Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

US Diary: the most interesting thing about the Cheney hunting story is the ranch where he hunted, whose owners may be more powerrful than him

Power works in mysterious ways. You'd think, for example, that the billionaire record-and-movie mogul David Geffen of Dreamworks must be as powerful as you can get. But poor David was nearly locked out of buying an apartment on Fifth Avenue in NYC.
Why? One, he's Jewish. Two, he's gay. And three, he's in the entertainment business. For the WASP board of the apartment building, those were three strikes against him. He just wasn't good enough for them.
In the end they relented, and let the gay Jewboy from the tacky entertainment biz in.
Why? They took a look at how he spent his money -- and saw he gave a great deal of it to charities. This made up for his fatal flaws.
Now down in Texas, there is this ranch on which Cheney had his shooting accident. Cheney's power will be gone when he steps down in 2008, but the ranch owners will keep on being super-powerful, since they're the kind of folks (different from the rest of us) who buy and sell politicians for breakfast. Read on for an insight into the real America.

1. The Rules of the Game -- by Sidney Blumenthal

In the original account authorised by United States vice-president Dick Cheney of his shooting of Harry Whittington, given by Katharine Armstrong, heiress and hunting companion, to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and later elaborated on to other news outlets, the eleven members of the hunting-party set off on the morning of 11 February in two trucks for the wilds of the 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch in search of quails. After lunch, whose menu was described as antelope, jicama salad, bread and Dr Pepper, the hunters divided into two groups. Cheney went off with Armstrong; Pamela Pitzer Willeford , the US ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein; and Whittington.

At dusk, Whittington, a 78-year-old Austin lawyer and local Republican fixer, shot a bird and went to retrieve it behind the others. Hearing rustling in the bushes, Cheney, who has lately been using a cane in public and wearing two different shoes for comfort, reportedly quickly swivelled 180 degrees, twenty-eight-gauge shotgun in hand, and fired at what he believed were quails, but instead hit Whittington, thirty yards distant. "He got peppered pretty good", Armstrong said. "There was some bleeding, but it wasn't horrible. He was more bruised."

The circumstances of this hunt were different from Cheney's previously celebrated 2003 hunt at the Rolling Rock Club in Pennsylvania, where he, associate supreme-court justice Antonin Scalia and eight others killed 417 pheasants and an unknown number of mallard ducks specifically raised for the purpose of being herded before the hunters to shoot. At that time, Cheney released to the press the information that he had personally killed seventy pheasants. In the less controlled environment of the Armstrong Ranch, the only known target he hit was Whittington.

The details of the story related by Armstrong, however, defied practical experience and were contradictory. Armstrong told NBC News that while she believed that no one was drinking alcohol, beer may have been served at lunch. "There may have been a beer or two in there", she said, "but remember not everyone in the party was shooting." Armstrong's statement about beer appeared on the MSNBC website, but was subsequently and inexplicably scrubbed. Dr Pepper replaced beer in later versions of Armstrong's telling.

On the "hunting accident and incident report form" of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the shooter, Richard B Cheney, checked the "No" box for the question: "Under the apparent influence of intoxicants or drugs?" But in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday 15 February, Cheney admitted to having a beer earlier in the day, contrary to his statement to Texas officials.

The murky method by which Cheney decided to handle the disclosure of the shooting was guaranteed to raise questions about the incident. He behaved secretly, evaded standard protocol and brushed aside his obligations to the law. Unless Whittington dies, precipitating a grand-jury probe, requiring witnesses to testify separately under oath, the true story may never be known, despite Cheney's Fox interview.

The story unfolds

Whether or not the exact facts of the case are ever conclusively established, what happened at twilight in the south Texas brush has revealed the hierarchy of power within the Bush White House and the interests of those who wield that power. The surreptitious handling inside the White House of the shooting, moreover, cannot be understood apart from the society of Texas royalty and the ambitions of those, like Cheney and Karl Rove , who aspire to it. None of it is metaphoric.

