s gender-trashing? The one offense is minor—the other has been thoroughly gruesome. But we progressives seem to enjoy a good witch-dunking too! Maybe we bought Dowd’s gender-nut package! Was Gore “so feminized...he’s practically lactating,” as Dowd announced on the day he launched his campaign? Admit it! We’re such a gang of kooks ourselves, some of us may have believed it.

THE UNBEARABLE VAGUENESS OF DRAPER: Rhodes Scholars aren’t what they used to be—and perhaps they never were. At any rate, the analysts screamed and covered their ears at several points in last night’s Maddow Show. The lady has an astounding tolerance for error, over-statement and arrant nonsense. Often, though, her trademark clowning helps the demo overlook such work.

The answer to this puzzling conduct may well lie in the world of Bill Wolff. But the analysts screamed the loudest last night when Maddow offered a groaning “analysis” about the new Rumsfeld story. She was discussing the new article by Robert Draper (click here). More specifically, she was discussing the use of religiously-themed cover sheets on intelligence briefings which were sent to President Bush.

Clearly, this practice was very unwise. But was Rumsfeld really behind it? In yesterday’s New York Times, a former Rumsfeld aide scoffed a bit at the notion. Maddow offered this critique—and the analysts came out of their chairs:

MADDOW (5/19/09): Rumsfeld’s spokesmen offered a response on the Bible verse briefings today, saying that Donald Rumsfeld only occasionally saw the World Intelligence Update, and no one who made that update reported to him.

Awkwardly, the cover sheets are actually called the “Secretary of Defense Worldwide Intelligence Update,” which makes it kind of hard to argue they didn’t have anything to do with the secretary of defense.

You’re right. That “analysis” is pathetically dumb—though Maddow engaged in a bit of her trademark clowning as she offered the arrant nonsense. But so it tends to go on this program.

In one of the major profiles of Maddow, two of her professors from Stanford discuss how brilliant she was a student (click here). We sometimes wonder if these professors watch their star student now.

Five basic questions: We were struck by Maddow’s absurd analysis because we’d spent a bit of time reading Draper’s report—and marveling at the vagueness of its central claims. For ourselves, we’ve studied under Professor Ceci Connolly—and we’ve learned some valuable lessons from the good doctor. One lesson: If a professional writer fails to state his basic “facts”—if instead he only implies them—this may perhaps be taken to mean that the “facts” in question ain’t so. In such ways, Connolly ginned up endless tales during 1999 and 2000. We thought we might be smelling similar practices as we read Draper’s report. (Though of course we simply don’t know.)

As we read the oddly vague report, we found ourselves forming some basic questions. Did Rumsfeld initiate this unwise practice? Did he even know about it? If he knew about it, when did he find out? And then too: For how long did this practice continue? Who ordered the practice to stop?

Those are fairly basic questions about a plainly unwise practice. But Draper fails to answer them clearly. Did Rumsfeld know about this (apparently short-lived) practice? Here at THE HOWLER, we really aren’t sure. You see, we’ve read Draper’s report.

Draper’s text: Did Rumsfeld know about this practice? We’ll guess that he found out at some point—but reading Draper, it’s fairly clear that Rumsfeld didn’t initiate it. (This may be the only thing that really is clear in Draper’s report on this topic.) Early on, Draper describes the way this practice began. It’s fairly clear that the practice was initiated by Major General Glenn Shaffer, not by Rumsfeld himself:

DRAPER (6/09): These cover sheets were the brainchild of Major General Glen Shaffer, a director for intelligence serving both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense. In the days before the Iraq war, Shaffer’s staff had created humorous covers in an attempt to alleviate the stress of preparing for battle. Then, as the body counting began, Shaffer, a Christian, deemed the biblical passages more suitable. Several others in the Pentagon disagreed. At least one Muslim analyst in the building had been greatly offended; others privately worried that if these covers were leaked during a war conducted in an Islamic nation, the fallout—as one Pentagon staffer would later say—“would be as bad as Abu Ghraib.”

Certain aspects of the time frame are slightly murky there—less so if you read the whole piece. But from this passage, it’s fairly clear that, according to Draper, it was Shaffer who initiated this practice. Shaffer’s staff had been sending humorous cover sheets; as the war (and the deaths) in Iraq began, Shaffer (not Rumsfeld) “deemed the biblical passages more suitable,” according to Draper. The cover sheets were “the brainchild of Shaffer,” Draper writes. At no time does Draper even suggest that Rumsfeld was present at the creation. (“The sheets were not Rumsfeld’s direct invention,” Drasper writes a bit later. For full text, see below.)

But surely Rumsfeld must have known, we might think. In our view, Draper never quite nails that down either; indeed, in one way, he seems to avoid doing so. But first, let’s consider another basic question: How long did this unwise practice continue? Surely, Draper must have spelled that out, you might think. But no—at no point in the magazine piece does Draper report this basic fact. We can only take a guess, based on the cover sheets he displays. Draper displays eleven such sheets; the first one is dated March 17, 2003, the last one is dated April 11. In short, this practice would seem to have lasted less than a month; there may have been as few as eleven such sheets in all. At no point does Draper attempt to say why the practice ended.

Who stopped this unwise practice? Oddly, we don’t get told.

But didn’t Draper make it fairly clear that Rumsfeld approved the practice? This notion is plainly implied by Draper—but in our view, he never quite says it. We know, we know—you’ll read his prose and feel sure that he said it— there, or there, or maybe right there! But this is where our thoughts returned to our doctoral studies under Connolly. From her, we learned how cagy some “journalists” can be when it comes to such slippery matters. Note Draper’s opening graf, for instance. Does he actually say in this passage that Rumsfeld saw these now-famous sheets?

