Footnote to History: Rituals Of Delivering the Iraq Report
Thursday, December 7, 2006
"The Iraq Study Group Report" landed on Washington with all the pomp, circumstance, choreography, videography, confusion, cynicism and hope that Washington yearns for when the Wise Men (and Woman) hold forth with An Answer.
At the White House, President Bush got a copy signed by the Wise Ones -- and promptly dispatched it to the National Archives for posterity. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Frank Wolf, the Virginia Republican who got the whole thing rolling a year ago, was brought nearly to tears by the result. In cyberspace, 400,000 people downloaded the report within hours from a Web site that had been bulked up to withstand 50 million hits in coming days. Across town, citizens trudged to bookstores for their copies and found them . . . sold out, or not yet delivered, in some sort of distribution infarction. With delivery services maxed out, Random House resorted to having its own employees ferry copies from a Westminster, Md., warehouse to bookstores in D.C.
Not bad for what, in the end, turned out to be a rather slender paperback -- a 96-page, $10.95 volume, whose juicier bits had already been leaked by spoilers.
Parts of it read like a song of the doomed, with phrases like "grave and deteriorating" and "Pessimism is pervasive." It was heavy stuff, coming a day after defense secretary nominee Robert Gates testified that the war in Iraq is not being won. Few dared dismiss it outright as mere rhetoric.
"There's almost a biblical thing about wise elderly people," said Wolf, referring to the 10 study group members led by former secretary of state James Baker and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana. "I mean, Sandra Day O'Connor" -- the woman on the panel -- "is not looking for another job. So they can speak truth."
Whenever there's a major dump of heaped, hyped wisdom on this town -- the last time was the 9/11 Commission report, also supervised by the honorable Mr. Hamilton -- an old-fashioned ritual kicks in. Some proceedings will never be digitized; some deliveries can't be made by Random House.
Yesterday near dawn, the commission members were ushered into the White House to hand-deliver the document to the president. He accepted it, congratulated them and said, "I'm not going to comment on it until I've read it."
Next the motorcade of long black sedans climbed Capitol Hill, police escort sirens heralding their arrival. All over town American flags were snapping northwards. Police officers at the House-side entrance to the Capitol shooed away a workman for caulking the sidewalk upon which the Wise Ones would walk.
At the Capitol, the guards did not bother to run their bomb-detecting mirrors beneath these sedans. Out popped Baker carrying a thick green folder, its title partially obscured by his arm: "The Iraq . . . " Hamilton had a thick blue folder. Baker had a bright red scarf, O'Connor a pink one. And here came the rest of the reunion pantheon of bipartisan establishment Washington, the study group members: O'Connor, Lawrence Eagleburger, Vernon Jordan, Edwin Meese, Leon Panetta, William Perry, Charles Robb, Alan Simpson.
Study group staffers carried copies of the paperback books in cardboard boxes, 24 to a box, which were sealed with orange admonitions: "Do not put on sale until 12/6/2006, 12 p.m. EST."
The Wise Ones met behind closed doors with House leadership, passed out copies of the report, and then it was on to the Senate side. Baker and Hamilton led the way, jaunty of step, with book bearers and police escorts in tow, along the polished basement corridor, past a banquet kitchen and a locker room where waiters were fastening bow ties.
By prearrangement, dozens of photographers were staked out to document (a) the team's arrival to transmit the report to the Senate, (b) the short walk of leaders Bill Frist and Harry Reid down a corridor with Baker and Hamilton, and (c) Senate leaders receiving their copies of the paperback in a conference room.