About an hour after the shooting, an unidentified travelling aide of the vice-president's called the White House situation room, which put him in touch with chief-of-staff Andrew Card . Why a call would be routed through the situation room, which receives and transmits only national-security information, rather than the very capable and secure White House switchboard, remains mysterious.

Card was deliberately misled, told only that there was an accident in Cheney's party, not that Cheney was involved. The vice-president's staff obviously felt no need to inform the president's chief-of-staff of the true facts of the matter. Why Card was deceived is also mystifying, except insofar as it reflects the vice-president's instinctive view of him as someone to be routinely stepped over and around. Card, acting responsibly, promptly called President Bush, who as a result was momentarily kept in the dark. Confusing Card was a way of managing Bush, and yet...

Enter Rove. Within minutes of the call to Card, the president's chief political advisor and deputy chief-of-staff spoke with Katharine Armstrong, an old friend of his, who told him that Cheney had shot Whittington. Who initiated this conversation is unknown. In any case, Rove, not the duped Card, informed the president of what had actually transpired.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan was left out of the loop until the next morning. Instead, Armstrong, not anyone from the White House, disclosed the news that the vice-president had shot Whittington to her local newspaper. It seems fair to infer that Cheney left Rove the task of coaching her. Twenty hours after the accident, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times printed its report; then it slowly filtered to the national press corps, which was never alerted by the White House.

Armstrong's account blaming the victim bore the mark of a classic Rove-engineered statement. No one at the White House had yet to say a word. The president, though he was well aware, made no query that would have ensured that in this extraordinary event the White House was operating properly and according to the letter of the law. Whether ignorant or informed, he remained passive, deferring to Cheney and Rove.

Both the vice-president and the deputy chief-of-staff, as it happens, owed their previous, lucrative jobs in the private sector to their relationships with the Armstrong family. Anne Armstrong, Katharine's mother, was on the board of Halliburton that made Dick Cheney its chief executive officer. Tobin Armstrong, Katharine's father, had financed Karl Rove & Co., Rove's political consulting firm. Katharine herself is a lobbyist for Houston law firm Baker Botts, a major Texas power-broker since it was founded in the 19th century by the family of James A Baker III, the former secretary of state and close associate of George HW Bush's.

Katharine Armstrong took up lobbying after her recent divorce. Her contracts include Parsons, a construction firm that has done work in Iraq, among others. Her business partner, Karen Johnson, a close friend of Rove's, does extensive business with the state department, the US Agency for International Development and defence contractors. But Armstrong's protestations to news media that she does not lobby Cheney should probably be taken at face value given her background.

The world of Texas royalty

Katharine Armstrong is linked to two family fortunes – those of Armstrong and King – that include extensive corporate holdings in land, cattle, banking and oil. No one in Texas, except perhaps Baker, but certainly not latecomer George W Bush, has a longer lineage in its political and economic elite. In 1983, Debrett's Peerage Ltd., publisher of Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage printed Debrett's Texas Peerage, featuring "the aristocrats of Texas", with the King family noted as the "Royal Family of Ranching."

The King Ranch, founded by Richard King in 1857, is the largest in Texas, and its wealth was vastly augmented by the discovery of oil on its tracts, making the family a major shareholder of Exxon. The King Ranch is the model for Edna Ferber's novel of Texas aristocracy, Giant.

John B Armstrong, a Texas Ranger and enforcer for the King Ranch, founded his own neighbouring ranch in 1882, buying it with the bounty of $4,000 he got for capturing the outlaw John Wesley Harding. In 1944, almost inevitably, the two fortunes became intertwined through marriage. Tobin Armstrong's brother John married the King Ranch heiress, who was also a Vassar classmate of Tobin's wife, Anne, who came from a wealthy New Orleans family.

The Armstrong Ranch developed far-flung holdings in Australia and South America. Meanwhile, President Ford appointed Anne, a major Republican activist, US ambassador to the United Kingdom, and President Reagan appointed her a member of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is reportedly Anne's best friend, and Anne was instrumental in launching her political career. Tobin, for his part, worked as an advisor to Texas Republican governor, William Clements, where he first encountered the young Karl Rove and decided to give him a helping hand when Rove struck out in the political business on his own.

