Senior officials deserve a trusted PAO to hold the trivial at bay so that they are free to worry about the job. Too many meetings, too little time. In the case of Nash and me, I quickly became an unfettered spokesman who didn’t have to check every time I opened my mouth or dispatched an e-mail. If this lasts, it promises to be a productive relationship. Our project is too big not to be noticed. Criticism being a more natural state than praise, I assume my hands will be busy juggling media balls, just as Nash predicts.
I wrote my views on this in an unpublished letter to the editor of The New York Times, triggered by an article suggesting there was too much politics in the public affairs establishment in Baghdad:
The program is headed by a retired Admiral, David J. Nash. I am his public affairs assistant, and my role is to translate what we’re doing to the media for wider dissemination to the people who are footing the bill. Reelecting the President is not part of my job description, although I am a political appointee. I am also a retired soldier who believes unconditionally that war is a national commitment, absorbing the combined resources of all the nation, not just its partisan components.
I’ve been a Republican all my life. But as a taxpayer-funded public affairs officer, I know that the party and the country are best served when people in my position act as a funnel, not a filter. If we do the public’s business well, facts speak for themselves. In the end, the truth comes out anyway, so if one starts with the truth, there’s no need to worry about facing a painful moment of reconciliation later.
I confess to being a news freak. And most of my friends are also afflicted. News is our narcotic. When it comes to the Army, I’m better informed than almost anyone I know outside my circle of friends. We use, need, and trust one another. For instance, I’ve known for several months about Time magazine’s project to pick as its Man of the Year an Army platoon serving in Iraq, because I helped Time embed a team there. Around Thanksgiving I received a note from Michael Duffy, Time’s Washington bureau chief. ‘We have made great progress on our previously discussed idea about The Squad,’ he wrote. ‘Our guys are now embedded and will be for the next month. Please keep that under your hat, but I wanted you to know that it is going well.’
The test of my commitment to the Time story came by surprise several weeks later when Duffy called me at midnight. I was groggy and hostile when I answered the phone. He said that a Time reporter and photographer working on ‘our story’ were injured in some accident, perhaps fatally. His voice was controlled, but there was panic in the tone. I grabbed my bathrobe and ID and rushed toward the palace. Within two minutes I was in the media center, the so-called Green Room. Colonel Bill Darley, an Army public affairs officer, was on the telephone, telling higher headquarters that some media people had been hurt. After I explained my previous relationship with Duffy (not mentioning the Man of the Year project), Darley provided the name and telephone number of the doctor attending the two Time people at the nearby Army medical center. First word (later confirmed) was that the reporter, Michael Weisskopf, had lost a hand and Jim Nachtwey, the photographer, had taken a lot of shrapnel but was expected to recover. They had been in an Army Humvee when a terrorist dropped a grenade in the vehicle. Weisskopf struggled to throw the grenade away, but it exploded.
I passed this on to Duffy by cell. I visited the men the next day just before they were evacuated to Germany on their way to Walter Reed. Duffy appreciated my help in keeping him and the families informed, and sent my wife a bouquet. Just as all politics is local, as Tip O’Neill famously said, all public affairs is personal.
It was a bittersweet victory when the Time edition appeared. But it gave me a rush to see the three soldiers on the cover, including the medic who was first on the scene to provide aid to Weisskopf and Nachtwey.