- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006

From September 11, 2001 to the summer of 2003, Torie Clarke was one of the most recognizable people on television. As Pentagon spokeswoman and assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, she had the job of explaining some truly momentous events. Because of her daily briefings with the press corps, she quickly became second only to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the most visible face of the defense department.

Mrs. Clarke left her defense job in June 2003 and has now written “Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game,” which reveals much about the inner workings of the Pentagon’s public relations. It also frequently delves into her earlier career, which may surprise readers who know her only for her Pentagon position.

Mrs. Clarke has in fact had a long career in political public relations. She was a close advisor to Sen. John McCain in the late 1980s and was press secretary for George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign. In those jobs, she learned much about the virtue of openness and developed a firm conviction that “in the Information Age, the bad news is going to get out.” She writes, “The only questions are who will tell it first and will they tell it accurately.” Her book intends to show how this is so and serves as a primer on ways to ensure effective communication.

One of the book’s strengths is how it illustrates the Pentagon’s concern for effective and nearly constant communication with the news media, and how the DOD’s leadership understood the role of such communication in the first war of the 21st century.

We learn that Mrs. Clarke was in the room during most of the classified briefings between Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Myers, General Tommy Franks and other top military commanders as they planned for both Afghanistan and Iraq. “My presence in the room was a deliberate signal by Rumsfeld that communications would be a top priority should hostilities occur,” she explains, noting that he was “one of the few people who instinctively understood how the Information Age had changed military conflict forever.”

Clearly the Pentagon intended to stay well on top of any developing story and did its best to be in a position to shape the way the war reached the eyes and ears of the American public. This determination also led to the decision to “embed” reporters with the units invading Iraq “on a scale and scope that made it quantitatively and qualitatively different” from all previous press coverage from the front lines.

Mrs. Clarke says that the primary reason for doing this was simply that “we had a good story to tell” about the professionalism, selfless dedication, and abilities of American soldiers, whom she clearly respects. Second, “to the extent problems should occur, transparency … was the best guarantor that they would be fixed quickly.” And third, she writes, “when we just plain made mistakes — which was inevitable — the only way to maintain our credibility was to own up to them quickly.”

Recounting these decisions gives the reader an appreciation of how much thought went into keeping the American public apprised of the war’s progress, and allows us to see the military establishment in a very different light from the outdated cliches about “secrecy above all else” and the inevitability of antagonism between military and media.

Another strength of the book is Mrs. Clarke’s behind-the-scenes look at her coworkers in the Pentagon, most of all Mr. Rumsfeld himself, who comes across as open, honest and dedicated. “He’s better at admitting mistakes — and has a faster instinct for doing so — than anyone else I know,” she says.

Her account of the notorious Abu Ghraib affair and Mr. Rumsfeld’s handling of it (she calls his reponse “a true act of responsibility, accountability, and courage,” and reminds us that he offered his resignation to the president twice) deftly combines the book’s dual purpose as guide to dealing with the press and as revelations of a Pentagon insider.

These days, amid stories of retired generals venting their disapproval of Mr. Rumsfeld and endless speculation about his resignation, Mrs. Clarke’s account of an able man who “takes no joy in war” is refreshing. One has to wonder if she would be making more high-profile appearances on the morning talk shows if she had chosen to portray her former boss in a more negative light.

The book is not without its frustrations, however. One source of these is an apparent attempt to be applicable to the business and corporate world. The book is written with sentences that read fast, a tone that sometimes borders on the breezy and chapters that encapsulate individual lessons.

Mrs. Clarke begins by recounting John McCain’s handling of his tangential relationship to the infamous Keating savings and loan scandals, which she distills to pithy lessons to “own up,” “stand up,” and “speak up.” Later on she moves effortlessly from the Afghan War to anecdotes about the ways in which Martha Stewart dealt with the press during her prison time to how pharmaceutical company Merck handled the negative press surrounding Vioxx. “Negative information will get out,” she warns again, “one way or another.”

This is no doubt true, of course, but we don’t necessarily need to hear about corporate scandals from Torie Clarke. Any number of media consultants could say the same thing and, more importantly, far fewer people could offer the kind of insight into arguably the biggest issue of our day that Mrs. Clarke can.

As the book veers from stories about the “War on Terror” to mundane accounts of her job with the National Cable Television Association — and a frustratingly simple recitation of the lessons learned in each arena — a reader begins to sense a desire not so much on the part of the author but perhaps on the part of the publisher to make this book appeal more to executives who will read it on an airplane between business meetings. It is notable that the classification printed in the upper left-hand corner of the back cover is “business & economics” instead of “current events,” “politics,” “history,” or something more gripping. The book’s classification hints at its major weakness.

Its strength on the other hand is encapsulated in the account of a soot-smeared Donald Rumsfeld, pungent with smoke, firmly holding the reins of the Pentagon on September 11. We don’t need Torie Clarke to write a typical how-to business book about effective communication. We need Torie Clarke to give us a glimpse into relationship between the military and the press in the 21st century. To the extent she does, this is an eye-opening book.

David A. Smith teaches history at Baylor University in Waco, Tex.

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