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September 20, 2004

Rope-a-dope

In the CNN transcript of the Wolf Blitzer discussion with Jeff Greenfield (hat tip: The Kerry Spot), we read this (bolding mine):

BLITZER: I hope you are right, that optimist in Jeff Greenfield. But let's talk a little bit about that. CBS news itself is suggesting they were warned by some experts they consulted before they went to press, before they went to air, with their "60 Minutes" report, they were warned, you know what, you've got a problem with these documents, and the day after, you're going to be swamped with criticism. Yet they went to air with it, nevertheless, because the White House did not say to them supposedly the next day when their White House correspondent interviewed Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, he did not raise questions about the authenticity of the documents.

The argument you hear from a lot of conservatives and critics of CBS News is that they were so anxious to report this, they so wanted to embarrass and hurt this Republican president, they didn't care about the warnings that they were getting from their own experts going into the report. A lot of people believe that out there. They just had a mind set, they wanted to rush to press.

This point that the White House did not raise questions about the authenticity of the memos has been much discussed. CBS wanted us to believe that it was somehow the White House's responsibility to prove the memos to be fakes. Critics of CBS pointed out that it's CBS's responsibility to authenticate its facts, as they now admit they failed to do.

But that does leave open the question of why the White House did not question the authenticity of the memos when they must have had someone who had the same reaction that many others had at first glance: "Hmmm, this doesn't look right." I admit to a certain niggling suspicion that the White House has again been misunderestimatedTM. If the memos were so obviously fake that within hours of release the alarms were sounding all over the "blogosphere," what purpose would it serve the White House to proclaim them fake? If anything that might be counterproductive, pulling the White House into a partisan war about something that pertained to events 30 years ago. Proclaiming them fake might become an equivalent moment to Kerry's "Reporting for duty!"

On the other hand, not raising questions under the circumstances (and in hindsight) was a very interesting tactic. There was no need to proclaim them fakes since they were so obviously fake that the truth would out on its own. By remaining silent until the rest of the world (with a very few exceptions that had very vested interests) had solidified around the opinion that they were forgeries, the White House managed to both make an annoying subject much riskier to approach for other critics, and at the same time allowed CBS to prominently blacken its not-so-open eye by ramming it against this story one too many times and too eagerly. Perhaps the concussion this time will serve fatal.

Saying nothing is saying something, just as doing nothing is doing something, when it comes to politics. What isn't always clear is what's being said by the silence, or done by the inaction. Sometimes, waiting is the smart thing.

Posted by dan at September 20, 2004 02:33 PM | TrackBack
Comments

I suspect you're overthinking the White House' initial reaction. This was not a new story,and when, knowing it was coming again, they requested a meeting, they were handed some documents purporting to show a direct order, and unfriendly views--personal memos of Killian. What would be your response, if you learned that a superior who had seemed a friend thirty years ago had disliked you, according to notes in a personal file?

I think the actual response is sort of normal. It amounted to surprise that Killian would have said such things, and ameliorative response in the political context. In short, I think the White House, like the rest of us, assumed these were genuine--and inexplicable. Unspoken assumption: CBS wouldn't be showing them forgeries, so maybe Killian's private thoughts about Bush were at variance with his public demeanor. That would be surprising, even shocking, but the reaction tracks that of Hodges. If Killian said that in these papers, it must be what he felt. That's the nastiest thing about forged documents purporting to show a private belief at odds with a public perception; there really is no defense to "private thoughts" in writing.

Posted by: alene at September 22, 2004 04:18 PM
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