Torie Clarke advised ‘candor’

Clarke’s “spin is dead” theory is a little like Madonna’s recent effort to convince the world she’s really settling down now, and leaving the house only to go to kabbalah yoga class or pick up organic produce for the kids. It sounds semi-plausible, vaguely admirable, and may help to sell the product. But it strains credulity just a bit.

Certainly her message didn’t seem to linger among her former employers (she left the Pentagon in 2003, citing personal reasons). Transparency and the Pentagon are just not words that go together, certainly not now. This is the same outfit, after all, that’s been selling positive news stories in Iraq, and then stonewalling until it became impossible to deny. It may well be Clarke’s personal belief that the truth–fast, straightforward, and no holds barred–is the way to handle every sticky situation. But it doesn’t seem to have sunk in very far to the organization she served in such a high-profile way. Nor does such transparency seem to be the modus operandi of the boss, Donald Rumsfeld, she speaks so glowingly about. (Her admiration, by the way, is so incandescent that it reminds me of Peggy Noonan’s rhapsodies over Ronald Reagan. Please, ladies. Let’s leave our father complexes at the therapist’s office.) And “openness” does not describe the way the larger Bush administration does business. With its efforts to subpoena reporters, narrow the Freedom of Information Act, and stamp “classified” on everything but the kitchen sink, this is probably the most secretive crowd that’s been around in decades. One gets the feeling they’d just as soon forget the First Amendment and skip right on down to the Second.

Clarke herself, though, is a skillful PR practitioner who uses truth as her weapon of mass communication. Consider her big brainstorm: embedding American journalists with the troops in Iraq, a program that her bio says she “conceived, designed, and ran.” From the administration’s point of view, it’s been a solid, if not perfect, public relations win. It looks like transparency and has resulted largely in extraordinarily positive press. For television reporters, particularly, there was a big Going Native factor. Guardian columnist Zoe Heller once described the fawning coverage as “reports delivered while riding shotgun on tanks, with the wind in their tousled locks, [accompanied by] cute conversations with the anchors about whether they’re remembering to use their sunscreen or not.”

But in addition to positive press, Clarke’s brainstorm may have had another, more devious effect. One Washington print journalist of my acquaintance has come to believe that the embedding program so distracted reporters and news organizations with preparations to cover the fighting that it kept them from aggressively questioning the run-up to the war, particularly the reasons and justifications for it. Was that the Pentagon’s intent? Perhaps that’s too subversive a take on the whole thing. But then again, in the light of all things Valerie Plame, maybe it’s not.

Either way, it was top-notch publicity for the Pentagon, proving that, as a communications wizard, Clarke is about as good as they get. As Sen. John McCain’s press secretary in 1989, she helped him survive the potentially lethal Keating Five scandal, using a potent brew of forthrightness and political acumen. Her book, though, is less brilliant. Richly studded with war stories (literal and figurative), it is–at its best–an insightful glimpse inside the federal bureaucracy in extraordinary times. At its worst, though, it is superficial, verging on cutesy. She writes: “Since you’ve paid good money for this book–or at least I hope you have–I’ll let you in on a little trade secret. Just don’t tell any of my fellow communications consultants that I spilled the beans. Telling you what I’m about to tell you is like breaking the magicians’ code. OK, dim the lights. Pull the shades. Listen carefully. Working with the media is not rocket science.” Clarke goes on to offer the platitudes that the keys to good public relations are to be responsive, accurate, and truthful.

The book’s strongest moments come in Clarke’s compelling tale of being in the center of the action at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Here, her theory of “get the truth out and get it out fast” worked admirably as a government and a nation struggled to understand an earth-shaking event. As the Pentagon’s communications chief, with the Pentagon itself under attack, she was in the eye of the storm. “Within an hour of the attack, we began responding to the thousands of media inquiries with what information we had–which wasn’t much. My instructions to our team were direct: They were to say nothing of which we weren’t absolutely sure. At the same time, I was convinced we had to get as much information out there as possible…. The best antidote to panic was information.”

Her approach was the right way to go–one that helped make the defense secretary (and his boss) appear competent and in control. It’s unfortunate–sad, even–that Clarke’s message hasn’t penetrated deeper. And it’s no surprise, perhaps, that she decided to leave an administration that so often does exactly what she says never to do. Clarke, meanwhile, is far too savvy, and probably loyal, to point that out. If asked about it directly, I wonder if she’d provide the raw truth or something that might be called spin?

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