The Armstrong family's Republican connections have continued and strengthened down to the latest generation of Bushes. Governor George W Bush appointed Anne a regent of Texas A&M University and Katharine a commission member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the agency that filed the report on the Cheney shooting. At Tobin's funeral last year, Cheney delivered the eulogy.

While the incident continues to unfold, the Bush administration is pressing a new budget in which oil companies would receive what is called "royalty relief", allowing them to pump about $65 billion of oil and natural gas from federal land over the next five years without paying any royalties to the government, costing the US treasury about $7 billion. For Texas royalty like the Armstrongs, it would amount to a windfall profit.

The curiosities surrounding the vice president's accident have created a contemporary version of The Rules of the Game with a Texas twist. In Jean Renoir's 1939 film, politicians and aristocrats mingle at a country-house in France over a long weekend, during which a merciless hunt ends with a tragic shooting. Appearing on the eve of the second world war, The Rules of the Game depicted a hypocritical, ruthless and decadent ruling class that made its own rules and led a society to the edge of catastrophe.

(Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton. He is the author of The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) and writes a column for Salon and the Guardian.)

2. The Ranch Where the Politicians Roam – by RICK LYMAN and ANNE E. KORNBLUT

MORE than a century before it became the scene of a vice presidential hunting accident, this humble stretch of property had connections to another gun incident.

On a manhunt in 1877, a hard-bitten Texas ranger named John B. Armstrong captured the notorious outlaw John Wesley Hardin after what the officer later described in a telegram back home as a "lively shooting" aboard a train in Florida. The capture made a hero of Mr. Armstrong, who bought a 50,000-acre plot from the owners of an old Spanish land grant using, according to one account, the $4,000 reward from the capture of the notorious gunman. When Mr. Armstrong died there in 1913, the land passed down to his heirs and soon was known by the family name.

Vice President Cheney's mishap on the property last weekend drew the curtain back on a place that has become a quiet destination for the powerful, rivaling Hyannisport, Kennebunkport and the Hamptons as a setting where important relationships have been nurtured. The rise of the Armstrong Ranch, and its even larger and more famous neighbor next door, the King Ranch, is as much a story of the rise of the Republican party in Texas , and George W. Bush as it is about the Armstrong family itself.

Over the last five decades, the Republican pilgrimage to the Armstrong Ranch has become a familiar ritual, dating back to the 1950's, when John Armstrong's descendant Tobin and his wife, Anne, first became active in Republican politics, putting them at the center of a small circle in a time when most Texans were still yellow dog Democrats. The South Texas property became a meeting place for rising political figures.

Now their children — including their daughter Katharine, who called her local newspaper to disclose the vice president's shooting of Harry M. Whittington — have inherited the perch. And even though Tobin Armstrong died at age 82 last year, invitations to the Armstrong Ranch remain sacred in Republican circles in the state — and are almost sure to remain so in the days ahead despite the site's recent infamy.

"When you say, 'I've been hunting with the Armstrongs,' or 'I've been down on the Armstrong Ranch,' that implies a certain level of status and insiderness," said Harvey Kronberg, the editor of The Quorum Report, the statewide political news publication. "The ranch itself is kind of a rite of passage for Texas Republicans. You go pay homage."

And many have paid their respects over the years — the Bushes and the Cheneys, Karl Rove , James A. Baker III, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry , have all been cited as participating in hunting trips or other social functions at the Armstrong Ranch. Mr. Cheney, in his one interview after the accident, made certain to note that Mr. Rove has also hunted there, declaring that both he and Mr. Rove are "good friends of the Armstrongs."

"If it could ever be said that a man could walk with kings yet keep the common touch, it was Tobin Armstrong," Mr. Cheney said at the funeral, according to the accounts at the time. The first lady, Laura Bush , also attended; three years earlier, when the British queen mother died, Anne and Tobin Armstrong accompanied Mrs. Bush as part of the United States delegation.

