Twisting in Their Own Windiness

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury of public opinion, I rise not to defend Joe Biden, Jacques Chirac and Bob Gates but to draw your attention to extenuating circumstances that may have caused these accused and other gaffe-prone speakers to plant their feet deeply in their mouths in recent days.

What's that? Oh, yes. In the case of Gates, the new defense secretary, it should be made clear that he received help from Karl Rove and the White House in stumbling over his own infelicitous words. We will come to that shortly.

This outbreak of global political buffoonery is no accident. It spins out of a whirlwind of campaigns, elections and leadership changes sweeping across Britain, France, Russia, the United States and who knows where else over the next two years.

In a globalized world, if you will, a permanent campaign is underway somewhere and everywhere all the time. Politicians get endless opportunities to say dumb things into tape recorders and cameras. That provides endless material for the new savants of the age of interconnectivity, the snark artists of television's false news shows, talk radio, blogs and, yes, newspapers, bless their fearful, tarted-up souls.

Sorry. I digress. But context is everything in the case of Joe Biden making the evening news by praising Sen. Barack Obama for being, well, " clean." Reporters who long ago learned to concentrate on Biden's ideas rather than on his ill-assorted nouns, verbs and adjectives had to treat this gaffe as momentous: Against much of the available evidence, Biden had just declared that he was a serious presidential contender.

The Delaware senator is a thoroughly decent, hardworking and thoughtful legislator. But I found it unnerving in his previous bid for the Democratic nomination, in 1988, to have him frequently deliver a loosely connected set of ideas during an interview and then look up to ask: "Am I making sense here?" So I say, plus ├ža change.

Yes, this French adage moves us to President Chirac, who also made the front page of the New York Times on Thursday by furiously trying to deny and then retract words he had said to three reporters and a tape recorder. After months of formally declaring that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, Chirac confided that an Iran possessing one or two nuclear weapons would not be so dangerous after all, since Tehran could be razed in retaliation for inappropriate behavior.

Hmmm. Well, doesn't he have a point there? And this is familiar behavior, too. Chirac made unsettling remarks about Germany and Israel to the Washington Times back in 1986 and then firmly denied making them until his questioner produced an unexpected tape recording.

Interviewing Chirac has always been a constant struggle to identify what he intends as policy pronouncements, as his version of clever repartee to lighten the atmosphere or as just plain banality. This, after all, is a politician nicknamed "the brother-in-law." His bonhomie is often forced and capable of leading him astray.

One would never say that of Bob Gates, who interrupted his skillful effort to smooth all Washington feathers ruffled by Don Rumsfeld by calling a news conference Jan. 26 to warn darkly that congressional opposition to U.S. troop increases in Iraq "emboldens the enemy and our adversaries."

There is cause for legitimate concern on that score. But this is also language out of the White House political playbook for turning arguments about Iraq strategy into arguments about patriotism. And yes, you will hear people with great connections in this administration say that Rove and communications czar Dan Bartlett encouraged Gates in this mission. At least, I have heard that.

But Gates denies it. And you must consider who is damaged most by this poisonous approach. First of all, Gates. It revives the fading criticisms from his CIA days that he politicized national security judgments to please his political masters. It is not in his interest to have those memories recalled.

Second, this was nothing less than a thinly veiled attack on GOP icon Sen. John Warner and his dissent on Iraq. A White House assault on Warner's responsible effort to reduce polarization on Iraq risks destroying what remains of the unity of the Republican Party's foreign policy establishment. Heck, it threatens to destroy that establishment altogether. I would be amazed if Warner were not stung by "what they are putting Gates up to," as one Warnerite puts it.

So surely, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you will see that Bush White House politicos would never risk such damage for short-term political gain. That would make them seem even more ridiculous than the most snarky parodymeisters ever could. And who could possibly want that?

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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