Forecast for Snow

Forecast for Snow

When government refuses to explain itself, it’s up to journalists to discover the truth. As Tony Snow debuts as White House Press Secretary, will answers on Porter Goss be forthcoming–or will the practice of press nullification continue?


• “Neither Bush nor Goss offered a reason for his departure.” (Associated Press)

• “In a hastily arranged Oval Office announcement that stunned official Washington, neither President Bush nor Goss offered a substantive reason for why the head of the spy agency was leaving after only a year on the job.” (New York Daily News)

• Porter Goss said Saturday that his surprise resignation as CIA director is “just one of those mysteries,” offering no other explanation for his sudden departure after almost two years on the job. (CNN)

• “Seated next to President Bush in the Oval Office, Goss, a Republican congressman from Florida before he took over the CIA, said he was ‘stepping aside’ but gave no reason for the departure. (Washington Post)

• “Mr. Goss said it had been ‘a very distinct honor and privilege’ to lead the CIA. ‘I would like to report to you that the agency is back on a very even keel and sailing well,’ Mr. Goss said. He did not explain his decision, and both he and Mr. Bush ignored questions after making their statements. (New York Times)

Remarkable, isn’t it?

Reason-giving is basic to government by consent of the governed. Very basic. An Administration that doesn’t have to give reasons for what it is doing is unaccountable to the American people and their common sense, to world opinion–even to itself. To pressure the CIA director to leave after 20 months in the job, and to give no reason at all for it–not even “spend more time with the family”–is a big screw you to anyone trying to discern what the President is doing and what the government is up to. This is why we have professional journalists as part of our public life. They are supposed to step in when reason-giving falters, and press for an explanation. And if today the White House press corps can’t get an explanation for Goss’s departure, it will fail some basic test of usefulness.

Forecast for Snow

Especially after Goss called his abrupt departure “one of those mysteries,” reporters will, I think, be asking lots of CIA director questions today. Most will be about his chosen replacement, General Michael Hayden, but some will be about Goss. The correspondents know how many shocked people there were in Washington on Friday. They know Goss resigned “under pressure,” as the Washington Post said Sunday.

Today Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary, is supposed to take over. Thus it’s possible we will know right away whether Snow represents a change in White House strategy, or a corrective to the old strategy of de-certifying the press and rolling it back.

What will the new press secretary do when asked to provide an explanation that was glaringly missing on Friday? If you’re Scott McClellan, who held his last briefing Friday, you sift through what’s already on the record about the resignation and choose a phrase or two that can be safely repeated, no matter what you’re asked. Rather than dodge the question, you refuse to recognize it, converting the back-and-forth of Q&A into a series of non-sequiturs. The strategy is to add nothing to the public record, no matter what’s missing in the explanations from the White House. Press nullification, I have called this. It’s not like spin. It’s non-communication from the podium, part of a larger strategy for expanding the “black,” opaque or simply unilluminated portions of the presidency.

Walking out with answers

Snow’s appointment (see my April 28 post on it) was described at the time as a shift in strategy to a more powerful press secretary who has the ear of the president, “walk-in privileges,” a seat at the table when policy is being decided, and a broker’s role between journalists and the White House. We don’t know if any of that is true. But if it is true, Tony Snow will walk in to the Oval Office Monday morning and walk out with answers. He will argue that a complete default in reason-giving is unacceptable, and won’t fly. When reporters ask about the departure of Porter Goss he will have some sort of explanation for the mystery. It will put new information on the record, and he will make news with it. Rather than pretend there’s nothing to be explained, Snow will by tone and manner accept the basic legitimacy of the question–and of the people asking it. The contrast with the last three years will be immediate, and the exchanges during the televised briefing will show that. If things are really going to be different, that’s what we should expect to see.

Bag the briefing…

It wasn’t much noticed, but last week, the new chief of staff at the White House, Joshua Bolten, told Fox News Sunday that “it may be worth considering whether to end the daily televised press briefings where reporters and the press secretary frequently air disputes in front of the cameras.” He also said he will leave the decision up to Snow.

End the briefings! I suppose it would never occur to Bolten that such a decision also belongs to the people being briefed. If Snow turns out to be McClellan with better hair, the press ought to quit the briefing room and give up on getting explanations from the White House. Beat Bolten to the punch, in other words. By “quit” I mean pull your top talent. Send interns instead to occupy the seats without asking questions or filing reports. That means no correspondents at the two daily briefings, none on the President’s plane, none at his public appearances. (Except for foreign trips where other heads of state might speak.) Let the White House publicize itself.

Meanwhile, redeploy your top people, so that they still report on the Bush Administration and what it’s doing, but only from the outside-in. (Which is what the top reporters say they do, anyway. See this portrait of Elisabeth Bumiller.) Outside-in reporting, a practical step, recognizes the futility of trying to get information out of the Bush White House. Quitting the briefing–before Bolten gets to close it down–would be a symbolic step, recognition of how far the contempt for reason-giving has gone under Bush. Will it ever happen? Could it? It could (…there’s nothing to stop NBC from sending a highly-regarded intern instead of David Gregory) but it won’t. As I have said before–most recently on The Young Turks show—Bush changed the game on the press and he knew the press wouldn’t react, or change the game on him. Now we get to see whether Tony Snow will intensify this pattern, or reverse it. Does reason-giving return? Check back.

Another possibility: Snow has been called a “movement conservative.” Maybe he listens to his base, and goes on the attack. He charges the press with trying to bring down Bush, and puts reporters on notice that he will call them on it. McClellan wasn’t agile enough to wage culture war from the podium. Snow may think he is. Of course this would do nothing to explain Bush to the country. It would do nothing to re-claim majority support. It would, however, make a national star of the press secretary. Possibly Bolton doesn’t want that. So he tells Fox News: the televised briefing may be going down. (But the decision will be Tony’s.) When reason-giving falters a little, the Republic can handle it. We call it oversight, check and balance. When reason-giving falters a lot, we have instruments for that: public commissions, Senate hearings, special prosecutors, investigative journalism. But when reason-giving disappears from the governing style of an Administration, it’s not clear what we’re supposed to do. Check back after Snow’s first briefing, and we’ll see what we can see about reason-giving’s return.

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