Ranches and power have gone hand in hand in Texas political history. The state's huge ranches — particularly the biggest, the South Texas ones — were patterned closely on the patron culture of the great Spanish ranches, with a landowner acting as almost a local sovereign, controlling the lives of the workers in his charge and deferred to in social and cultural matters, large and small.

The political power of the Texas ranches persisted into the 20th century. Representative Richard Kleberg came from the family that owned the King Ranch and was a powerhouse in Congress in the 1930's and 40's.

In the late 40's, opponents of young Lyndon B. Johnson accused him of stealing a United States Senate election by using the South Texas political bosses who were controlled by the ranch owners, something that Johnson always denied.

"Back in the '40's, Lyndon Johnson could still steal a Senate election in South Texas with the help of the big patrons," said Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

"But what happened is, in the late 60's and early 70's, is the feds came in and threw some people in handcuffs, along with some of the bosses of those South Texas counties, and it cleaned up a lot," he said. "But you notice, even today, you can still call the local sheriff and say, 'We've had an accident out on the ranch, not to worry, it's under control,' and the sheriff says, 'Yes ma'am, I'll drive out in the morning and we'll piece this thing together.' There's still a deference to the ranch owners that would astound most Americans."

If, in recent decades, the Armstrongs have been more politically connected than the other big, old ranch families, this is due in part to their personalities and to their overriding passion for transforming the Republican Party into a political force in Texas. But it is also because — unlike the Armstrong Ranch, which continued to be a family-run enterprise — many of the other big ranches, including the King Ranch, diversified into agribusiness conglomerates.

The Armstrongs derived their initial influence simply by being there: They were as close to aristocracy as the state had ever known, and became more so in 1944, when Tobin's brother married into the King family, whose adjacent ranch added even more wealth and prominence to the family.

Tobin Armstrong, who spent 48 years as the head of a prominent cattle industry association, married his wife, Anne, in 1950, and the pair spent the next five decades financing Republican candidates and serving in Republican administrations.

Mr. Armstrong had close ties to then Gov. Bill Clements, the first Republican to win the Texas Statehouse since Reconstruction — and whose campaign in 1978 was worked on by a young political operative named Karl Rove. When Mr. Rove opened his direct-mail consulting firm, Karl Rove & Company, beginning his career, it was with financial support from Mr. Armstrong.

By many accounts Mrs. Armstrong, the matriarch, was as much of a driving force in politics as her husband. A New Orleans native, from a wealthy family of her own, she was named counselor to President Richard Nixon . President Gerald Ford, for whom Mr. Cheney served as chief of staff, appointed her United States ambassador to Britain in 1976. In more recent years, she served on the boards of American Express and Halliburton, the energy company of which Mr. Cheney was chief executive before becoming vice president.

The family's relationship with George W. Bush is equally apparent: When he was governor of Texas, Mr. Bush appointed Mrs. Armstrong as a regent of Texas A & M, and made her daughter Katharine a member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission; she later became the chairwoman. She also became a lobbyist, and her clients include Mr. Baker's law firm, Baker Botts. Lobbying records show that Ms. Armstrong made at least $760,000 lobbying for clients in Washington in 2004 and 2005, and at least $300,000 working for four separate clients in Texas during that same period.

In the 2000 presidential cycle, both Katharine Armstrong and her parents were listed as Bush campaign "pioneers," fund-raisers who attracted $100,000 in donations for the Republican team.

As the family's influence rose, "going down to the Armstrong Ranch" became a phrase heard in Republican and Bush administration circles, conjuring up images of party luminaries gathering, as they did last weekend, for intimate weekends away.

"These are the deep pocket people, and that's the ancient tradition of the region," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin. "It's just the way big money operators wield influence."

Mr. Buchanan added: "Here in Texas they just happen to use ranches. Up on the East Coast they use boats."

(Rick Lyman reported from Armstrong, Tex., for this article and Anne E. Kornblut from Washington. Glen Justice contributed reporting from Washington.)

