Trouble comes in threes and in the case of the stumbling start to Barack Obama’s second term trouble is spelled three ways – B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I, I-R-S and A-P.
First, to state the obvious, this White House is pretty awful at political crisis management. Axelrod and Pfouffle are gone and the second term White House team seems both slow and indecisive, while opponents paint them as the venal second coming of Richard Nixon. The president’s strangely detached management style and his cool aloofness makes the country long for a Harry Truman who would cuss, get mad, write nasty letters and then calm down and do something presidential like fire Gen. Douglas MacArthur. When Obama gets mad he seems merely petulant or perturbed that one of those pesky White House reporters is asking another silly question.
Usually in politics the worst wounds are self-inflicted and the Obama team’s handling of the Benghazi tragedy is largely an exercise in failing to aggressively detail what happened and why. The White House seemed to think its good intentions would be enough to defang the deranged chorus that is determined to make the response to the Libyan tragedy more important than the tragedy itself. The slow reaction, shifting story line and “trust us we know what we are doing” attitude made an important story about the tender box that is the Middle East (and the limits of American power in that troubled region) into a scandal. It didn’t have to be, but this White House tends to dismiss its critics rather than aggressively explain itself. Never a good strategy in politics.
The second Obama second term “scandal” involves the secret collection of phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors, an action that is, of course, just pure political stupidity. Every administration settles into office thinking it can control everything about everything. Eventually every president should discover, but most don’t, that maintaining firm control of a vast bureaucracy with access to telephones and the phone numbers of reporters is a fool’s errand. Leaks happen for many reasons and some are honorable, many not. Vanity and a sense of power is often involved. Once in a while a leaker picks up the phone in order to expose real wrong doing. More often – brace yourself – a leak is designed to to inflict pain, secretly settle a grudge or influence a policy debate inside the government. The State Department leaks on the CIA, the White House leaks on someone it wants out of the way, the Army leaks on the Navy and, by most accounts, the CIA leaks on everyone. In the Bush Administration Dick Cheney’s guy Scooter Libby went to jail for his role in outing a CIA operative, a story about leaks to reporters, but given all the current hoopla that detail is just ancient history.
In the AP phone records case the story at issue involved details about a thwarted terrorist bombing, but when the CIA director says, as John Brennan did, that the AP story amounted to “unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information,” every American should look for a grain of salt. We need to remember that in the post-9-11 world a society that tries to maintain something like openness is going to have to put up with the occasional newsworthy leak of information that the secret forces within the government would like to stay secret. A wise old editor once told me the way it must work. “The government tries to keep its secrets and the press tries to find them out.” Those are the rules of engagement that still must apply in a free society.
The Johnson corollary to that free press/free society notion is that no American government can’t manage the press by subpoena and you’ll never stop the leaks, never. In any event, as a general rule too much government information is classified and reporters, of all people, know that all too well. So the AP phone records snooping is recorded as self-inflicted wound number two of the still-infant Obama second term. Just a thought, but it might be a good time for the attorney general to return to private life.
Which brings us to the IRS scandal, the scandal the GOP correctly sees as the most damaging to the administration for the simple reason that everyone has a gripe with the IRS. Never mind that presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon displayed little hesitation about turning the tax man loose on political opponents, the idea that any modern administration – particularly in the wake of the real scandal that was Watergate – would employ the IRS to go after enemies is repugnant and needs to be investigated. Congressional Republicans with the help of many Democrats will see to that. The administration would be well-advised to get the details out – quickly. So far it hasn’t.
Still, the truly interesting detail about the IRS mess is not that the White House ordered up any special scrutiny of Tea Party groups, since there is no evidence that took place, but rather that the IRS review of the flood of applications for tax-exempt status for politically oriented groups – most of which were conservative – has its roots in swamps of political money and particularly in keeping the sources of vast amounts of political money secret.
A “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame said, at least in the movie version of All the President’s Men, “follow the money.” More on that next time.