Practicing spontaneity

Yes, that “conversation with the troops” was about as spontaneous as High Mass.

Everyone in Blue Blogistan — Atrios, Kevin, and John, for example — is having a good time with the President’s fully-rehearsed “spontaneous conversation” with the troops.

Usually when the Beloved Leader really steps in the doo-doo, Red Blogistan is content to ignore it and talk about Kofi Annan or Michael Moore instead. That sort of message discipline is something Red folks are generally better at than Blue folks.

But in this case Glenn Reynolds has risen to Mr. Bush’s defense. He seems to think that the “conversation” was no more staged than “Meet the Press.” Has he listened tothe tape?

Not only is it obvious that the soldiers are reciting set-piece speeches — note that when GWB interrupts one of them, she goes back to the beginning of her answer and recites it over in the same words — but Alison Barber, the deputy chief Pentagon flack who runs the prep session, gives special instructions about what to do “if he gives us a question that’s not something we’ve scripted,” treating that as an unexpected occurrence.

So when Scott McClellan was asked at the morning briefing whether the “conversation” had been scripted and said “No,” he was telling an untruth.

As for Glenn’s “Meet the Press” comparison, I’ve done my share of TV interview shows, and I’ve never done a rehearsal. That’s what “live and unrehearsed” means. The topic is known in advance, but never, in my experience, the questions.

Jason Steenwyck (to whom Glenn links approvingly) notes that “I have an agenda, distributed in advance, listing what I want to talk about when I hold a company level training meeting.” Right. Nothing wrong with that.

But today’s show wasn’t a training meeting or a morale-boosting effort for the troops. It was a political propaganda exercise aimed at the domestic audience. And it was staged, but presented as if it were spontaneous. That’s dishonest.

That doesn’t mean that the soldiers at the meeting weren’t saying what they believed. But were they a random sample of the troops in Iraq, or were they chosen precisely because they believed what the President wanted his audience to hear? And were they free to speak their minds, or did they understand that not playing up to the Commander-in-Chief might have unfortunate consequences for their careers? And did they have “help” in composing those set-piece speeches? I don’t think those questions are very hard to answer.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com