The 1980s: A Distant, Distant Era

I don’t have time before sunset to do a proper takedown of Marc Theissen’s incredibly weak defense of his idea that it’s very, very, important that Barack Obama mostly uses written instead of oral daily security briefings, following fact-checker Glenn Kessler’s thorough demolishing of the Theissen’s original piece, which has been updated to reflect the latest from Theissen. Kessler was, shall we say, not impressed. Nor was Alex Pareene.

See, the problem for Theissen is that it turns out that most presidents preferred written to oral briefings, including Ronald Reagan. Which is a bit of a problem, since Reagan was perfect in every way, right?

Anyway, other than advising everyone to be very careful any time anyone says that “everything changed” on September 11, 2001 — or the even more ludicrous idea that the threats facing George W. Bush and Barack Obama after that date were more serious than what Cold War presidents faced — and laughing at the idea that somehow George W. Bush’s national security habits are somehow self-evidently what anyone should be emulating — I only really have one serious thing to say about it. Which is to marvel at the idea that, according to Theissen, Reagan and Richard Nixon served during “an era when advanced technology consisted of electric typewriters.” I mean, I realize that it must be tough to be assigned the tough challenge of explaining why it’s a disaster for Barack Obama to use a Ronald Reagan method instead of a George W. Bush method, but Theissen really should have stuck to the all-purpose howler about 9/11 changing everything. The guy is making Bob Woodward look good.

For the record: no, the primitive state of technology in the 1980s, 1970s, or 1950s, during which time presidents communicated via tin cans with strings and “surveillance” meant asking people to pose for Matthew Brady-style photographs, did not slow the pace of foreign affairs to the extent that “The volume, speed and complexity of intelligence has changed dramatically in the intervening decades — and with it the need for interactive briefings.” I think anyone who has even a vague appreciation of, say, the Cuban Missile Crisis would just laugh at that idea.

Bottom line is that if the main evidence that oral briefings work best for giving the president the best intelligence is the record of George W. Bush, I’d certainly hope that subsequent presidents figure out a different way of doing things.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.