From Christie to Gates, selling bridge stories and books can present challenges

Al Kamen
Columnist January 14

Former defense secretary Bob Gates may know a thing or two about military strategy. Book promotion? Not so much.

Gates on Monday — the day before his memoir “Duty” went on sale in bookstores — was on television “clarifying” probably the most newsworthy, most explosive, allegation in it: that President Obama’s opposition to the troop surge in Iraq was political. This, among other things, likely made the book a raging pre-pub bestseller on Amazon.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Any clarifications, while of course laudable, even encouraged, should come well after the book has hit the shelves. Doing the mea culpas at the height of the buzz is unnecessary and could well undermine the sales surge. It also betrays a lack of commitment to the memoir.

(Clarifications a few weeks later are great. They can stoke interest as sales begin to wane.)

“What I say in the book was that the president conceded a lot of opposition to the surge had been political,” Gates said on NBC’s “Today” show. “He never said that his opposition had been political. And, in fact, his opposition was consistent with his opposition to the war all along.”

Wait a second. It’s clear Gates says then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently admitted that her opposition to the surge was a function of her 2008 presidential primary battle with Obama.

Then Gates wrote: “The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political.” Okay. That’s clearly not a direct shot at Obama.

The problem: Gates said he was disappointed with both concessions. “To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.”

Maybe, in Gates’s recollection, Clinton made a direct “admission.” But Obama clearly didn’t. He simply made an observation. Hardly headline-worthy. (Completely off the record. We’ll deny we ever wrote this: Gates’s book is why everyone needs a tough editor to catch fuzzy writing.)

Gates stood firmly by his claim that Vice President Biden has been wrong about almost every major national security and foreign policy decision of the past four decades. Yeah, well, that’s just a cheap broadside that — right or wrong — isn’t gonna drive sales.

News to the governor?

Former Utah governor, ambassador to China and GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, appearing Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” cranked up the heat on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over the four-day traffic mess in Fort Lee that has come to be known as “Bridgegate.”

Christie “is a pretty impressive figure” and “would be a great candidate eventually for the presidency,” Huntsman began. Then this:

“But I have to tell you that having run a governor’s office — and Joe [former West Virginia governor Joe Manchin, also on the show] has done the same thing, and every governor’s office, whether your state is large or small, it’s pretty much organized the same way,” he said. “Your neighbor is a chief of staff, and your deputy chief of staff is just right down the hall. And everybody knows, day in and day out, what’s playing out in your state. Down to, you know, minuscule details.”

Uh-oh.

And then this: “So there — there’s something here that just does not connect fully in terms of how communication was handled and the issues were put forward” to Christie, Huntsman went on.

“I hope that part is clarified,” Huntsman said.“I think any governor would probably tell you the same thing about how tight those internal staffs are and the extent of the detail that flows to the governor’s office.”

What? A two-hour news conference wasn’t enough?

A cliche was used

Meanwhile, it only took a couple of sentences into his annual State of the State address Tuesday afternoon for Chris Christie to join an illustrious group of American leaders — including Ulysses S. Grant, Richard M. Nixon, Alberto Gonzales and Ron Ziegler — who used the phrase “mistakes were made.”

Christie improved on the time-honored dodge by saying “mistakes were clearly made.”

Nonetheless, he deserves to be included in the ranks, compiled by Wikipedia, of those who, when faced with allegations of wrongdoing, deflected them with what political consultant William Schneider called the “past exonerative” tense. Former Nixon speechwriter and commentator William Safire described it as a “passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.”

The most famous example, of course, was on May 1, 1973, the day after top Nixon aides John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman and John Dean resigned. That was when Ziegler, then White House press secretary, apologized to The Washington Post and reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

“We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments. I was overenthusiastic in my comments about The Post, particularly if you look at them in the context of developments that have taken place.”

Christie didn’t use another equally important phrase: “Lessons were learned.”

Well, he could save that for later.

Blooper of the Week

This one goes to the White House, which, every six months since 1995, is obliged to produce a written waiver to the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act. The act requires moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem but allows the president to delay the move for six months if he deems it a bad idea. (One reason might be that the entire Middle East would probably explode.)

And President Obama, in keeping with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, issued the standard memo last month, saying, “I hereby determine that it is necessary, in order to protect the national security interests of the United States, to suspend for a period of 6 months” any relocation of that embassy.

So startled eyebrows were raised and crazed e-mails flew when the White House, at 9:51 on Monday morning, issued the text of Vice President Biden’s remarks at the state funeral of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Rather than move the embassy to Jerusalem, the news release moved the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, saying that’s where Biden was speaking. It took but 10 minutes for someone to issue a corrected release.

So is Bob Gates adding this to those foreign policy issues that Biden had been wrong about?

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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