President Bush is finally applying some of the lessons of public relations grudgingly taught and probably reluctantly learned at the Harvard Business School.
Politics is difficult to reduce to a spreadsheet, though our masters of business administration can’t resist trying. But over the past several days George W. has offered details of the how and when of what America can accomplish in Iraq, and yesterday he even called an unexpected press conference to explain why it’s a good idea for government agents to eavesdrop on certain telephone conversations without a warrant.
Some of the president’s explanations are more persuasive than others, but speaking out with as much candor as he can is what Mr. Bush should have been doing a long time ago, for his own good as well as for ours. George W. can be a very charming fellow when he wants to be, persuasive when he moves beyond the inevitable clichs and canned phrases of the talking-points memo. But like every CEO who ever got a key to his own washroom, he can sometimes come across as impatient and even dismissive of the legitimate concerns of the customers. Presidents of principalities as well as presidents of companies, as grand as they are, are subject like everyone else to the temptations of power and authority. You could ask Lord Acton. Explaining himself every now and then is good for any president’s soul (or at least for his approval rating).
A careful listener could hear the president occasionally gritting his teeth yesterday, prefacing nearly every answer with, “I appreciate that.” Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t, but it’s reassuring to know that he heard the questions. This president, like the 42 before him, expects the rest of us to take a lot on faith, to take as an article of that faith that whatever he does he does for us. Most of the time, if not all of the time, he probably does. But we’re entitled to apply the formula enunciated on a different occasion by Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.”
Most of the questions posed to the president yesterday were about his authorizing government agents to eavesdrop on telephone conversations between terrorists. Such conversations ought to be eavesdropped on. But why, several interlocutors wanted to know, must the government be allowed to do this without the authority of easily obtained warrants? A conveniently obscure court, established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, was established for just this purpose.
“First of all,” the president replied, “right after September 11, I knew we were fighting a different kind of war, and so I asked people in my administration to analyze how best for me and our government to do the job people expect us to do, which is to detect and prevent a possible attack. … We looked at the possible scenarios. And the people responsible for helping us protect and defend came forth with the current program, because it enables us to move faster and quicker.”
This sounds reasonable enough, but it also sounds as much about convenience as about necessity. The weight of the U.S. government is awesome, and no president ever runs short of government lawyers to devise imaginative scenarios and compliant judges eager to sign the necessary papers to enable the cops to do whatever they have to do to suppress evil. Dispensing with technicalities and formalities can make a policeman’s lot a happier one, but making the enforcers happy is not what the law in its majesty is meant to be about. Plumbers, bishops and scullery maids would like their tasks made easier, too.
A wiretap, as one of the president’s congressional critics noted yesterday, is no less effective for having been authorized by a competent court. “It will not get you better intelligence and it will not make us safer as a nation,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It only excuses the government from having to justify its conduct through constitutional checks and balances.”
Several others of the president’s Democratic critics couldn’t wait to pounce with the usual ration of vitriol, dispensed with the usual portion of bad faith. Sen. Harry Reid, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate who is very good at reducing everything to a partisan obstruction, demonstrated once more his skill at playing the patriot game: “The president … should stop playing politics …”
But politics is what the business of government is all about. That’s what presidents and senators come to Washington to do, to explain, to argue and maneuver for judicious compromise. The president has been doing that skillfully for the past week.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.