DRAPER: On the morning of Thursday, April 10, 2003, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon prepared a top-secret briefing for George W. Bush. This document, known as the Worldwide Intelligence Update, was a daily digest of critical military intelligence so classified that it circulated among only a handful of Pentagon leaders and the president; Rumsfeld himself often delivered it, by hand, to the White House. The briefing’s cover sheet generally featured triumphant, color images from the previous days’ war efforts: On this particular morning, it showed the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Firdos Square, a grateful Iraqi child kissing an American soldier, and jubilant crowds thronging the streets of newly liberated Baghdad. And above these images, and just below the headline secretary of defense, was a quote that may have raised some eyebrows. It came from the Bible, from the book of Psalms: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him... To deliver their soul from death.”

Wow! “Rumsfeld himself often delivered it, by hand, to the White House!” But “often” is a slippery term. Does Draper actually say in this passage that Rumsfeld ever delivered a Biblically-themed cover sheet? Actually no—he doesn’t. From studying the slippery Professor Connolly, we have learned to be suspicious when journalists don’t state such facts.

Professional writers know how to state clear facts. When they don’t do so, we’ve learned to be suspicious.

But wait a minute! Doesn’t Draper actually quote Shafer about getting Rummy’s approval? Well actually no—he doesn’t quite do that. To us, this is one of the most striking parts of this whole report. You see, Draper actually interviewed Shaffer—he quotes him directly on several points (see below). But how strange! Draper doesn’t seem to have asked him about Rumsfeld’s role—a seminal fact he could have nailed down by asking Shaffer about it. Instead, Draper gives us this—a second-hand, unsourced “quotation,” recalled from 2003:

DARPER: But the Pentagon’s top officials were apparently unconcerned about the effect such a disclosure might have on the conduct of the war or on Bush’s public standing. When colleagues complained to Shaffer that including a religious message with an intelligence briefing seemed inappropriate, Shaffer politely informed them that the practice would continue, because “my seniors”—JCS chairman Richard Myers, Rumsfeld, and the commander in chief himself—appreciated the cover pages.

Some unnamed person seems to have told Draper what Shaffer supposedly said in real time. Did Shaffer really cite the approval of “my seniors?” That certainly could be true—and Draper then inserts his own idea of who that phrase would have meant. This substitutes for a bone-simple procedure—it substitutes for simply asking Shaffer if Rumsfeld approved (or knew about) this practice. Or who knows? Maybe Draper did ask Shaffer—and got un unwelcome reply:

DRAPER: The Scripture-adorned cover sheets illustrate one specific complaint I heard again and again: that Rumsfeld’s tactics—such as playing a religious angle with the president—often ran counter to sound decision-making and could, occasionally, compromise the administration’s best interests. In the case of the sheets, publicly flaunting his own religious views was not at all the SecDef’s style—“Rumsfeld was old-fashioned that way,” Shaffer acknowledged when I contacted him about the briefings—but it was decidedly Bush’s style, and Rumsfeld likely saw the Scriptures as a way of making a personal connection with a president who frequently quoted the Bible. No matter that, if leaked, the images would reinforce impressions that the administration was embarking on a religious war and could escalate tensions with the Muslim world. The sheets were not Rumsfeld’s direct invention—and he could thus distance himself from them, should that prove necessary.

In this passage, Draper quotes Shaffer saying something which almost suggests that Rumsfeld may not have been involved. Please note Draper’s helpful use of the word “likely” when he goes on to make his statement about “the Scriptures”—and note that he refers to Rumsfeld using “the Scriptures,” not “the cover sheets.” (We learned to read this way under Connolly.) Further note: In the passage above, Draper reports hearing “one specific complaint again and again” about Rumsfeld’s conduct. Rubes! Specific complaints aren’t always accurate—though even then, they can be helpful to a journalist who wants to put a notion in play, accurate or not. (We learned this in July 1999, under Professor Bill Sammon.)

There is one point in this report where Draper comes close to saying, in direct language, that this practice was somehow directed by Rumsfeld. From anyone who wasn’t a journalist, this would likely count as a direct claim of Rumsfeld’s involvement:

DRAPER (continuing directly): Still, the sheer cunning of pairing unsentimental intelligence with religious righteousness bore the signature of one man: Donald Rumsfeld. And as historians slog through the smoke and mirrors of his tenure, they may find that Rumsfeld’s most enduring legacy will be the damage he did to Bush’s.

From a normal person, that’s a direct claim. Based on our studies under many professors, we’ll warn that, in Pseudojournalist Think, that highlighted statement still may not mean what it seems to say. Especially in a larger package where Draper fails to ask Shaffer obvious questions—questions which would have nailed down the basic facts about Rumsfeld’s actual conduct.

Did Rumsfeld approve of this unwise practice? We’d have to say we aren’t quite sure. But there’s a basic reason for that—you see, we read Draper’s report! We don’t even know how long this unwise practice lasted, thanks to Draper’s strangely vague work. Our guess? It probably didn’t last long. Such unhelpful facts tend to disappear when journalists seek a big splash.

Please note: Did Draper embellish a bit in this piece? We have no idea. We don’t know what Rumsfeld did at what time. Draper didn’t say.

But please note: Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld destroyed the known world, with plenty of help from Powell/Rice/Wilkerson. If you have to embellish to make a case against these guys, you should exit the case-making business.

Of course, embellishment can sell magazines—and it mightily pleases the demo. Maddow interviewed Draper on Monday night’s show (click here). She failed to ask the basic questions: How long did this practice continue? What was Rumsfeld’s involvement?