- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Journalists and politicians tend to exaggerate events, overdraw inferences, leap to insupportable conclusions and obliterate the context of innocent little facts. Now, with Washington on a war footing, there seem to be even more of these missteps than usual. In fact, for many Washington types, these shortcomings seem to constitute a professional ethos.
One of the earliest victims of such distortions is the unfortunately named deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs and sometime Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem. Charles Dickens the master of onomatopoeic names couldn't have come up with a more discouragingly suggestive set of syllables for a spokesman. Stufflebeem is surely an ancient and honored name, but to the modern ear it cruelly evokes the thought of a stumblebum. Stufflebeems must always be on their guard against stumbling. But a few weeks ago, this Stufflebeem stumbled and Washington pounced. I feel obliged to come to his rescue.
His statement that he was surprised at the tenacity of the Taliban soldiers has been quoted and ridiculed around the world. With all the zeal of an eight-year-old catching his father in a minor mistake, smarty-pants network anchors, talk-television and radio hosts and commentators have scornfully observed that the soldiers who fought and beat the Soviet Red Army were obviously going to be tenacious.
Worried foreigners have converted the rear admiral's statement into an indictment of our entire military establishment. Last week, I talked with a diplomat from a friendly Middle East country who expressed alarm that "The president and the Pentagon could have so misjudged your adversary."
Well, before this becomes one of the great founding myths of the current war, let me put his statement in context. Of course, I am under the disadvantage that I actually observed his press briefing that day. The admiral was giving his usual careful, precise description of events. He opened up for questions, all but one of which he answered impeccably. The one he stumbled over was the seemingly innocuous question: "What has surprised you about the war so far?" Adm. Stufflebeem paused, he thought, he looked up to the heavens, he paused again and then he spoke the historic words that he was surprised at the tenacity of the enemy.
Obviously, nothing really surprised him. He hadn't come to the briefing room to deliver the message that he was surprised at the enemy's tenacity. He was struggling to come up with an answer any answer. He made a simple press secretary's mistake he accepted the premise of the reporter's question. And, being a military planner not a professional press secretary he tried to satisfy the reporter with an answer. One could see him physically straining to try to come up with a safe, polite response.
It's my guess that he didn't want to say anything brash. Being a gallant warrior himself, he probably didn't want to insult the enemy with cheap braggadocio. So he uttered the polite version of the statement: I'll give it to the little buggers they'll die with their boots on.
Nobody who has watched the learned admiral brief over the last six weeks could honestly believe that he wasn't aware of recent Afghani military history. His answer was a little bit of fluff mere inconsequential verbiage. Only gotcha journalism by the reporters, poor judgment by their editors, and sleazy sensationalism by the chattering class could have converted the admiral's statement into a worldwide news event.
Normally, the reportorial knifing of an agency spokesman by a gang of reporters wouldn't justify comment. Those of us who make our careers plying the mean streets of Washington politics and journalism know the game and take our beatings walking. This isn't a business for children or bleeders.
But we are at war and a particularly dangerous one. It is a war of coalitions and propaganda, of national will and steadfastness. Even with God on our side, many of our fellow citizens and noble warriors may perish before it's over. And, if we are to prevail, we are going to have to change many of our nasty if formerly harmless habits here in Washington.
We reporters and politicians, lobbyists, lawyers and publicists we happy herd of swine need to think through the consequences of our words and conduct. It is my sense that too many of the Washington political class are taking this war only about 40 percent as seriously as we should. There is still too much game-playing and partisanship, too much bureaucratic turf-battling, too much leaking and positioning too much reporting and misreporting as usual.
During World War II there was a song whose lyrics should be our guide today: "There's a lady who stands in the harbor, she's a symbol of liberty. There's a torch in her hand, and she's guarding our land, the land of the brave and the free. If you want to be sure of your future, don't forget that it's all up to you. Use your head and your heart, show the world that you're smart wrap your dreams in the red, white and blue."


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