POLICY IS THE BEST HONESTY… A lot of journalists get lured into the profession by the excitement—the chance to cover wars, natural disasters, political campaigns, or the lives of powerful people. I’m not immune to such inducements and have done a bit of all of the above. But most of my time in the business has been spent engaged in what might be called “policy vetting.” Does a particular government policy work as advertised? Would a proposed new idea work if it were actually tried? This is not the most Hunter Thompsonesque form of journalism. But it’s one I find endlessly fascinating, in part because it provides a bracing check on one’s ideological biases.
For instance, as a center-left guy, I generally favor expanding global trade but fear its downward pull on American wages. So I’m sympathetic to toughening labor standards in international trade deals, an idea Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both have called for. But are such standards really enforceable? That’s an open question. In our cover story this month, T. A. Frank takes a step toward answering it. He does so by letting us in on the failures and successes of the profession he used to work in: private-sector consultants who monitor wages and working conditions in foreign factories for major U.S. companies. Also in this issue, Greg Anrig explains why hard empirical evidence is increasingly leading conservatives to give up on one of their favorite ideas, school vouchers. And Michael Waldman makes the case—one liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree on—for an ingenious new policy idea that is quietly catching on at the state level: legislation that would, in effect, kill off the Electoral College.
Waldman was my boss back when we both wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton. That was another experience in policy vetting. Modern White House speechwriters seldom have a direct hand in setting policy. Their job is mostly to find the words to sell proposals crafted by the various White House policy shops and approved by the president—a task that often forces the policy folks to think more clearly about what they’re proposing. If I had any moral qualms about joining the administration in September 1998, they were not about the then-unfolding Monica Lewinsky investigation—I thought Washington’s fixation on that scandal was a form of insanity—but the possibility that I might be asked to write speeches about policies that I thought were indefensible.
Thankfully, that never happened. The Clinton White House policy shops reflected the careful, obsessive wonkiness of the president himself. No proposal ever crossed my desk that didn’t seem programmatically sound.
Well, almost none.
I once had to write a speech announcing new federal grants for local “gun buybacks.” Such programs tend to reap lots of rusty, inoperable World War II-era revolvers from the attics of the elderly while doing virtually nothing to get guns off the street. One University of Pennsylvania expert on crime prevention program assessment called gun buybacks “the program that is best known to be ineffective.” But buybacks are enormously popular with big-city voters and relatively unthreatening to gun rights activists, so we were for them. When I grumbled to the policy guy with whom I worked on the speech, he smiled and shook his head in agreement. Yeah, we know they’re pretty useless, he said. But they’re also harmless, they get the communities fired up, and, anyway, we’re spending a relative pittance ($15 million) on the stupid things.
This helped salve my conscience—that and the fact that the speech was also a chance to advocate for something I really did believe in: the COPS program. The core of the administration’s crime policy, it put nearly 100,000 additional cops on the streets with federal grants that also required police departments to adopt community policing strategies. It was a kind of domestic version of the “surge” in Iraq, and it is one of the reasons why the violent crime rate fell during the 1990s by more than 40 percent.
The connection between the vetting and selling of policy has been on my mind lately because it is the underlying theme of a marvelous new book by Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. It is a history of the modern presidency as seen through the eyes of White House speechwriters (the author, the son of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., comes by his subject honestly). One of many revealing anecdotes involves the now-famous deliberations among John F. Kennedy and his senior advisors in October 1962 upon learning that the Soviets had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. After several days, a rough consensus developed among the group that the central U.S. response would be a naval blockade. Ted Sorensen, a participant in those meetings, was dispatched to write the speech, but his pen faltered.
“Back in my office,” he recalled, “the original difficulties with the blockade route stared me in the face: How should we relate it to the missiles? How would it help get them out? What would we do if they became operational? What should we say about our surveillance, about communications with Khrushchev?”
Sorensen returned to the group not with a speech, but with a list of the questions that had stayed his hand. This forced several days of further debate before Kennedy and his advisors settled on a better-calibrated response, including the threat of air strikes and a more careful choice of language: the word “blockade,” with its Berlin references, was dropped in favor of “quarantine.” The ensuing speech—and Kennedy’s secret offer to Khrushchev to pull some NATO missiles out of Turkey—defused the most dangerous moment in the cold war.
