Angling for Cheney

The new issue of the Weekly Standard carries Christopher Willcox’s review of Barton Gellman’s Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. Our own Paul Mirengoff engaged in a series of exchanges with Gellman about the book. I collected links to the exchanges here.

I formed a negative impression of Gellman’s book from Paul’s comments, concluding that Gellman was responsible for the kind of tendentious and question-begging reportage that makes so much of bigfoot journalism painful to read. I was curious how other informed observers would evaluate the book.

Willcox is the former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest and deputy secretary of defense (2001-2005). As it happens, his review of Gellman’s book (accessible to subscribers only) reads a little like a condensed version of Paul’s take, though Willcox is in fact harsher about the book than Paul was.

Willcox gets down to it in his opening:

Anyone still interested in the sorry state of mainstream journalism should have a good, long look at Barton Gellman’s blistering portrait of Dick Cheney. Despite some labored huffing and puffing over Cheney’s behind-the-scenes role on everything from surveillance techniques to global warming, Gellman adds very little that is new to the historic record. What Angler is most notable for is its obvious animus and its disregard for the traditional newsman’s separation of church (editorial opinion) and state (fact-based reporting).

Gellman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories in the Washington Post on which this book is based, is a prime exemplar of the new kind of journalism that conflates reportage and opinion in ways that, not long ago, would have outraged news editors. But not only are some of today’s senior editors tolerant of such front-page editorializing, they are critical of reporters who don’t provide it.

Willcox continues:

Angler is neither well written nor particularly instructive on the motives and methods of a vice president who has exercised enormous influence over the last eight years. Much of the material on Cheney’s reticence with the press-surprise!-and his conviction that the presidency had been weakened by an overzealous Congress, is deeply familiar. But the volume is a treasure trove of journalistic techniques deployed to bag the quarry.

There is the bogus use of comparative statistics.

Here Willcox pauses to quote Gellman’s attempt to place 9/11 in context:

For Sept. 11, the National Center for Health Statistics recorded a 44 percent spike over the expected daily death rate, followed by a return to normal on Sept. 12. The year-end tally showed 2,922 lives lost to “terrorism involving the destruction of aircraft (homicide),” a figure that was comparable to the 3,209 pedestrians killed by cars, pick-up trucks or vans. (Non-terrorist homicides exceeded 17,000.) The economic damage was extensive, but no match for the losses of Hurricane Katrina or the subprime mortgage meltdown in Bush’s second term.

It seems to me that Willcox’s quotation of Gellman here is devastating. Gellman’s apparent point — that 9/11 wasn’t all it was cracked up to be — is simply stupid. It’s the kind of point that supports Orwell’s axiom holding that some ideas are so absurd only an intellectual could believe them. Willcox observes:

Whatever one might think of this dismissal of the September 11 horrors, it is entirely in keeping with the author’s apparent conviction that terrorism is essentially a matter for the police and that the Bush administration’s response is a greater threat than terrorism itself. “The vice-president shifted America’s course,” writes Gellman, “more than any terrorist could have done….Decisions made in the White House, in response [to terrorism] had incomparably greater impact on American interests and society.”

Willcox further indicts Gellman for “the use of unattributed quotations when a sharp knife is required,” for “cherry-picking evidence” (ouch!) and for “us[ing] political enemies to skewer the prey.” Willcox concludes that “some fair-minded journalism professor” may someday find a use for the book. That would be as “a case study in media bias.”

PAUL adds: In fairness to Gellman, he does not end his assessment of the meaning of 9/11 with the statistics Scott quotes above. He adds:

These measurements obviously did not capture the full meaning of September 11. A familiar terrorist threat announced itself that day with frightening new proximity and ambition. But decisions made in the White House in response, had incomparably greater impact on American interests and society.

Willcox should have acknowledged this statement.

Even so, as I have argued, Gellman’s treatment of 9/11 is facile and inadequate. First, the terrorist threat “announced” on 9/11 wasn’t really “familiar.” We understood at some level that terrorists wanted to attack the homeland, and had attempted unsuccessfully to do so at least once before. But we had not internalized the threat or done very much in response to it. By minimizing the newness of 9/11, Gellman strips away much of the context in which the administration’s response should be understood. Such stripping of context is the unifying flaw in Gellman’s book.

Second, Gellman’s claim that our response to 9/11 had a greater impact on American society than 9/11 represents a poor debater’s trick. The proper comparison, if one is assessing the Cheney vice presidency, is not between the impact of 9/11 and the impact of our response, but rather between the impact of our response and the impact of not responding with the vigor that we did. If Gellman wants to indict Vice President Cheney and the administration for over-reacting (and it’s difficult to see what else he intended here), he should undertake the difficult work of proving his case. Instead he resorts to a specious comparison. Gellman might just as easily condemn heart surgery on the theory that the impact of severe chest pains is less than the impact of the operation.

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