3. Dick Cheney Did Not Make a Mistake By Not Telling the Press He Shot a Guy –- from Jay Rosen’s PressThink

"The public visibility of the presidency itself is under revision. More of it lies in shadow all the time. Non-communication has become the standard procedure, not a breakdown in practice but the essence of it... With these changes, executive power has grown more illegible under Bush."

Among the angry, amused and jaded reactions to Dick Cheney’s methods for informing the nation about his hunting accident, the views of Marlin Fitzwater were of special interest to me. Fitzwater—former press secretary to both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, a loyal Republican—knows how things used to work.

He was livid. “It is all Cheney,” he told Editor & Publisher . “He is the key that has to start all this.” Fitzwater explained what is supposed to happen. The Vice President’s press secretary acts as a kind of journalist within the Cheney camp.

“What he should have done was call his press secretary and tell her what happened and she then would have gotten a hold of the doctor and asked him what happened. Then interview [ranch owner] Katharine Armstrong to get her side of events and then put out a statement to inform the public.

“They could have done all of that in about two hours on Saturday. It is beyond me why it was not done this way.”

Well, it’s not beyond me. The way I look at it, Cheney took the opportunity to show the White House press corps that it is not the natural conduit to the nation-at-large; and it has no special place in the information chain. Cheney does not grant legitimacy to the large news organizations with brand names who think of themselves as proxies for the public and its right to know. Nor does he think the press should know where he is, what he’s doing, or who he’s doing it with.

Fitzwater said he was “appalled by the whole handling of this,” which is refreshing. But he seems to think the Vice President erred somehow. I’m not sure that’s right. Howard Kurtz said it too . “Seriously: What were they thinking?”

“The vice president of the United States shoots a man—accidentally, to be sure, this was no Aaron Burr situation—and White House officials wait a whole day and don’t tell the press? Did they think it wouldn’t get out? No one would care? It would remain secret as a matter of national security?”

“This is going to ricochet for days,” Kurtz said on Tuesday. The title of his column that day: Monumental Misfire. I’m not sure that’s right, either.

How does it hurt Bush if for three days this week reporters are pummeling Scott McClellan over the details of when they were informed about Cheney’s hunting accident? That’s three days this week they won’t be pummeling Scott McClellan over the details of this article from Foreign Affairs by Paul R. Pillar, the ex-CIA man who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year.

Here’s what the article says: “During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq… the Bush administration disregarded the community’s expertise, politicized the intelligence process, and selected unrepresentative raw intelligence to make its public case.” Pillar was there; if anyone would know he would.

The handling of the news that Cheney shot someone is consistent with many things we know about the Vice President— and about the Bush Administration’s policies toward the press. Though I admire his professionalism, I wish Fitzwater were a little less appalled and a little more attuned to the new set of rules put in place by the Bush White House, especially the rules for Dick Cheney.

The public visibility of the presidency itself is under revision, Marvin. More of it lies in shadow all the time. Non-communication has become the standard procedure, not a breakdown in practice but the essence of it. What Dan Froomkin calls the Bush Bubble is designed to keep more of the world out. Cheney himself is almost a shadow figure in the executive branch. His whereabouts are often not known. With these changes, executive power has grown more illegible under Bush the Younger— a sign of the times in Washington.

This week David Sanger of the New York Times described “Mr. Cheney’s habit of living in his own world in the Bush White House — surrounded by his own staff, relying on his own instincts, saying as little as possible.”

And at the same time expanding the reach of his office. “In the past five years, Mr. Cheney has grown accustomed to having a power center of his own, with his own miniature version of a national security council staff,” writes Sanger. “President Bush has allowed Cheney to become perhaps the most powerful vice president in history and has provided him with unparalleled autonomy,” say Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker in the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, the reclamation of powers lost to the executive branch after Vietnam and Watergate goes on; Cheney is known to be the driver. When this project reaches the press it turns into what I have called rollback — “Back ‘em up, starve ‘em down, and drive up their negatives.” Cheney’s methods after the hunting accident were classics in rollback thinking.

