On the September 11 edition of NBC's syndicated The Chris Matthews Show, New York Times columnist David Brooks revealed that he has learned from private conversations with Bush officials who "represent" what "Bush believes" that from its earliest days, the Bush administration adopted a policy of shielding itself from political damage by never publicly admitting any mistake -- even if it meant lying to the media and the American public. The fact that Bush doesn't admit mistakes has been reported by the media for years. For instance, in the September 11 edition of The New York Times, David Sanger reported, "Mr. Bush, his aides acknowledge, is loath to fire members of his administration or to take public actions that are tantamount to an admission of a major mistake." Brooks himself has previously noted the Bush administration's unwillingness to admit to mistakes. But what Brooks's September 11 account adds is that Bush is being intentionally dishonest -- in Brooks's words, "totally tactical and totally insincere" -- in resisting such public admissions and in blaming others when failures are too obvious to deny.
Moreover, on the Matthews Show, Brooks disclosed that "from Day One," the Bush White House "decided our public relations is not going to be honest," and that "privately they admit mistakes all the time." Brooks's revelation would appear to be of major significance, particularly in light of recent attempts by Bush administration officials to shift culpability in the Hurricane Katrina disaster away from the White House. But while he claimed on the Matthews show to have debated this strategy with administration officials "since Day One" -- indicating that he has known about it from the beginning -- a review of his columns and television appearances since Katrina struck reveals that Brooks has refrained from telling viewers and readers that the administration's campaign to rehabilitate its public image over the poor handling of the Katrina crisis by blaming others was apparently another manifestation of this dishonest strategy.
Knowing this strategy earlier might have provided readers and viewers with additional insight into an incident regarding a September 4 Washington Post article that prompted Media Matters for America president and CEO David Brock to write to the Post ombudsman. In that letter, dated September 6, Brock questioned the September 4 article's reliance on a quote from an anonymous "senior Bush official" falsely claiming that "[a]s of Saturday [September 3], [Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux] Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency." The Post ran a correction noting that Blanco had in fact declared a state of emergency on August 26. But in that correction the Post did not explain why it had relied on an anonymous administration source to report a fact that could have been easily checked, nor did it note reports that blaming Blanco was part of an administration strategy to deflect blame off of Bush and the federal government for the catastrophic situation in New Orleans.
In his September 11 column, acknowledging Media Matters' letter and "hundreds of critical e-mails, many of them undoubtedly provoked" by the letter, Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote, "The outlines of the criticism were valid." But, responding to Media Matters' suggestion that the senior Bush official's lie might have constituted a justification for disclosing the source, Getler quoted assistant managing editor Liz Spayd saying, "It's impossible for us to read the person's mind to really know" if that person was "intentionally misleading us." Had the Post been armed with Brooks's September 11 revelation that lying was part of the administration's PR strategy, the paper would have had a pretty strong reason to think that the source was, in fact, lying.
Brooks himself previously addressed the Bush administration's refusal to admit error -- both in his Times column and on PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, on which he makes weekly appearances. In his November 2, 2004, column, Brooks wrote: "I'm exasperated at the Bush communications strategy. His advisers came in with one rule: no concessions to elite opinion. They decided not to be open on how they make decisions. They would never admit mistakes." In his September 9, 2003, debut as a Times columnist, he noted: "The Bush administration has the most infuriating way of changing its mind. The leading Bushies almost never admit serious mistakes. They never acknowledge that they are listening to their critics. They never even admit they are shifting course. They don these facial expressions suggesting calm omniscience while down below their legs are doing the fox trot in six different directions." On the November 14, 2003, broadcast of the NewsHour, Brooks said of the Bush administration: "Well, the good news about them is that they won't admit mistakes, but they are ruthlessly pragmatic when forced to be." In none of these instances, however, did Brooks indicate -- as he did on September 11 -- that deception was premeditated, or that he had "since Day One" discussed with White House officials their strategy to engage in deception rather than admit mistakes.
Brooks has written four Times columns since Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, commenting on how the hurricane will affect the American political landscape [9/1/05]; the loss of American confidence in government institutions [9/4/05]; the racial and economic dynamics of a rebuilt New Orleans [9/8/05]; and the future of government bureaucracy [9/11/05].
Claiming in his September 4 column that "[a]uthority was diffuse and action was ineffective" in response to Katrina, Brooks wrote: "Leaders spun while looters rampaged." Now we know -- and know that Brooks knew all along -- that, at least in the case of the Bush administration, leaders were probably doing more than spinning.
Brooks also appeared on the September 2 broadcast of the NewsHour, commenting, as he did in his September 4 column, on "the de-legitimization of institutions." Notably, in both his NewsHour appearance and his September 4 column, Brooks cited as instances of institutional failures the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the lack of postwar planning in Iraq -- all instances in which the Bush administration has ducked responsibility, and all seemingly perfect touchstones for Brooks to disclose the White House's dishonest public relations strategy.
Admittedly, the context under which Brooks spoke with White House officials about their dishonest public relations campaign and refusal to publicly admit to error is unknown. They may have discussed these matters off the record, which would explain Brooks's prior silence on the matter. But if such discussions were off the record, one wonders what has changed. His sources aren't likely to have told him those conversations are now fair game. But now that he has disclosed this information on national television, it is on the record, and it merits further discussion.
From Brooks's September 11 appearance on NBC's The Chris Matthews Show:
MATTHEWS: Do you think there's a problem with this? I remember when the president wrote in his diary -- his father, President Bush senior -- "you know, I picked [former Vice President Dan] Quayle the first time around, and I wish I hadn't. But I'm stuck with him, and I can't admit it." Is there a problem with this president simply admitting, "I put the wrong people at certain jobs, I didn't get back fast enough to the White House, I wasn't calling the orders fast enough?"
BROOKS: From Day One, they had decided that our public relations is not going to be honest. Privately, they admit mistakes all the time. Publicly -- and I've had this debate with them since Day One; I always say admit a mistake, people will give you credit --
MATTHEWS: Who do you debate this with?
BROOKS: With people who work in the White House.
MATTHEWS: I thought you were talking about with the president in the back room.
BROOKS: Not with him, but they represent what he believes, which is, if you admit a mistake, you get no credit from your enemies, and then you open up another week's story, because the admission of a little mistake leads to the admission of big mistakes and another week's story. It's totally tactical and totally insincere.