Powelled! Right in the kisser.


It’s been noted in a couple of places on the internets today that the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Mike McConnell, has lost some of the gleam off his previously sterling reputation as a “straight-shooter.” Both links go into the how’s and why’s of that, so I won’t rehash that here. What interests me is 2 things: the pattern, as noted by TPM in the second link, of the Bush administration’s ability to get highly regarded civil or military professionals (or former ones) to sacrifice their reputations; and what seems to me an obvious misunderstanding over the use and meaning of “straight-shooter.”

Getting Powelled

It’s remarkable to me how successful the Bush administration has been at getting people respected in Washington for having maintained their integrity and professionalism, many of them military officers, to sacrifice their hard-won reputations. The most famous and perhaps tragic example is, of course, Colin Powell. I believe polls in the late 90s indicated Powell was, by a wide margin, the most respected and trusted man in American public life. Beltway insiders viewed him with something approaching reverence. He was considered perhaps the only contemporary example of that rare commodity, the statesman. When he accepted the Secretary of State post in the new Bush administration, he was that new administration’s stamp of credibility and trustworthiness.

We all know what happened next. After 9/11 and Afghanistan, there was the run-up to the Iraq War, during which Powell saluted and went along with a policy he knew to be counter to the national interest and knew to be driven by forces other than those publicly acknowledged, eventually agreeing to go to the UN and make the speech that effectively ended both his career and his reputation. In that speech, he presented evidence against Iraq that he didn’t believe to be accurate. He had spent the previous couple of weeks trying to weed out the things he knew to be bogus, but in the end, he ran out of time and political capital, and, to paraphrase Secretary Rumsfeld, went to the UN with the speech he had, not the speech he wanted. Nonetheless, he went. He went and he sacrificed his hard-won reputation as an honest broker, in service to the Bush administration.

Others followed. How many highly respected generals went before Congress both before and during the war, and staked their reputations on numbers and strategies they didn’t believe in? There were exceptions, of course. Gen. Shinseki, the Army officer specifically tasked with knowing such things, said it would take a few hundred thousand troops to do the job in Iraq. He gave his honest, professional opinion, and Secretary Rumsfeld sacked him for it. He lost his job, but maintained his integrity and reputation. Jack Goldsmith was brought in to head the Office of Legal Counsel because he was known as a legal scholar who believed in a strong executive; when he discovered how far his predecessor had gone down that road, he pulled back the reins. He didn’t last long in the job, but he left with his integrity intact. There are some indications that Ambassador John Negroponte, another man with a long reputation for professionalism, resigned as Director of National Intelligence and took a lesser position in the State Department because he couldn’t do that job the way he was being asked to do it, and maintain his professional integrity.

Admiral Mike McConnell took over from him, and, like Colin Powell and so many others, seems to have made the opposite choice. He was warmly confirmed by the Senate, even by Democrats, because he had a sterling reputation in the intelligence community for his professionalism and commitment to being an honest broker. As detailed in the posts linked to above, he has sacrificed that.

How does the Bush administration do it? I’m not dewy-eyed enough not to know that every administration — of both parties — likes to sign up people of stellar reputation and then strongarm them into doing their bidding. The Bush administration is nothing new under the sun, in that regard. What’s remarkable about it is its success rate. How have they Powelled so many, and for so long?

Shooting Straight

The term “straight-shooter” is getting a lot of play these days, mostly because of the presidential candidacy of John McCain. McCain enjoys a great reputation among the Washington press corps for being a “straight-shooter.” He labels his speeches and answers to questions as “straight talk”; he calls his campaign the “Straight Talk Express.”

Many on the left point to contradictory statements McCain has made over the years, or to places where his policy and his rhetoric don’t match, and ask: how the heck is this guy a “straight-shooter?”

The answer is that the press corps doesn’t call McCain a “straight-shooter” because his rhetoric aligns perfectly with his actions, or because his rhetoric is always consistent. They call him that because he has a tendency to say whatever he happens to be thinking at the moment he opens his mouth. He is, in that sense, the opposite of someone like Hillary Clinton, who considers and reconsiders and re-reconsiders every syllable before it takes shape in her mouth.

Whether McCain’s kind of “straight shooting” is a useful quality in a president or a dangerous one, I guess the voters will decide. But it almost always makes for good copy, and that’s why the press corps loves him.


9 Responses to “Powelled! Right in the kisser.”

  1. Terry A. Says:

    They’re confusing “straight shooting” with “shooting from the hip,” as it were.

    On Powell: Do you think his career is really over, his reputation shot?

  2. urbino Says:

    They’re confusing “straight shooting” with “shooting from the hip,” as it were.

    That’s how it seems to me, anyway.

