The incoherence emanating from the White House *UPDATE*

One of the best things George Bush did during his presidency was to appoint the late, great Tony Snow as his press secretary.  Snow was a dream press secretary, straight out of central casting:  handsome, intelligent, erudite, informed, charming and witty.  Even the savagely anti-Bush press appeared to enjoy his statements and, once he was up there at the podium, they had a much harder time attacking George Bush’s policy initiatives.

Barack Obama, who is making a presidential career out of being the un-Bush, has also done a 180 when it comes to his press secretary.  Robert Gibbs is the Bizarro World version of Snow.  In place of Snow’s many virtues, Gibbs is visually unappealing, which would be meaningless if it wasn’t accompanied by an uninformed boorishness that permeates his every utterance.  The White House press has been giving him a pass because he’s the front person for their idol, but any objective listener would have to conclude that the man is a fool — or, which might be even worse, he plays a fool in order to obfuscate entirely what his employer is doing.

Gibbs’ primary problem (or, if you incline to the obfuscatory theory, his primary virtue) is that he is unintelligible.  Today, he gave a perfect example of a ten cent man using three dollar words (emphasis mine):

TAPPER:  When more troops are sent into a country, inevitably it results in more casualties, when the military presence and fighting is increased. Is the president going to — is that going to be part of the president’s message tomorrow, to prepare the American people for the fact that, while an exit strategy exists, the next year or two is going to be perhaps bloodier than even the last six months?

GIBBS:  Well, I — and we’ve discussed this before. I think the amount of sacrifice that we’ve seen from the men and women that we have there already is something that I know the president is assured by each and every day. I think — you know, he signs letters of condolence.  He meets with the families of those that have been killed.  Obviously, the trip to Dover is something that I doubt you ever truly forget.  I think the president will reiterate the importance of why we’re there, but also, by all means, very early on, acknowledge the tremendous cost and sacrifice to our men and women in uniform.  I don’t think there’s any doubt that we are all in awe of — of the commitment from our military and our civilian side in order to get this right.

What in the world does the above mean?  The question is whether the president is going to prepare the American people for the fact that, with more troops, there’s more fighting; and with more fighting, we can anticipate more casualties.  It’s a good question, because we saw precisely that result with the Iraq Surge.  At the time, the press  immediately fell into a hysterical dizzy about body counts, until it became obvious to them, and to the rest of the world, that, on the battle field as on the surgery table, a quick cauterization sees some significant initial trauma, but then completely stops the flow of blood.  A smart president would help the American people understand this fact, so that they could support this mini-surge without panic.

Given the sensible question, Gibbs could easily have returned with a sensible answer. Instead, Gibbs tells us that Obama is “assured” by those troops who have already fought, been wounded and died on Afghani soil.  Hey!  He’s even written condolence letters.  This talk isn’t merely non-responsive, it’s nonsense.  What does the fact that the president finds American deaths “assuring,” and that he signs off on letters, have to do with the pragmatic issue of preparing Americans for the short-term hits and long-term benefits of a Surge?

Only after spewing the crude and painful nonsense does Gibbs make a stab at actually answering the question and, typically, he answers it wrong.  Instead, of making the point I made, which is that the military is willing to make a short term sacrifice to assure a long-term benefit, Gibbs waffled on about how troops are going to die — and how the White House really, really appreciates the fact that they’re going to make this sacrifice to “get this right.”  It’s unclear whether the “this” that the troops are supposed to die for in order to “get [it] right” is America’s national security, or Obama’s political stability.

Gibbs’ response is appalling at every level.  It’s stupid, unintelligible, insensitive, and strategically and politically wide of the mark.

Gibbs doesn’t improve when Tapper asks about long-term political goals in Afghanistan.  First, Gibbs has no idea what the issue is:

TAPPER:  And just in terms of defining our terms, where does making sure that we have a stable Afghan partner and — and nation- building begin?  What’s the line? Is it just — is it just a question of our responsibility, U.S. responsibility being training Afghan troops?  It’s just — that’s the safe and secure part, the safe and stable partner part? Because we’ve heard a lot about what the U.S. intends to do, and I know you don’t want to get ahead of the president’s speech, but just in terms — if you could define the terms a little for us.

GIBBS:  Well, I — I guess I would more ask you to — I don’t — I’m unclear as to what continuum you’re putting.  Are you asking me to — to put them on a certain…

I’ll concede that Tapper got a bit wordy there, but the question is clear: He’s asking Gibbs to explain how the Surge will assure a stable Afghanistan.  If Gibbs was at all intelligent, he’d seize the question and spout a party line:  “The president anticipates that there will be X number of months of harder fighting until the situation on the ground is stabilized.  Even as the Surge goes forward, however, we will be working with the Karzai government….”  Simple.  Anyone can do it, even someone who actually has no idea what the facts on the ground are.  Gibbs, however, struggles visibly to figure out what the heck the question means.

When Tapper clarifies, Gibbs goes from bad to worse, lapsing eventually into complete incoherency:

TAPPER:  Well, the president has said about the new strategy that it’s important that we have a secure, stable ally in the Afghan…


GIBBS:  Right. Well, and a partner that is — and a partner that understands, as the president directly told President Karzai in a telephone call in the Oval Office, that it is time to turn — it’s time for a new chapter in our relationship as it relates to corruption and improved governance in order to address the security situation not just through training and security force needs, but also — look, it’s hard for a civilian — it’s hard for civilians to go in and improve areas — it’s impossible — that aren’t secure.  So I would say this is all part of what has to be a partnership. And I think anybody would tell you that — that — and I’ve said this, and I think, quite frankly, you’ve seen this from Democrats and Republicans in Congress — without partners that are willing to do stuff in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, no number of American troops can solve all of those problems unless or until those steps are taken inside both of those countries where we see a change in the security situation.