Listen to Fitzwater explain what should have happened, pre-rollback:

“If [Cheney’s] press secretary had any sense about it at all, she would have gotten the story together and put it out. Calling AP, UPI, and all of the press services. That would have gotten the story out and it would have been the right thing to do, recognizing his responsibility to the people as a nationally elected official, to tell the country what happened.”

But Cheney figures he told the country “what happened.” What he did not do is tell the national press , which he does not trust to inform the country anyway. Making sense yet? Ranch owner Katharine Armstrong is someone he trusts. He treated the shooting as a private matter between private persons on private land that should be disclosed at the property owner’s discretion to the townsfolk (who understand hunting accidents, and who know the Armstrongs ) via their local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times .

“I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knew and understood hunting,” he told Britt Hume of Fox News.

From the Caller-Times it got to the Web, then the AP and CNN. And there you are: The American people were informed of the basic facts (though not at the speed journalists want) and Cheney did not have to meet questions from the press, an institution without power or standing in his world. “I thought that was the right call,” Cheney said yesterday on Fox. “I still do.” (He also said the furor among reporters is just jealousy at being scooped by the Caller-Times.)

Press thinkers, Dick Cheney did not make a mistake . He followed procedure— his procedure. As Bill Plante, White House reporter for CBS News said at Public Eye , “No other vice president in the White Houses I’ve covered has had the ability to write his own rules the way this one has. He operates in his own sphere, with the apparent acceptance of the president.”

Cheney has long held the view that the powers of the presidency were dangerously eroded in the 1970s and 80s. The executive “lost” perogatives it needed to gain back for the global struggle with Islamic terror. “Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam both during the 70’s served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area,” he said in December.

Some of that space was lost to the news media, and its demand to be informed about all aspects of the presidency, plus its sense of entitlement to the star interlocutor’s role. Cheney opposes all that, whereas Fitzwater accepted most of it. That’s why Fitz is appalled and Cheney is rather pleased with himself.

The people yelling questions at Scott McClellan in the briefing room, like the reporters in the Washington bureaus who cover the president, are in Cheney’s calculations neither a necessary evil, nor a public good. They are an unnecessary evil and a public bad— ex-influentials who can be disrespected without penalty.

I thought I would be featuring at PressThink this week a long and (I thought) very interesting Q and A with John Harris, the political editor of the Washington Post. It was completed over the weekend, but at the last minute Harris pulled the plug and decided against publishing the interview, which we had worked on for several weeks. (I’d tell you the reason, but I don’t know the reason.)

Unfortunately, I cannot bring you his replies, but I can show you one of the questions I asked Harris. It was my attempt to lay out what has happened to the press under Bush, and Cheney. This, I think, is the proper background for events after Saturday’s shooting…

You wrote a book about Clinton, and you have covered junior Bush, and so you are more than qualified to dispute my thesis in this next question, which is a little long (but then this is PressThink.)

I think the Bush years have been a disaster for the Washington press. In my view, the White House withdrew from a consensus understanding of how the executive branch had to deal with journalists. It correctly guessed that if it changed the game on you, you wouldn’t develop a new game of your own, or be able to react. I believe this strategy is still working, too.

The old understanding, which lasted from Kennedy to Gore, was that the White House has a right to get its message out, and the press has a right to probe and question, and so there will always be tensions in the relationship. There will always be spin. There will always be stonewalling. There will always be attempts to manipulate the press.

Likewise, there will always be pack journalism. The press will always exploit internal conflict and make juicy stories from it. Because of its appetite for anything it regards as the “inside” story, the press will always be vulnerable to manipulation by leak. It will always seize on miscues and call them missteps.

But despite all this, and the struggles and complaints, the parties would end up cooperating most of the time because presidents “need to get their message out” (that was the phrase) and communicate with the country, while journalists need stories, pictures, quotes, drama— news from the power center of the world.

And so a rough balance of power existed during that era; people could even imagine that the press had a semi-permanent or quasi-official “place” in the political order. It was known that White Houses tried to manage the news, which was part of governing. It was also known that there were limits on its ability to do so.

