The Magazine

To Tell the Truth

Nov 5, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 08 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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NINE MONTHS HAVE NOW GONE BY, and we, like most Americans, find much to praise in the conduct of George W. Bush's presidency--especially his recent assumption of wartime leadership.

But we are a bit concerned by one aspect of the administration's performance these past couple of weeks: In the much-noted fumblings of its recent public statements on terrorism, the Bush executive branch has exhibited a pronounced weakness for spin.

Consider the Defense Department's shifting answers to those moronic "have we won yet?" questions the Pentagon press corps seems unable to resist asking. Two weeks ago, worried, apparently, that the country expected instant success in Afghanistan, DoD spokesmen were full of talk about how an infant American air campaign had already "eviscerated" the Taliban. Wednesday last week, worried, apparently, that they had thus raised expectations a mite too high, Pentagon briefers made haste to caution that certain Talibanic viscera remained very much in place. "I am a bit surprised at how doggedly they're hanging onto power," Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem remarked. It's "a very difficult situation," rather like "looking for a needle in a haystack," said secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. "I just don't know whether we'll be successful."

And the very next day, worried, apparently, that such a downbeat assessment might weaken public support for the war, Rumsfeld walked back his words higgledy-piggledy, as if it were the most natural thing on Earth to do: We "fully intend to find [the al Qaeda leadership] and chase them to ground and root them out and stop them from doing what they're doing."

Got that?

At least the Pentagon's missteps have involved only relatively trivial responses of the "what grade I would give myself" variety. On the homefront, by contrast, administration officials have repeatedly made spin-driven errors of basic fact about the most urgent public health issues imaginable. Early on, obviously on guard lest the natives grow panicky, Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson coolly--and irresponsibly--speculated that Florida tabloid photo editor Robert Stevens might have innocently contracted a fatal case of anthrax by drinking contaminated water from the stream where he fished.

Long after it was clear that postal terrorism was involved--and trace amounts of anthracis bacilli had been located at an off-site White House mail facility--the administration still seemed to think that preventing public hysteria, evidence for which was virtually nonexistent, was more important than communicating essential information. Four times at a photo op last Tuesday, reporters directly asked the president whether he himself had thought it necessary to be tested for exposure to anthrax. Four times last Tuesday he refused to say.

The next day, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced that "people should feel safe opening their mail." U.S. Postmaster General John Potter had already publicly acknowledged "I can't offer a guarantee" any such thing is true.

The White House worries about appearing competent and in control. So homeland security czar Tom Ridge talks like a county councilman up for reelection: "The response at all levels of government was immediate and comprehensive." And the "scope and strength of our country's bio-defense network" has been impressive. And Ridge talks to the president "two or three or four times a day." And the anti-anthrax work of the various government agencies he's charged with coordinating has so far been characterized by "extraordinary collaboration."

This last claim is a stretch, as innumerable senior administration officials have lately admitted on background. But Ari Fleischer has angrily repudiated his more candid colleagues. You can't trust unnamed sources, he contends. "If they thought they were right, they'd put their name on it." Does Fleischer imagine they think they're wrong?

And so on.

The Bushies do not lie and hide the way their predecessors habitually did. What the Clinton administration failed to understand was that truthfulness and transparency in government aren't simply inconvenient virtues, but positive constitutional obligations. We have a solitary chief executive, Hamilton famously explained in Federalist 70, because the office demands deliberate, directed "energy" that would be impossible were presidential authority divided among several men. And for this energy to remain secure, Hamilton went on, citizens must have confidence that it is being exercised wisely. Which is another advantage of having a single president: He's easier to keep tabs on. So precisely in order to fulfill his necessary leadership responsibilities, the president is required to subject himself to full and constant public inspection.