The Master Narrative that Went Missing During the Bush Presidency

The story that produces lots of other stories should have been the hellbent expansion of executive power, and the go-it-alone politics that followed from it.
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Some new developments this week in the continuing story of how the press was overawed by the Administration of George W. Bush.

Boston Globe Reporter Charlie Savage actually supplied at TPM Cafe the missing master narrative for the Bush years: "The agenda of concentrating more unchecked power in the White House." This was confirmed by the testimony of a former insider, Jack Goldsmith, who is out with a book about doing battle with the Bush forces inside the terror presidency.

In one of the first posts I wrote when I started blogging (Sep. 2003), I adapted the term master narrative to mean, in press coverage, "the story that produces all the other stories." Think of campaign news on the horse race model. There, the basic narrative is winning; what it takes to win the race is the "master" from which thousands of copies--the horse race stories themselves--get made.

My thought was: change the master, come up with a better one, and it changes the coverage. Well, Savage came up with a better one. The drive to concentrate unchecked power in the White House, commanded by Cheney, backed by Bush, centered in the Office of the Vice President, a radical project in governance that was mostly--but not entirely--hidden from view.

Now that's not a "new" story but a thread for connecting lots of stories and piecing together better explanations. The Maximal Executive was the narrative the press needed to get itself back in the game after being gamed by the executive branch in the build-up to the war in Iraq. The story that produces lots of other stories should have been the hellbent expansion of executive power, and the go-it-alone politics that followed from it.

Savage is planning a five-week tour around the country. You should try to catch him. But first catch what he's saying. For if we can't get the presidential candidates of both parties on record about steps to reverse this agenda, if we can't make a proper issue out of it in 2008, we're probably screwed. The issue is unbuilding the Bush Presidency in the next Administration. Does your candidate support that? Which parts? And if you don't know which parts, isn't that a case of: Iowa, we have a problem?

Pattern recognition

Huff Post readers would know Charlie Savage as the Globe reporter in Washington who figured out that Bush's signing statements were part of a pattern. He put some of the pieces together and got a Pulitzer for it, which was just.

I thought his new book, Takeover, was going to be the fuller story of signing statements, but no. It's about the Bush administration's "very broad view of executive power," and the effort to put that view into practice by overcoming all constraints. Savage began calling it the Cheney project because Dick Cheney had "articulated a vision of nearly limitless commander-in-chief power two decades earlier."

In 2005, Savage followed the fight over John McCain's efforts to get a ban on torture by Congress. "We all thought the story was over when Bush signed the bill into law." Victory for McCain! But then the missing narrative kicked in. "The president issued a signing statement telling interrogators that he could authorize them to ignore the law." It happened again with oversight provisions in the Patriot Act. Bush signed the billl, and said he didn't have to obey them. Savage reported on both actions for the Globe. "Those two stories got a huge response, and so after that my bureau chief relieved me of daily reporting responsibilities for a month to go find and decipher all the other signing statements Bush had issued since taking office."

(I've said since 2005 that bloggers vs. journalists is a stupid fight and should be declared over, in part because the two "sides" of the online press are already part of one news system. A large portion of that "huge" response he got was the blogosphere roaring its approval for the digging and synthesizing Charlie Savage did, which influenced the Globe bureau chief to spend the manpower on more stories like that. The big response online amplified the Globe's voice in the national conversation, expanding the circle of people who care about the newspaper's reporting. See? One system.)

An episodic view won't reveal

Savage learned that the president had challenged more laws than all previous presidents combined. The owner of the policy was Bush. Its originator was Cheney. The enforcer was David Addington (see Jane Mayer's profile), a man who does not speak to the press. The policy predated September 11, after which the attacks became the spectacular (and bottomless) justification for the Maximal version of executive power.

Savage put it this way in the Boston Globe (Nov. 26, 2006): "Over the course of his career, Cheney came to believe that the modern world is too dangerous and complex for a president's hands to be tied. He embraced a belief that presidents have vast 'inherent' powers, not spelled out in the Constitution, that allow them to defy Congress."

A theme for Savage is the inadequacy of a string of episodes. "Like many reporters, I had been focused in on a close-up of one or two controversies, but had been missing the broader context," he writes. In fact, journalists have to decide not only what "the broader context" is, but whether there is a broader context building up, a thread connecting all these things. Or is it just a series of news stories, episodes that are worth a few cycles, then make way for other episodes?

