Joe Conason's Journal

A rare, unvarnished look at the Rove spin machine. Plus: The press goes soft on Kissinger.

By Salon Staff
Published December 2, 2002 5:26PM (EST)

The Prince (of Mayberry)
In a few days, Esquire's long, extraordinary account of how national policy is manipulated by the "Mayberry Machiavellis," otherwise known as Karl Rove and his political staff, will arrive at your local newsstands. Author Ron Suskind, a deceptively gentle writer whose reporting on this White House provides an important corrective to the usual banal products of the Beltway press corps, has once more performed an important public service. So have his editors David Granger and Mark Warren. Buy their magazine immediately, if only to encourage the kind of probing journalism that has become so rare in our media culture.

While you wait, I can offer a few choice quotes from John DiIulio, former director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, whose disillusioning experience is at the center of Suskind's story.

The "Mayberry Machiavellis," according to this decidedly nonliberal academic, "consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessors in previous administrations (right and left, Democrat and Republican), but in the Bush administration they were particularly unfettered.

"I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis ... Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking: discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera ..."

DiIulio deplores "the remarkably slapdash character of the Office of Homeland Security, with the nine months of arguing that no department was needed, with the sudden, politically timed reversal in June, and with the fact that not even that issue, the most significant reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, has received more than talking-points-caliber deliberation ..."

DiIulio still regards himself as a Bush supporter, and as one of the few staffers who has ever stood up to Rove, he admires the political advisor's intelligence. But he regards Rove's overweening presence as a source of serious problems both inside and outside the White House.

"Some in the press view Karl as some sort of prince of darkness; actually, he is basically a nice and good-humored man. And some staff members, senior and junior, are awed and cowed by Karl's real or perceived powers. They self-censor lots for fear of upsetting him, and in turn few of the president's top people tell the president what they really think if they think that Karl will be brought up short in the bargain. Karl is enormously powerful, maybe the single most powerful person in the modern post-Hoover era ever to occupy a political adviser post near the Oval Office. The Republican base constituencies, including Beltway libertarian policy elites and religious-Right leaders, trust him to keep Bush 43 from behaving like Bush 41 ..."

Ari Fleischer may have a little trouble knocking this story down, or suggesting that the most salient quotes are wrong -- despite today's strange "apology" from DiIulio (who won't be doing much typing with those broken arms). You see, most of what he says in Suskind's article is quoted from a seven-page, on-the-record letter, which is posted here.

Deep Sy (pronounced "sigh")
I may have been too quick to recommend a Kissinger Commission seat for Sy Hersh, the New Yorker investigative reporter, who was interviewed today on Pacifica's Democracy Now.
[4:27 p.m. PST, Dec. 2, 2002]

The press assumes the (prone) position
The mainstream press has performed poorly, as predicted, in the face of Henry Kissinger's outrageous appointment to chair the "independent" commission on 9/11. Although a few mildly worded editorials have questioned Kissinger's past record and present conflicts of interest, notably in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, the media's investigation of the investigator has been noticeably limp.

In response to the very mildest questions about his private clients, the old reprobate spouts his usual non sequiturs: "No law firm discloses its clients," he declares in the New York Times today. Of course, that's false on two counts: His firm doesn't practice law, and law firms are required to disclose their lobbying clients on Capitol Hill, in every state capital and in most city halls. He also noted that he "had no clients in the government of Saudi Arabia," but he represents no governments at all -- just corporations that want favors from governments. (I'm familiar with this phony routine because I investigated Kissinger's ties to the U.S. Iraq-Business Forum, a Washington lobby that fronted for Saddam, before the Gulf War. My editors at the New Republic received a furious letter from Henry that addressed none of the facts in the article.)

The Times story by Katharine Q. Seelye did nothing to advance public knowledge about Kissinger's clients or conflicts, although she did find a tendentious way to connect Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a White House critic, to Kissinger Associates through H.J. Heinz, the condiment giant. (Kerry's wife, Teresa, is the widow of a Heinz heir and controls the fortune he left.)

Here's another worrisome sign about the Kissinger appointment: William Safire thinks his old pal Henry is just about perfect for this job, and waves away all the ethical questions. (I know this is a digression, but has anyone else noticed that Safire has taken to preening in almost every column now? It began with frequent references to his late-night phone calls with his pal "Arik" Sharon, and now it's getting worse. The other day he proclaimed himself a "shtarker," Yiddish for tough guy, and today he reminds us that he once appeared in a David Levine cartoon and sat in Edward Bennett Williams' Redskins box.) Meanwhile, more probing examinations of Kissinger's history can be found here and here (where Hitchens posted a column foaming with fury, though not exactly tough on the White House, on the same day I wondered what he would write).

For real balance, maybe an investigative reporter who has covered Kissinger should be appointed to an open seat on the commission. Is Seymour Hersh available?

[9:25 a.m. PST, Dec. 2, 2002]

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Salon Staff

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