Fast-forward nearly forty years, to December 2001. Bush speechwriter David Frum is given an assignment by his boss, Michael Gerson, to write a memo summing up the case for going to war with Iraq. Frum rereads Roosevelt’s speech to Congress after Pearl Harbor, and notices that FDR had said that the Axis powers Germany, Italy, and Japan were a menace because of their shared “recklessness.” Perhaps, Frum reasoned, “terror states” like Iraq and Iran and “terror organizations” like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah formed a similar menace because of their shared hatred of freedom and desire for weapons of mass destruction—in other words, perhaps they comprised an “axis of hatred”? The comparison was, of course, tendentious: Iran and Iraq were bitter enemies, as were bin Laden and Saddam. Nevertheless, Frum’s memo became the rhetorical foundation of Bush’s “axis of evil” speech one month later, in which the president made the case for invading a country that had not attacked us.
Earlier this year, Gerson wrote a column in the Washington Post that I read as a defense of his role and style as Bush’s former chief rhetorician. In the column, Gerson protested insinuations by Hillary Clinton and John McCain that Barack Obama was offering empty rhetoric. “Many political advisers in both parties employ ‘rhetoric’ as a synonym for ‘folderol,'” Gerson wrote. He continued:
This is nonsense. From the Greek beginnings of political rhetoric, the wise have described a relationship between the discipline of writing and the discipline of thought. The construction of serious speeches forces candidates (or presidents) to grapple with their own beliefs, even when they don’t write every word themselves. If those convictions cannot be marshaled in the orderly battalions of formal rhetoric, they are probably incoherent.
Great political rhetoric, however, demands more than grappling honestly with one’s convictions. It means grappling honestly with reality. This is what the Bush administration failed to do. When Sorensen asked his fellow Kennedy advisors tough questions about their Cuba policy, he forced them to come to grips with flaws in their thinking. When Gerson and Frum gave Bush and his advisors high-toned nonsense about the “axis of evil,” they simply provided a rhetorical smokescreen that allowed the administration to pursue its preferred course of action while diverting attention from the incoherence of those actions.
Not that the speechwriters could have changed the president’s mind even if they had tried. From everything we know, the decision to invade Iraq was already set in stone. Whereas Kennedy was looking for the best way to resolve a crisis short of war, Bush was looking for a rationale to start a war. For Bush, policymaking was not about finding the best solutions to discrete problems. It was about advancing a preset ideological and political agenda. The system that was set up to vet his policies was, therefore, dysfunctional almost by design, as John DiIulio, a domestic policy advisor in Bush’s first term, made clear. “There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus,” DiIulio told the journalist Ron Suskind. “What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”
Perhaps no one could have predicted, back when he was first running for president in 2000, that Bush would prove to be such a catastrophically dishonest policymaker. But there were hints that his policies, and his way of talking about them, lacked a certain integrity. In his speeches during the campaign, Bush repeatedly portrayed his proposed tax cuts as broad based, when in fact they were heavily tilted toward the wealthy. When Al Gore pointed this out in the first debate with a blizzard of numerical evidence, Bush quipped: “Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers. I’m beginning to think that not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It’s fuzzy math.” That clever rhetorical response cued the press to cover the debate as one about character, the “straight-talking Texan” versus the “serial exaggerator.” But, of course, as we now know, Gore was right on the facts.
As a former speechwriter, I’m the last person to argue against the use of stirring rhetoric to win the public’s support. And I’m certainly under no illusions that policy can be made without political considerations being weighed in. But if the last seven years have taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t let rhetoric—especially dishonest, diversionary rhetoric—keep us from a hard scrutiny of a candidate’s policy proposals. Yes, it can seem like a boring exercise, especially when voters seem to show such interest in revealing details about candidates’ personalities and character. But there are many tests of character: how one treats one’s family, for instance, or how one has overcome the difficulties in one’s life. Surely another test of character for a politician, the most important one, I would argue, is how fully and honestly they think and talk about policy—that is, about what they plan to do with the awesome power they are asking us to hand them.
Note: This was published as an Editor’s Note in the April print edition of the Washington Monthly.