Among the angry, amused and jaded reactions to Dick Cheney's methods for informing the nation about his hunting accident, the views of Marlin Fitzwater were of special interest to me. Fitzwater--former press secretary to both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, a loyal Republican--knows how things used to work.
And he was livid. "It is all Cheney," he told Editor & Publisher. "He is the key that has to start all this." Fitzwater explained what is supposed to happen. The Vice President's press secretary acts as a kind of journalist within the Cheney camp:
"What he should have done was call his press secretary and tell her what happened and she then would have gotten a hold of the doctor and asked him what happened. Then interview [ranch owner] Katharine Armstrong to get her side of events and then put out a statement to inform the public. They could have done all of that in about two hours on Saturday. It is beyond me why it was not done this way."
Well, it's not beyond me. The way I look at it, Cheney took the opportunity to show the White House press corps that it is not the natural conduit to the nation-at-large; and it has no special place in the information chain. Cheney does not grant legitimacy to the large news organizations with brand names who think of themselves as proxies for the public and its right to know. (David Gregory of NBC News: "I see myself as a proxy for the public that has raised questions about what happened.") Nor does he think the press should know where he is, what he's doing, or who he's doing it with.
Fitzwater said he was "appalled by the whole handling of this," which is refreshing. But he seems to think the Vice President erred somehow. I'm not sure that's right. Howard Kurtz said it too. "Seriously: What were they thinking?"
The vice president of the United States shoots a man--accidentally, to be sure, this was no Aaron Burr situation--and White House officials wait a whole day and don't tell the press? Did they think it wouldn't get out? No one would care? It would remain secret as a matter of national security?
"This is going to ricochet for days," Kurtz wrote on Tuesday. The title of his column: Monumental Misfire. I'm not sure that's right, either.
How does it hurt Bush if for three days this week reporters were pummeling Scott McClellan over the details of when they were informed about Cheney's hunting accident? That's three days this week they weren't pummeling Scott McClellan over the details of this article from Foreign Affairs by Paul R. Pillar, the ex-CIA man who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year.
Here's the plot: "During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq , writes the intelligence community's former senior analyst for the Middle East, the Bush administration disregarded the community's expertise, politicized the intelligence process, and selected unrepresentative raw intelligence to make its public case." Pillar was there as the product was shaped; if anyone would know he would.
The handling of the news that Cheney shot someone is consistent with many things we know about the Vice President-- and about the Bush Administration's policies toward the press. Though I admire his professionalism, I wish Fitzwater were a little less appalled and a little more attuned to the new set of rules put in place by the Bush White House, especially the rules for Dick Cheney.
The public visibility of the presidency itself is under revision. More of it lies in shadow all the time. Non-communication has become the standard procedure, not a breakdown in practice but the essence of it. What Dan Froomkin calls the Bush Bubble is designed to keep more of the world out. Cheney himself is almost a shadow figure in the executive branch. His whereabouts are often not known. With these changes, executive power has grown more illegible under Bush the Younger-- a sign of the times in Washington.
This week David Sanger of the New York Times described "Mr. Cheney's habit of living in his own world in the Bush White House -- surrounded by his own staff, relying on his own instincts, saying as little as possible."
And at the same time expanding the reach of his office. "In the past five years, Mr. Cheney has grown accustomed to having a power center of his own, with his own miniature version of a national security council staff," writes Sanger. "President Bush has allowed Cheney to become perhaps the most powerful vice president in history and has provided him with unparalleled autonomy," say Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker in the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, the reclamation of powers lost to the executive branch after Vietnam and Watergate goes on; Cheney is known to be the driver. When this project reaches the press it turns into what I have called rollback-- "Back 'em up, starve 'em down, and drive up their negatives." Cheney's methods after the hunting accident were classics in rollback thinking.
Listen to Fitzwater explain what should have happened, pre-rollback:
"If [Cheney's] press secretary had any sense about it at all, she would have gotten the story together and put it out. Calling AP, UPI, and all of the press services. That would have gotten the story out and it would have been the right thing to do, recognizing his responsibility to the people as a nationally elected official, to tell the country what happened."
But Cheney figures he told the country "what happened." What he did not do is tell the national press, which he does not trust to inform the country anyway. Making sense yet? Ranch owner Katharine Armstrong is someone he trusts. He treated the shooting as a private matter between private persons on private land that should be disclosed at the property owner's discretion to the townsfolk (who understand hunting accidents, and who know the Armstrongs) via their local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
"I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knew and understood hunting," he told Britt Hume of Fox News.
From the Caller-Times it got to the Web, then the AP and CNN. And there you are: The American people were informed of the basic facts (though not at the speed journalists want) and Cheney did not have to meet questions from the press, an institution without power or standing in his world. "I thought that was the right call," Cheney said in his appearance on friendly Fox. "I still do."
He also said the furor among reporters is just jealousy at being scooped. "They didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times. But it strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as The New York Times is, especially for covering a major story in south Texas."
My friends, Dick Cheney did not make a mistake when he routed around the press. He followed procedure-- his procedure. As Bill Plante, White House reporter for CBS News said at Public Eye, "No other vice president in the White Houses I've covered has had the ability to write his own rules the way this one has. He operates in his own sphere, with the apparent acceptance of the president."
Cheney has long held the view that the powers of the presidency were dangerously eroded in the 1970s and 80s. The executive "lost" perogatives it needed to gain back for the global struggle with Islamic terror. "Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam both during the 70's served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area," he said in December.
Some of that space was lost to the news media, and its demand to be informed about all aspects of the presidency, plus its sense of entitlement to the star interlocutor's role. Cheney opposes all that, whereas Fitzwater accepted most of it. That's why Fitz is appalled and Cheney is rather pleased with himself. The people yelling questions at Scott McClellan in the briefing room, like the reporters in the Washington bureaus who cover the president, are in Cheney's calculations neither a necessary evil, nor a public good. They are an unnecessary evil and a public bad-- ex-influentials who can be disrespected without penalty.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and is the author of PressThink.