Savage decided. When the "full panorama" came into view, it changed what he saw in incidents that had earlier made news. (My italics...)

Suddenly, what the Bush administration had been doing across a huge range of issues made much more sense - not just the 9/11-related controversies, but Cheney's fight to keep his energy task force papers a secret, the attacks on open-government laws such as FOIA and the Presidential Records Act, the use of executive orders instead of legislation to push the faith-based initiative, the decision to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty without consulting the Senate, the choices for Supreme Court nominations, unprecedented efforts to impose greater White House control over Justice Department lawyers and other executive branch bureaucrats, and many other things. These disparate controversies were all connected. The administration, from its very beginning, had set out to set precedents and take actions that would permanently expand presidential power for the long-term, even when such tactics brought them extra short-term difficulties. A quiet but sweeping constitutional revolution was well underway.

So you see why master narratives matter.

Giving away the president's power

While Savage develops his argument for what was going on, Jack Goldsmith's testimony has been unfolding at Slate. They complete each other, clashing only on one point: their view of how presidential power works.

Appreciate that Goldsmith, a conservative, a Republican, and a Bush Administration insider--head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, until he resigned because of the Cheney project--has the same narrative that Charlie Savage has, except he brings us into meetings where powers maximal were asserted.

"Why don't we just go to Congress and get it to sign off on the whole detention program?" Goldsmith asked at one sit down. "Why are you trying to give away the president's power?" Addington replied. This comeback is the heart of his book, which is a work of dissent from deep within the Bush camp.

Presidential candidates will think twice about "giving away the president's power," Charlie Savage believes. Once they are successfully asserted, new presidential prerogatives are hard to get rid of. Which is why he thinks Bush and Cheney have largely won. "The expansive presidential powers claimed and exercised by the Bush- Cheney White House are now an immutable part of American history -- not controversies, but facts."

Even if the victor in the 2008 presidential election declines to make use of the aggrandized executive powers established by the Bush- Cheney administration, in the long run such forbearance might make little difference. The accretion of presidential power, history has shown, often acts like a one-way ratchet: It can be increased far more easily than it can be reduced.

In a statement that struck some people as strange, Savage said "I do not think that presidential power is a partisan issue." After all, "future Democratic presidents will be able to invoke the same novel powers that the Bush administration has pioneered in order to unilaterally impose their own agendas." They will be able to, but are they as likely to? Savage says it doesn't matter; the powers are there.

Hard vs. soft power

When Goldsmith suggested going to Congress, he thought he was expanding White House power by adding hugely to its legitimacy without sacrificing much maneuvering space at all. But this is where the radical part in the Cheney project emerged. The very act of seeking broader legitimacy diminished the president's power, according to Cheney and Addington. What a claim! Goldsmith is good on this:

Addington once expressed his general attitude toward accommodation when he said, "We're going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop." He and, I presumed, his boss viewed power as the absence of constraint. These men believed that the president would be best equipped to identify and defeat the uncertain, shifting, and lethal new enemy by eliminating all hurdles to the exercise of his power. They had no sense of trading constraint for power. It seemed never to occur to them that it might be possible to increase the president's strength and effectiveness by accepting small limits on his prerogatives in order to secure more significant support from Congress, the courts, or allies.

Goldsmith calls it a "truism among political scientists and historians who study the American presidency," that presidential authority today is not the "hard power found in the Constitution, statutes, and precedents," but the ability to command the stage and communicate directly with the public. The president as national protagonist has huge advantages in winning society over to his point of view. Goldsmith points out how great a departure was made under this president.

The Bush administration has operated on an entirely different concept of power that relies on minimal deliberation, unilateral action, and legalistic defense. This approach largely eschews politics: the need to explain, to justify, to convince, to get people on board, to compromise.

It has been a truism among Washington journalists that the Bush White House was "good" at politics. (It had discipline, it had Rove, it won twice: case closed.) Goldsmith shows how thin this view was. The Bush White House declined to participate in normal politics, but this is not something it ever told the country it was going to do. Likewise, expanding executive power is not a conservative idea, yet the conservatives thought they had elected Bush.

You can't run a press system that assumes the President feels a need to explain himself to the nation when the White House is running a system in which no such need is felt. Why explain the agenda? You only give away the President's power to act without explanation. By declining to develop a more savage narrative the press failed to figure out what was happening to itself under Bush.

* * *
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