    On Powell, I think his reputation abroad is definitely shot. Here at home, it’s theoretically possible it (and his career) could be partially rehabilitated, but only partially, and it’s hard to see a practical route to even that. (A successful role in an Obama presidency — VP, even? — might do it, but would Obama tap him? It seems unlikely.) I don’t think he’ll ever be respected by both sides of the aisle, again. Basically, I think his historical die is cast: he’ll be, like Nixon, though not on the same level, seen primarily as a tragic figure, as someone who was cast up by history to meet a certain challenge, and failed. Nixon failed because of fundamentally venal character flaws; Powell’s tragic flaws were/are more honorable — a too keen sense of loyalty, both up and down the chain of command, etc.

    He seems to know that’s how he’ll be seen; seems even to see himself that way, which is sad.

  3. Jamie D Says:

    I really don’t see Powell’s reputation being ruined. I think he was placed in a very tough position, and when all the facts were laid out on the table he realized the mistake and walked away from this administration.

  4. alsturgeon Says:

    To Powell: America still likes him (his image), but I see your point(s), JU. Practically, he doesn’t appear to have a road to travel on.

    To Shooting: Your point reminds me of something I see periodically in marriage struggles. The word “honesty” has such a nice ring to it (“Hey, I told her the truth!”), but one needs to add the virtue of “wisdom” to the concoction to know when to speak and when to shut up.

    I’m partial to the Obama camp already, but still, I think McCain’s version of straight shooting is dangerous for a president.

  5. DeJon Says:

    I have an abiding respect for Colin Powell. I may not agree with him on every point, but I am continually impressed by how he gets there. And I hate that you are right, JU. The UN presentation did tarnish his near spotless record. But I don’t think Powell particularly cares. Now I’m sure he harbors some regrets for the course of action that led to the dramatic presentation of “Mobile WMD labs.” And there’s little doubt the reluctant warrior abhors the current state of military affairs in Iraq.

    But I’m thinking he wasn’t concerned about the damage he would take in public opinion. If he had wanted to run for president he would have done it in ’92. Polls then showed he had a strong chance of claiming the Republican nomination over W, but he really only flirted with the idea. In Woodward’s “Plan of Attack” he notes that this history likely increased W’s defensive posture toward his Secretary of State.

    So I suspect he made his agreement to present evidence to the UN knowing that he had all but fallen on his sword. And by doing so had convinced W that unilateral action was unacceptable–No matter how obsessed Cheney was with deposing Saddam. With out Powell there never would have been a vote on UN Security Council Resolution 1441. Powell can take almost sole credit for the unanimous passing of said resolution.

    He did what he could. He took a big hit for his loyalty to the boss, but that’s what soldier’s do. They honor the chain of command or they resign.

  6. ari Says:

    DeJon is right: soldiers honor the chain of command or they resign. But Powell didn’t resign. Which makes him a good soldier but a lousy person and, I think, a lousy leader. In other words, I continue to see him as one kind of good soldier: a near-perfect follower. But I’ll never again consider him a leader of men. It really is sad, as he’s a brilliant and decent man. But a toxic combination of action and ininaction on his part helped lead to the deaths of more than 100,000 people. And that’s the real tragedy. Which, I expect, keeps him up nights — even if the idea that he’ll never be presdient doesn’t.

    As for the straight-talking maverick, whatever. The press in this country truly is horrible. They love McCain because he gives them more access than other politicians. And access is a journalist’s bread and butter. They couldn’t care less that he seems to know almost nothing about the major issues of the day, ranging from the economy to foreign policy, his “strength.”* Plus, Urbino’s right: he talks without mulling the consequences, which makes great copy.

    * Yes, those are scare quotes. Be afraid; be very afraid.

  7. urbino Says:

    But I’m thinking he wasn’t concerned about the damage he would take in public opinion. If he had wanted to run for president he would have done it in ‘92.

    I wasn’t thinking of presidential politics. I think you’re right: if he’d wanted to be president, he would’ve run by 2000. What I was thinking of was any future cabinet post, or any other statesmanlike position. I think Powell would still like to serve; he just can’t. He’s too damaged, and Ari gets at the reasons. I compared him to Nixon; maybe the better, though still imperfect, comparison would be Robert McNamara. I hear the same ache in Powell’s voice that I hear in McNamara’s in Fog of War.

    DeJon is right: soldiers honor the chain of command or they resign.

    Again, agreed. This was what I was talking about when I said his flaw was a surfeit of loyalty, “both up and down the chain of command.” It does make him both a good soldier, and a bad leader.

    I don’t think Powell particularly cares.

    There, I disagree. In the few bits of interview I’ve seen him give since leaving the Bush administration, he seems a fundamentally sad man. I think he understands he failed, and he hasn’t been able to figure out how to process that or what to do about it.

  8. Jamie D Says:

    FYI, Diane Sawyer interviews Colin Powell on GMA Thursday

  9. DeJon Says:

    How germane… And I’m not talking about the Jackson 5.

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