Have we just had a taste of how influence might be wielded under a Clinton II Administration? In a very successful week for its most notorious client, Mark Penn's firm was able to get Blackwater CEO Erik Prince several major television appearances. Lob-ball questions were included at no extra charge.
Democrats have waited years for a consultant that can play the media as well as the GOP can. Unfortunately, most of them had hoped it would be for a better cause. And even if this is all coincidence, Mr. Penn's continued leadership of Burson-Marsteller - and the firm's indiscriminate choice of clients - creates a serious perception problem in a time when voters are yearning for change.
It makes sense that 60 Minutes and other news shows would offer Prince prominent spots, and would hit the talking points he and his PR firm want them to hit. After all, Hillary could be the next President of the United States. Who wants to get on the bad side of the man so many are describing as "Hillary's Rove," especially this early in the election season?
The sometimes-formidable Lara Logan offered a soft venue for Prince's unverifiable denials of the mass shooting in Iraq - denials that contradict both eyewitnesses and the United States military. (The State Department and the FBI are stonewalling the military and freezing them out of the investigation - presumably so they can prepare a more politically-influenced report).
Excerpts from Logan's interview can be found on the CBS News website, under the implausible title "Blackwater Chief Welcomes Extra Oversight."
Here's a typical hardball Logan question: "So, when you hear the Iraqi government complete an investigation in record time, I think, a matter of days and pronounce you 100 percent guilty, what's your reaction?" Logan asks. Did that Iraqi investigation really conclude in record time? The implication is, of course, that it was a rush to judgment. Yet the Pentagon has also drawn some of the same conclusions already. Were they hasty, too?
As if that's not enough implied "hating the troops," there's this Prince quote (not challenged by Logan): "I'm glad the FBI's investigating. I am glad they can be a neutral party." So the military isn't "neutral"? Apparently, Blackwater considers Gen. Petraeus "General Betray Us" when it comes to investigating them.
To be fair to Logan, she does follow up with a question about the military's report, and Prince responded with more unchallenged troop-bashing: "I think before, before the military starts releasing reports like that they should probably wait till the Justice Department completes their investigation."
An "is it true?" question was offered in order to elicit this statement: "No one under our care has been killed or injured." Remember that: you'll hear it again. (The ability to lay down indiscriminate blasts of deadly fire without legal restraint probably helped them accomplish this goal.)
Then the real stroking begins. "I know you said the loss of innocent life is a tragedy," Logan asks. "Do you regret it, do you wish it never happened?" What's the guy going to say? No? "Absolutely," says Prince. But then he wanders off-script, so Logan helpfully steps in again: ""People want to know from you," said Logan, "they know about the terrorist bombs, they know about the loss of huge civilian casualties, Iraqis have lived through all of that. When I talk to them they want to know from you, from Blackwater, that you wish those people had not been killed that you wish innocent people didn't have to die as a result of anything that you're involved in."
"It is absolutely not our wish that any innocent civilians should ever die," Prince says.
Charlie Rose's interview included a few more tough questions - but again, the talking points were all touched upon, as when Rose asked this now-familiar question: "No State Department official that you have been guarding has been killed or wounded?" "That is correct," Prince answers.
Then there's this Rose question: "Do you think there has been knee-jerk reporting about what happened on September 16?" And this one: "I realize that you are Americans, working for Americans, to protect America. That's the way you see it?"
Unsurprisingly, Prince allows that yes, that is in fact how he sees it.
Lara Logan and Charlie Rose are good at what they do, so what other explanation can there be for these gauzy, soft-focus appearances? As for Mark Penn, the Clinton campaign's argument is that he's not involved in the Blackwater account. Really? He's the CEO. Nothing happens there unless he wants it to happen. (The Clinton campaign also maintains that the Blackwater engagement ended recently, although no dates were provided.)
The Rose interview turned up a couple of other new talking points. One was Prince's suggestion that Blackwater might be the ideal force to resolve the situation in Darfur. Another was the idea that Prince only contributes to the GOP because he likes their tax policy. But here's my favorite:
Charlie Rose: So you're not the largest private army in the world --
Erik Prince: By no means. Terribly inaccurate. We have a big database. We're a -- you know, imagine the security work that we do, okay? As a very robust temp agency.
Yep, that's it. They're just Kelly Temps with M-16s. Instead of filing and answering phones, they're wasting Arabs and forcing civilian cars off the road with their Humvees.
"Hi, I'm the new temp from Blackwater. How do you like your coffee?"
As for the Clinton campaign, they're letting this issue fester. That should give her supporters - and other Democrats - pause. The best way to address the problem would be to insist that her chief strategist take a leave of absence from his corporate job, and to act forcefully to ensure that the campaign's leaders avoid either the substance or the appearance of impropriety.
(NOTE: Some text in this post was changed for clarification purposes.)