But where, John, is it written that these limits will always be observed? What prevents a new understanding from coming into power in the White House, one that withdraws from the earlier consensus? In fact, there is nothing to prevent it; and I would argue that the Bush forces have done exactly that. They sensed that the old press system was weakened and they changed the game on you. They knew you wouldn’t react because to do so would look “too political.”

Other White Houses had a “line of the day” they wanted to push. None had a spokesman like Scott McClellan who, no matter what the question, will mindlessly repeat the line of the day as a way of showing journalists that they have no rights to an answer. That isn’t “spin,” although it may superficially look like spin. That’s shutting down the podium and emptying out the briefing room without saying you’re doing it.

Armstrong Williams isn’t business-as-usual, it’s changing the game. Not meet the press— be the press ! But at least the contract that paid Williams $240,000 was undisclosed. Look at the disclosed picture: The Bush team has openly said they don’t believe in the fourth estate role for the press. They have openly said: big journalism is a special interest. Bush has openly denied that journalists represent Americans’ interest in anything, including the public’s right to know. Bush is openly hostile to questions that aren’t from friendlies.

Dick Cheney will look into the eyes of a journalist on television and deny saying what he’s on tape saying! And when the first tape is played on the air, then the second, it doesn’t prompt any revision from his office. That too suggests a new game, in which flagrant factual contradiction is not a problem, but itself a form of cultural politics. Different game.

On top of that, the Republican party gains political traction and excites its base through the act of discrediting journalists as the liberal media. I don’t recall the Democratic Party developing any coalition like that. The liberal media charge is part of the way the GOP operates today— routinely. On top of that secrecy by the executive branch has reached levels beyond anything you have dealt with in your career.

Aside from the coverage of weapons of mass destruction, which is seen to have failed, my sense is that you and your colleagues think you have handled the challenge of covering this government pretty darn well. (Correct me if I am wrong.) The game hasn’t changed, you contend. We’re still in a recognizable, fourth-estate, meet-the-press, rather than beat-the-press universe. Those—like me—who accuse Bush of taking extraordinary measures to marginalize, discredit, refute (and pollute) the press are said to be exaggerating the cravenness of this Adminstration and ignoring the parallels and precedents in other White Houses, including the Democratic ones.

Actually, I may have understated the magnitude of the change Bush and company have brought to your world, because I didn’t connect the pattern we can find in journalism to the Bush Administration’s treatment of science , its mistreatment of career professionals and other experts in government, and of course its use and misuse of intelligence. All have to be downgraded, distorted, deterred because they’re a drag—also called a check—on executive power and the Bush team’s freedom from fact.

To offer one more example, there’s no precedent that I’m aware of for what’s happened to public information officers under this Bush. These are the government’s own flaks who have to be brought to heel by the political people, who want to erode any trace of professionalism. That’s changing the game; and to say in response, “well, there have always been flaks, Clinton had flaks, Carter had flaks” is just pointless and dumb.

[You’ve said you believe in a] mainstream press that is detached from the fight for power, and I would like to believe in that too. I think it’s noble. I think it’s necessary. How can you have an independent press without that kind of distance? But power—the executive power under Bush—hasn’t “detached” itself from the press, John. Not at all. It is actively trying to weaken journalism, so that it can over-ride what the newspapers say, and act like they don’t exist.

Finally, then, here are my questions for you: Do you ever worry that Bush might have changed the game on you, and put in practice a different set of rules? And if you don’t worry about that, why the hell not? And why shouldn’t you guys—the Post and the press corps at large— change the game on Bush and company?

I found something disingenuous about the performance of the White House press this week. Like when David Gregory of NBC News asked McClellan, “Does the President think it’s appropriate for the Vice President to essentially make decisions at odds with the public disclosure process of this White House?” This was an attempt to exploit the tensions between McClellan’s office and Cheney’s office after McClellan said he would have handled the news differently.

Tensions in the White House staff are fun to cover, but when that story dies down in a day or two journalists will be back where they were— pretending that we’re still in a recognizable universe, where to meet the press is to face the nation, and the White House sooner or later has to disclose.


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