I shoulda been a spin doctor

Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held a press conference. During the event, he had a bit of a confrontation with CNN’s Jamie McIntyre. Here’s a transcript:

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Secretary, I’m just curious, do you feel at all embattled at this point in your tenure?


MCINTYRE: Aside from the retired two-star general calling you incompetent and asking you to step down in an op-ed over the weekend, you also have a column from Maureen Dowd in which she quoted an unnamed administration official saying that you don’t hold the same sway in meetings and that you’re treated as, quote, “an eccentric old uncle who is ignored.”

When I heard the exchange, I had a brief fantasy about being Rumsfeld, and answering Mr. McIntyre:

“Actually, Jamie, it’s funny that you bring it up. I had my staff do some research, and my sway in the Administration is down 1.3% over the last quarter. But on the other hand, my access and credibility are both up over 3.4%, and my legacy is up 1.5%.”

“Mr. Secretary… um… I don’t understand that answer.”

“Of course you don’t. It’s an absurd, ridiculous, nonsensical answer to an absurd, ridiculous, nonsensical question. It was designed for one thing, and one thing only: to allow you to make yourself look good by embarassing me. It gave you the chance to get some face time on TV and show your bosses and the public how tough you can be. I don’t feel particularly inclined to assist you. Now, does anyone have a REAL question?”

I’ve had impulses like this in the past. For example, a famous incident from 2003:

“Mr. President, when you spoke to the crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln back in May 2003, there was a big ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner hanging from the ship’s island. In retrospect, do you think that was a mistake, to declare the mission in Iraq accomplished so soon?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Why don’t you just LOOK at what was being said there. I was aboard the Lincoln, which was returning after helping us fight in Iraq. The fine men and women of that noble ship had served with distinction and honor, and were coming home. THEIR mission was accomplished. They had been given an assignment, and had completed it admirably. I chose to honor them for their work as a symbol for all those who had served so far, and to recognize that they had done all they had been asked to do. And it was ‘Mission accomplished,’ not ‘war over’ or even ‘victory.'”

* * * * *

Or, perhaps, this exchange from 1988:

“By agreement between the candidates, the first question goes to Gov. Dukakis. You have two minutes to respond. Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

“Bernie, absolutely I would. In fact, I would demand it. I would use everything within my power, every scrap of influence I had, to make sure the savage animal that raped and murdered my wife was put to death in the most painful, elaborate, slow, excruciating fashion available. As much as I like to think I’m above it, I know that the siren’s lure of revenge is incredibly powerful, and I don’t think I could resist it.

But Bernie, that would be wrong. That would be a perversion of our criminal system. Because our system is not based on vengeance, but on justice. The suffering of the victim is one element in determining the punishment of the guilty, but it is not the only element. It’s not even the primary element. In our system, it is society as a whole that determines the type of sanction to impose. And as a society, I believe we ought to move away from showing how much we disapprove of killing by killing those who kill. It’s wrong when criminals do it, and it’s wrong when the state does it.”

Dukakis had a chance to reach out to the people, show his humanity and bond with them, and at the same time take a firm, principled stand against capital punishment — and he blew it. Even though I disagree with his position, he could have made a hell of a case for his side, and instead he reacted in the only way he could: as a wonk, with policies, principles, and platitudes — and utterly without passion. It sums up the reason for his defeat far better than anything else could.

So while I’m glad Rumsfeld did take the opportunity to smack around McIntyre, I’m a little saddened because he could have done so much more.

Holy war
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