Again, what in the world does Gibbs mean?  There’s not a single declarative sentence in there.  Let me translate what he said in simple English, so that you can see that he didn’t say anything:

Tapper question:  How will the Surge work to stabilize the Afghani political scene?

Gibb-erish answer:  A partner works with you.  Karzai is the man Obama talks to.  Obama talked to Karzai on the phone.  He actually called him from the Oval Office.  He said that Karzai needs to work on the corruption and governance thing, so that civilians can go places.  (Bookworm here:  It’s unclear whether Obama wants Karzai to do away with corruption or simply do it better.  If it was any president other than Obama, I’d assume the former.  Given our President’s background in Chicago politics and community organizing, though, I really am not prepared to assume what Gibb meant with this babble.)  We need a partner.  Everyone agrees we need a partner.  Even troops aren’t partners.  So, we need a partner.

Let me distill Gibbs’ puerile utterances even further.  Tapper asked how the Surge will link to the Afghani political scene, whether in the short or long term.  Gibb-erish responded by saying “we need a partner.”  Objection, your honor.  Nonresponsive.

During the campaign, Obama, holding tightly to his teleprompter and prepared speeches, seduced the audience with dreamy platitudes about the intangibles of hope and change, and with concrete lies about his actual political agenda.  Now that the campaign is over, Obama has no deal with real issues and real problems.  He’s had to fire Hopey and Changey, two dwarfs who have no place in actual governance, especially when the governance is trying hard to drag the country to a bankrupt Left.  In their place, if Obama had demonstrated any of the smarts his acolytes attribute to him, he would have delegated the job of communications to a smart guy like Doc.  Instead, he went for Dopey, with the obvious results.  As for me, this whole thing is making me Grumpy.

UPDATE:  In the first item in Monday’s Best of the Web Today, James Taranto suggests that Gibbs’ incoherence may originate with the boss.

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  • Danny Lemieux

    But, but, but…we’ve met “Bad-Gag” Bob before…

  • Gringo

    From Eisenhower and the Media:
    These televised news conferences delivered some mixed results: at times the public watched a President who seemed unsure when he answered certain questions. Arthur Krock, a widely known New York Times reporter and columnist, said that Eisenhower’s speech was ungrammatical: “…numbers and genders collide, participles hang helplessly, and syntax is lost forever.” Even today, more than fifty years later, Ike still has a reputation for “inarticulate” answers to the questions he was asked on TV.
    How then do we explain the contrast between the bumbling press conferences and Ike’s writings — not only the speeches that he wrote without assistance, but also his letters and private memoranda — which display a confident and masterly prose? Two different explanations have been advanced. Some have suggested that Ike’s lapses were maneuvers of evasion when he wished to avoid making comments on a sensitive public issue. Once, when Ike met with some presidential aides to prepare for questions from the press in regard to a delicate international issue involving tension with the People’s Republic of China, the State Department said he should decline to answer any questions on the subject. According to James Hagerty, Eisenhower’s press secretary, Ike turned to him and said with a smile, “Don’t worry, Jim, if that question comes up, I’ll just confuse them.”
    The other popular explanation is that some of the questions from the reporters caught Ike unprepared to deal openly with a complicated issue or one that involved top secret information. Then Ike would hesitate in mid-sentence as he tried to balance all the various issues or constraints that could bear upon his answer. In such cases he was “thinking out loud” as he answered. Perhaps, then, it is no accident that in recent years the presidential press conferences have been heavily scripted. No surprises make for smooth answers……
    Interestingly, no president since Eisenhower has convened as many broadcasted press conferences.

    Just another take on press conferences and Presidents.
    I doubt that Mr. Gibbs has the smarts to deliberately obfuscate, as did Eisenhower. One of Mr.Gibb’s classics was when he complained about comparing Obama to Hitler, stating that would have never occurred four years ago to Bush. Yeah, right.

  • highlander

    Gibbs may be a fool, or he may be playing a fool, but either way he is certainly being defensive.  That’s surprising given the friendliness of most of the White House press corps and betrays a lack of confidence in what Obama is doing.
    Aside from his own personal skill, one of the reasons Tony Snow could be so confident at the podium is that he knew in his gut that what his President was doing was right.  Gibbs, on the other hand, is trying to defend the indefensible.

  • Ymarsakar

    They’re all complicit and guilty.

  • gpc31

    Can you imagine the poor foreign diplomats who have to try to translate this back to their bosses?  Misinterpretation is all too common even with crystal clear language.
    What kind of leverage does the US have if no one respects, trusts, or understands this administration?


    Gibbs was doing a dry run, a precursor to the ‘speech’.
    gpc31 – do you think they’ll provide subtitles Tuesday for the English speakers.

  • jlibson

    You are all missing the point. Which is…
    Book! Your translation of Gibb-erish was hilarious.
    Your blog is almost always enjoyable and informative, but you showed a knack for mockery that I hadn’t seen before. :)
    Me Likey.

  • gpc31

    Sadie — Nice!  I would settle for english subtitles for english speakers, ASL, or something like the old Saturday Night Live skit with “Mr. Subliminal Man”, where the character would mutter quick asides what he (and everyone else) was really thinking.
    Off topic and cheap, but I can’t resist:  Reminds me of the quip that Pat Buchanan’s speeches don’t sound so bad in the original German.

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