Reading the Tea Leaves

In Sunday’s Week in Review section of The New York Times, David E. Sanger examines the ongoing crumbling of what once was a united front of all the president’s men and women.

A White House once noted for its extraordinary message and discipline control lately is behaving more like a band of squabbling school children, and Sanger deftly takes us through example after example to make his point.

“For months now,” he writes, “the same administration whose members once prided themselves on never contradicting one another in public has been riven by conflicting pronouncements,” Sanger writes, concluding that “Reporters who spent the first two-thirds of Mr. Bush’s term looking for any crack between the tight-lipped members of the administration suddenly feel as if they have stepped into an amusement park, with different hawkers openly selling disparate policies, explanations and critiques.”

A few examples:

— Last week there was Attorney General John Ashcroft warning the citizenry of alarming intelligence that “indicates Al Qaeda’s specific intention to hit the United States hard” — while Tom Ridge, head of homeland security, was reassuring interviewers that there really was not much in the way of any new intelligence floating around.

— That news came just after the raid on Ahmad Chalabi’s headquarters in Bagdad. Chalabi, now accused of spoon-feeding gullible adminstration hawks phony evidence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was not so long ago a Bush favorite, occupying a seat of honor at both the president’s State of the Union address in January and at his address to the UN last year. Indeed, the Pentagon paid Chalabi’s organization $335,000 a month for an extended period of time for all that dubious intelligence that led nowhere. “Now,” writes Sanger, “his Pentagon sponsors can barely remember his name, and the rest of the administration is describing him as a con artist at best, and perhaps a leaker of military information to Iran.”

— Just days before, Secretary of States Colin Powell declared he now believes he too was the victim of fabricated intelligence in the days before the invasion of Iraq and that American intelligence agencies were duped.

— For the past two months, the president has been on the road touting his education, health care, and other programs, complete with fact sheets about how much he has increased spending for these politically popular programs. “But,” as Sanger notes, “no one told the Office of Management and Budget and it inconveniently produced a May 19 memo telling government departments to brace for a $1.5 billion cut in education spending next year, and [cuts of] $900 million in veteran’s benefits.”

Why has an adminstration known for singing from the same song sheet suddenly come to resemble a Marx brothers’ day at the races? Sanger floats several theories: Karen Hughes, the communications director who orchestrated the chorus, is gone; it’s easy to be unified when all is going well, but not when everything seems to be coming up sour; and coerced discipline born of fear, not loyalty, never lasts. Most intriguing of all: While the president is thinking of his second term, many of those in his cabinet are thinking about getting out, with Colin Powell at the head of that line. “That changes every calculation,” Singer explains; officials worried about their own legacy want to clear the air before they leave.

None of this is campaign journalism per se — except in the sense that Sanger offers the kind of analysis and synthesis of seemingly disparate events that give voters a clearer picture of what’s really going on. By our book that qualifies not just as campaign coverage, but as first-rate journalism.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.