By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010; C01
For a cerebral president intent on projecting a united front of seriousness to the public, the story couldn't have been further off message. The general leading the grim war in Afghanistan presented himself not as a hardened warrior-scholar but as the military's most decorated consumer of Bud Light Lime.
When Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal opened his inner sanctum to a Rolling Stone reporter, he violated more than just the military chain of command. The general broke core tenets of President Obama's code of conduct: When it comes to the media, keep your guard up, your mouth shut and control of the situation.
Instead, McChrystal and his merry band of Team America comrades sank their ship with astonishingly loose lips, revealed that the "lively debate" in the administration's foreign policy upper echelon may be a euphemism for jagged division and showed that high rank may be evidence of valor but not worldliness.
There's a long track record of powerful generals using reporters to stroke their outsize egos, then getting burned when the coverage doesn't work out as they had planned.
In the mid-19th century, Gen. Zachary Taylor took advantage of the burgeoning newspaper industry to herald his exploits. Emboldened by the coverage, he not only took strategic liberties in the war with Mexico, but also demonstrated disdain for President James K. Polk (D). When Polk marginalized him, an enraged Taylor ran for president in 1848 as a Whig and won.
Gen. George S. Patton's running off at the mouth to reporters caused constant headaches for Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Patton smacked around shell-shocked troops in the presence of reporters, they huddled and agreed not to publish that information so as not to hurt the war effort. They did, however, spread the word through private Army channels. Ultimately, radio reporter Drew Pearson broke the story and helped cause Patton's downfall.
"Douglas MacArthur used his media connections effectively when he was essentially the emperor of Japan," said Brian Linn, a military historian at Texas A&M University. MacArthur would get angry when the Army's Stars and Stripes newspaper didn't feature him prominently enough and would excise the names of his subordinates from military statements to emphasize his role. The ego that the media helped feed led to an act of insubordination that prompted President Harry S. Truman to relieve the general of his duty.
"Since the dawn of the modern information era," said Robert Citino, a professor at the Military History Center at the University of North Texas, "the media and generalship have gone hand in hand."
McChrystal seemed at first to have followed in the footsteps of Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has demonstrated a clear understanding of how Washington and the media work and how to cultivate an image that increases your political leverage. (An interview Petraeus gave to Reuters this week was headlined "The Warrior-Scholar Versus the Taliban," and the positive story about the "rising star" included a quote from Petraeus referencing his Princeton pedigree, his jumping out of airplanes and his decision-making capabilities, all in one sentence.)
Then came McChrystal's trip to Paris that coincided with the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull, which closed down Europe's airspace, prompting a bus trip to Berlin and a nearly week-long stay at the Ritz-Carlton. Then came the tourist-trap boozing and insubordinate smack talk.
McChrystal allowed Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings to join his team all the way, and the reporter witnessed a general far away from Washington and the Obama ethic. Washington rules -- don't leave fingerprints on attacks against your political enemies, don't confide in reporters who don't depend on you for their beats, drink a single malt scotch and not a case of citrus-flavored lager -- didn't apply.
The president has all but guaranteed that this won't happen again by turning to Petraeus.
"Petraeus is a savvy person," said John McManus, a military historian at Missouri University of Science and Technology. "He is able to use the media to cultivate the image that he wants."