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Now You See Them . . .
The Real Surprise Would Be if There Were No Secret Visit Up the Administration's Sleeve

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; C01

Sur- priiise ! Condi went to Beirut!

President Bush and his top officials tend to make a lot of unannounced trips these days. It has gotten to the point where it would be a surprise if the Bush administration didn't make a surprise visit every few months.

Bush has twice made surprise trips, both to Baghdad. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld combined have made at least six such trips. Security is the primary reason these visits are kept secret, but this secrecy also has the effect of lending cloak-and-dagger drama to the whole affair.

Remember when Bush made his first surprise visit to Baghdad, to serve mashed potatoes to the troops during Thanksgiving 2003? Through a series of maneuvers the Los Angeles Times likened to "a scene from an Ian Fleming novel," Bush, wearing a baseball cap, escaped from his ranch in Crawford in the back of an unmarked vehicle without his usual motorcade. Even his own parents didn't know he was leaving. He appeared in a Baghdad mess hall from behind a curtain like a rabbit emerging from a hat, and was greeted with shock and cheers.

"All right. Let's go back to that extraordinary surprise [trip] to Baghdad," Larry King gushed during an interview with the first lady days later. "Was this the best-kept secret ever?"

"I think it was really one of the best-kept secrets ever," Laura Bush replied.

"You'd have to go back to the A-bomb," King said.

We love surprises, as any mystery writer can attest. We watch shows like "Law & Order" for the twist at the end, knowing it's coming but not knowing what it will be. Bush's first surprise visit had a ta-da! element -- a boldness, a machismo. (Were Baghdad a woman, she might complain to her friends with just a hint of admiration: He showed up at my place without even calling !)

"The granddaddy of all surprise diplomatic visits was Kissinger in China," says Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American foreign policy program at Johns Hopkins's School of Advanced International Studies. "People were just astonished. I was astonished as a grad student. No one had any clue this had happened."

What makes for a good surprise? It is a matter of expectations. A good surprise should be fresh, says Jack White, a magician in San Diego who does public relations for the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Pull a rabbit from a hat once and the audience will love it. Pull a rabbit from a hat again, and the audience knows what to look for.

That's why one of White's favorite tricks, which involves a ring appearing to "melt" right through a string, is done up close, right under the viewer's nose. He finds he can repeat it over and over and the trick stays just as mystifying because up close, people lack peripheral vision. They can't see the big picture, can't see -- for instance -- what he's doing with his other hand.

It is appreciably more difficult to pull off the same trick many times on a diplomatic stage, which may help explain why Rice's trip to Beirut yesterday seemed to fall a bit flat, theatrically speaking. (It was also a lesser magnitude of surprise: We knew she was going to the Middle East; we just didn't expect Lebanon to be part of the trip.)

If you want to surprise people over and over, you must do it differently each time. The story line must change and the outcome must be dramatic. A crafter of a good surprise is smarter than his audience. If it's done well, the viewer realizes only afterward how hard a storyteller worked to prepare that surprise.

"You always try to make sure a good twist, especially in the fourth act of a show like ours, is as inevitable as it is surprising," says Nicholas Wootton, executive producer of "Law & Order." "You've sort of prepared the viewer throughout the episode without necessarily having them know they're being prepared for it."

In storytelling, the equivalent

of don't-watch-what-my-other-hand-is-doing is a narrative that distracts the reader from what's about to happen, says novelist James Grady. And the writer can't do it in a predictable way. A novelist who's good at suspense must be able to imagine surprises everywhere, even in the most unusual of places. What if the taxi breaks down en route to the airport? What if there's a gun in the room? What unseen trouble lies ahead? What if?

Grady thinks this is a fitting analogy for politicians, too. The good ones, he says, see the whole wide world of potential dangers. They know how each piece of the world fits with every other piece. And they see both hands.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company