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VF's 'oral history' of the Bush Administration

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19 January 2009 12:23

Vanity Fair has published a very diverting 'oral history' of the Bush Administration. The piece consists entirely of quotes from senior players in and observers of the Administration, with only the odd note from the reporters to explain the historical context.

It is an engrossing read, but if you think the 'oral history' device improves objectivity because it minimises the opportunity for the writers to inject opinion, think again. In fact, it probably just makes the journalists' biases harder to detect. But those biases are on display through the selection of people quoted, and in the fact that there is no context or counter-argument offered for the quotes.

Take the following quotes from Defense Policy Board member Kenneth Adelman about Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. They are very entertaining and I certainly hope they are true, but there's no rebuttal from Rumsfeld, and no acknowledgment from the journalists that Adelman's account is highly self-serving:

Kenneth Adelman, a member of Donald Rumsfeld’s advisory Defense Policy Board: So he says, It might be best if you got off the Defense Policy Board. You’re very negative. I said, I am negative, Don. You’re absolutely right. I’m not negative about our friendship. But I think your decisions have been abysmal when it really counted.

Start out with, you know, when you stood up there and said things—“Stuff happens.” I said, That’s your entry in Bartlett’s. The only thing people will remember about you is “Stuff happens.” I mean, how could you say that? “This is what free people do.” This is not what free people do. This is what barbarians do. And I said, Do you realize what the looting did to us? It legitimized the idea that liberation comes with chaos rather than with freedom and a better life. And it demystified the potency of American forces. Plus, destroying, what, 30 percent of the infrastructure.

I said, You have 140,000 troops there, and they didn’t do jack sh1t. I said, There was no order to stop the looting. And he says, There was an order. I said, Well, did you give the order? He says, I didn’t give the order, but someone around here gave the order. I said, Who gave the order?

So he takes out his yellow pad of paper and he writes down—he says, I’m going to tell you. I’ll get back to you and tell you. And I said, I’d like to know who gave the order, and write down the second question on your yellow pad there. Tell me why 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq disobeyed the order. Write that down, too.

And so that was not a successful conversation.

Here's the second Adelman quote:

Kenneth Adelman, a member of Donald Rumsfeld’s advisory Defense Policy Board: I said to Rumsfeld, Well, the way you handled Abu Ghraib I thought was abysmal. He says, What do you mean? I say, It broke in January of—what was that, ‘04? Yeah, ‘04. And you didn’t do jack shit till it was revealed in the spring. He says, That’s totally unfair. I didn’t have the information. I said, What information did you have? You had the information that we had done these—and there were photos. You knew about the photos, didn’t you? He says, I didn’t see the photos. I couldn’t get those photos. A lot of stuff happens around here. I don’t follow every story. I say, Excuse me, but I thought in one of the testimonies you said you told the president about Abu Ghraib in January. And if it was big enough to tell the president, wasn’t it big enough to do something about? He says, Well, I couldn’t get the photos. I say, You’re secretary of defense. Somebody in the building who works for you has photos, and for five months you can’t get photos—hello?

Last, I'd highlight the following quote from Lawrence Wilkerson about his former boss, Colin Powell. Wilkerson might be right that Powell was responsible for saving the China relationship. But that claim does raise the question of how the relationship remained so constructive after Powell resigned:

Lawrence Wilkerson, top aide and later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell: I’m not sure even to this day that he’s willing to admit to himself that he was rolled to the extent that he was. And he’s got plenty of defense to marshal because, as I told [former defense secretary] Bill Perry one time when Bill asked me to defend my boss—I said, Well, let me tell you, you wouldn’t have wanted to have seen the first Bush administration without Colin Powell. I wrote Powell a memo about six months before we were leaving, and I said, This is your legacy, Mr. Secretary: damage control. He didn’t like it much. In fact, he kind of handed it back to me and told me I could put it in the burn basket.

But I knew he understood what I was saying. You saved the China relationship. You saved the transatlantic relationship and each component thereof—France, Germany. I mean, he held Joschka Fischer’s hand under the table on occasions when Joschka would say something like, You know, your president called my boss a f*cking asshole. His task became essentially cleaning the dogsh1t off the carpet in the Oval Office. And he did that rather well. But it became all-consuming.

I think the clearest indication I got that Rich [Armitage] and he both had finally awakened to the dimensions of the problem was when Rich began—I mean, I’ll be very candid—began to use language to describe the vice president’s office with me as the Gestapo, as the Nazis, and would sometimes late in the evening, when we were having a drink—would sometimes go off rather aggressively on particular characters in the vice president’s office.

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