THE BLOG
12/12/2007 08:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

For Pete's Sake

This is about the time of the quadrennial election cycle when the rats start leaving the sinking ship.

You may not have noticed a little story last week announcing the ABC News coup in hiring yet another distinguished member of the Bush White House staff. Matthew Dowd (no relation to Maureen) will be helping shape public opinion as an analyst with his "unique background and perspective," as they say. He was one of those men from Texas who helped engineer George W. Bush winning White House campaigns in 2000 and 2004.

Usually the escapees go to a kind of halfway house, a conservative foundation, where they explore their options while degaussing their past records, helping us forget whatever it is they were doing in the good old days. In Dowd's case, he went back to his Austin-based lobbying business ViaNovo, whose clients, Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post informs us, ranged from Fortune 500 companies to elected officials and governments, including the Texas Transportation Department, through a contract that Democrats complain was hidden from them.

Of course, there is a tradition of political operatives climbing over the wall to work for the enemy, dating back, at least, to the Eisenhower administration when press secretary Jim Haggerty found a new life as President of ABC News. Diane Sawyer actually went into exile with Tricky Dicky Nixon, helping to write his memoirs at San Clemente. After years of working for Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and the Carter White House, Chris Matthews joined the punditocracy, eventually becoming the mouth that roared at MSNBC. Tim Russert studied manipulating the press as press secretary for Pat Moynihan and Mario Cuomo. George Stephanopolous had become communications director in the Clinton administration before joining ABC News. Pat Buchanan of CNN worked so often at the White House, he hummed "Hail to the Chief" in the shower.

Members of the punditocracy travel back and forth between politics and media, if I can change the metaphor here, like the Grand Central Shuttle. David Gergen, Mark Shields, John McLaughlin, George Will, John Sununu, Mary Matalin, James Carville all have reserved seats on the train.

But now it's the rush hour. So many Bush administration people are already on the media side of the track, they soon will constitute the Fifth Estate. Howard Kurtz' score card lists among those who have already gotten off the train at stations and other media Nicolle Wallace at CBS News, Michael Gerson at the Washington Post and the biggest rat of all, Karl Rove at Newsweek.

Aside from being a major strategist for his old friend the former Texas governor in his successful 2000 and 2004 campaigns, Dowd was known as being a man who was widely accessible to the press. He was the one always loaded down with the latest polling data to prove his message. ABC is thrilled he will be relying on his polls, such as they may be.

Dowd claims to have seen the light about what he had helped perpetrate, and jumped off the speeding train a year so ago. But you never know about these press agents.

I am reminded of the case of Pete Williams. Hired by NBC News in 1993, after his time served in the Reagan and Father Bush administrations, a "get" we were told was one of the journalistic coups of the Mike Gartner administration, then beleaguered by the news it had been caught staging car explosions on its magazine show Dateline.

This was the same Pete Williams who began his trip as the press secretary to a freshman Congressman from Wyoming before becoming press secretary to an Assistant Secretary of Defense and then press secretary to the Secretary of Defense. His boss all the way up being none other than Dick Cheney. Before leaving government for NBC, Williams' title was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.

You may remember him. He was the press agent widely seen on TV briefing reporters and us at home about the Gulf War.

At the time, it seemed amazing that a respected news division like NBC, owned by GE, a major player in the military-industrial complex, would hire somebody from the very government agency it was supposed to be reporting about during a time of crisis.

Pete rose to the occasion by becoming the architect of the most reprehensible press censorship we ever had. He was the man behind the infamous DOD National Media Pool that turned reporters into government tools and wimps. They were made to appear bumbling and informationless, contrasted with purposeful, self-assured military briefers.

Pete was champion of those two Georges -- Bush I and Orwell -- and their concept of freedom of press. While seeming to be open and allowing access, Pete's policies gave us censorship by delay; censorship by direct interference with pool reporters doing individual reporting, and censoring pooled dispatches.

Pete broke new ground in disinformation, Orwellian double talk and obfuscations like "some collateral damage," meaning wiping out thousands of civilians.

The hero of Operation Desert Muzzle, as John R. (Rick) MacArthur called Williams' achievements in his definitive text Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War, Pete set up the guidelines that institutionalized suck-up journalism of the Persian Gulf campaign.

And before that there was Pete's gigs muzzling the press in Panama and Grenada. The Pentagon, MacArthur wrote, had spectacular success in Grenada, first by creating a pool, and then sending it to the island too late, and in Panama by virtually imprisoning the pool at an army base. In both cases, the reporters missed the fighting entirely, and the American public was treated to antiseptic military victories, missing any sense of killing, destruction or incompetence.

But none of this prevented Pete Williams from going over to the enemy and putting on the uniform of a fearless journalist.

What would he be doing at NBC News, I remember asking at the time? I thought it would be a good idea for Pete to be covering the war on poverty, where he could not show us the homeless and other victims. Maybe instead of reporting, he could just brief us and tell us how the war was going.

What did he actually do? NBC News listed him as a general correspondent. Well, he certainly knew a lot of generals.

Over the years, Pete Williams had risen from general news to distinguished legal correspondent. The last time I looked in, he was covering the Scooter Libby trial, a case in which his long time boss, mentor and patron saint may have had some involvement.

The hiring of Pete Williams at the time made Diane Sawyer, another controversial hire of the period, look like Edward R. Murrow.

On the positive side, I reasoned, after all the nature of government and the military is to keep secrets, sometimes lie when necessary. "Pete is a congenital liar," explained Rick MacArthur. "He lied to me countless times when I was researching my book."

So his work at the Pentagon not only deserved an Emmy for the best staged news drama, but a medal.

As I say, you never know how these rats will turn out. Snakes molt their skins, but does a skunk change his stripes? Time alone will tell what kind of a job a press agent will do given a chance to become an honest journalist.

While waiting, I wish some smart news division would gather up all these media icons like Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, George Stephanopolous, Pete Williams and maybe even Matthew Dowd and have them do a Sunday morning intellectual ghetto show, called "Meet the Press Agent."