Lipstick on a Pig Winning In the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game
By Torie Clarke
Free Press Copyright © 2006 Torie Clarke
All right reserved. ISBN: 0743271165
Chapter One: You Can Put a Lot of Lipstick on a Pig, but It's Still a Pig
Deliver the bad news yourself, and when you screw up, say so -- fast!
If you could only know one thing about Charles Keating -- the man who came to personify the savings-and-loan crisis of the late eighties -- the thing to know is that he never, not once that I ever saw, carried his own briefcase. Keating had an entourage for earthly tasks, a gaggle of high-powered lobbyists who trailed him in cowed silence wherever he went. Three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, they strutted around D.C. like peacocks in $1,800 suits. The one day Keating was in town they had to carry his briefcase. It was, depending on your perspective, pathetic, poetic justice, or both.
The entourage was always a spectacle to behold, never more so than one early afternoon in March 1987, when I was working as Senator John McCain's press secretary. Keating and his crew blew by my office, exuding indignant rage.
For weeks, Keating had harangued his contacts in the Senate, of which McCain was one, to get federal regulators who were looking into Keathing's company, Lincoln Savings & Loan, off his back. Keating was a political supporter and a personal friend of the family as well. The request put McCain in a tough spot: Keating was also Arizona's largest employer; it was reasonable for a senator to look into the matter on behalf of his constituents. Moreover, McCain felt that after months of investigation, the regulators needed to make a decision about Lincoln one way or the other. They should either crack down or move on and let everybody go about their business.
Keating, though, wasn't one to be satisfied with restrained inquiry. By the time he barged into McCain's office that spring day in 1987, he had a list of demands for the senator. That was his first mistake. McCain's a fair guy; he'll listen to requests, he encourages open discussion, but he's not the type to whom you put ultimatums. Keating's second screwup -- the big one -- was calling McCain a coward for failing to step and fetch when presented with the list. A few angry words later -- McCain doesn't need many of them to get his point across -- Keating was on his way out the door. At the time, all it seemed to be was a brief flash of twisted entertainment for a bored staff on an otherwise slow day.
The slow days wouldn't last for long.
In the months that followed, McCain and four other senators participated in two meetings with regulators. Some of the senators pled Keating's case aggressively. McCain's intervention, if it can be called that, was delicate: He said explicitly that he was inquiring only on a constituent's behalf. The regulators should do their jobs; he wanted to gather information, not apply pressure. But they did feel pressure. They would say later that the fact of the meeting itself -- even if McCain and the other senators said nothing at all -- conveyed an unspoken message: get off Keating's back.
Within two years, Lincoln Savings & Loan collapsed under a $2 billion mudslide of stupidity and corruption. Stories about the senators' meetings began to hit the headlines. The Keating Five scandal was under way.
At first, McCain was flitting around the periphery of the story. The press seemed more interested in other senators who appeared to have done more on Keating's behalf. In the summer of 1989, though, the Arizona Republic started an investigation into McCain's ties to Keating.
McCain's instincts told him the story would be bigger than the rest of us guessed. In the fall of 1989, on the Saturday before the Republic story was supposed to appear, I was hosting a pig roast on the cramped patio of my apartment in D.C. McCain was supposed to stop by but never showed. By nightfall, Mark Salter, his then foreign policy legislative assistant, and I had put a few beers back. Mark was on the patio dousing the pig with lighter fluid in a vain attempt to get the thing to catch fire and cook. I was sitting on the kitchen counter when the phone rang. It was McCain. The normal exuberance was missing from his voice.
"I'm sorry I'm not there," he said. "I don't want to be a wet blanket."
"John," I laughed, "you couldn't be a wet blanket if you tried."
McCain had a bad feeling about the story, and the next morning's Republic proved his instincts right. A detailed account of McCain's relationship with Keating -- campaign contributions, personal friendship, joint family vacations at Keating's place in the Bahamas -- was splashed across page one. McCain instantly moved to the forefront of the scandal.
McCain's advisers were split on how to handle the story. The other four senators were, for the most part, trying to lie low. The conventional wisdom for a story like this was to get on with your business and not talk about it. I disagreed. This story was too big. All the ingredients were there: taxpayers who had been ripped off, politicians who appeared corrupt. The press wasn't going to let go. Leaving the charges unanswered would make them look true. What was more, I felt we had a good, fair, accurate story to tell: As he would say, McCain shouldn't have gone to the meetings in the first place. But he had been careful not to pressure the regulators, and the moment he heard Keating was being accused of criminal activity, he backed off entirely. Other aides -- the lawyers especially -- insisted that McCain stay silent. That, too, was conventional wisdom: an investigation was under way, they said, and a potential subject of it should just keep his mouth shut.
McCain thought it over and called a staff meeting.
"Here's what we gotta do," he said, sitting behind a massive, ornate desk that belonged to McCain's mentor and predecessor, Barry Goldwater. "I want to have a press conference in Arizona. I will answer every question anyone wants to ask. We'll stay as long as we need to. When we get back, I'm going to take every press call on this thing that comes in. I don't care where they're from or who they report for. And I want all of you to remember that we're going to have to work twice as hard on our normal legislative duties to show the people back home that we aren't being distracted by this."
My only concern about the press conference was McCain's temper. He's a laid-back guy, a jokester most of the time, but he's capable of blowing his top, especially when his honor is questioned. I cautioned McCain on it.
"OK," he said, "I'll tell you what. You sit in the front row, and any time you think I'm overdoing it, rub your nose with your forefinger."
A sophisticated clandestine operation it wasn't, but it worked. We booked a bare, low-ceilinged meeting room in a Phoenix hotel. As McCain walked to the podium, a crowd of dozens of reporters from around the country overflowed the room. McCain's opening statement was short and direct. Our intention was to take a tough issue and air it out. A long, lawyerly explanation would have looked like an attempt to cloud the issue. McCain just gave a brief account of his meetings with the regulators and said he would stay at the press conference as long as it took to answer every question. He did: it took about an hour and a half, and while the questions were tough, they were mostly fair. And I never had to rub my nose.
When we got back to Washington, McCain repeated his instructions to me. "We're going to take every last press call," he said. And he did. We spent months categorizing press calls by a sort of journalistic triage. Reporters on a tight deadline talked to McCain first. In cases of a time conflict, an Arizona journalist got the call before a national reporter. Depending on what time zone he was in, McCain started returning press calls as early as six a.m. and often didn't finish until well after dark.
It was tough going, but the strategy worked. By diving straight in and doing it early, McCain was able to get his message out before the story took over and got out of control. His candor earned reporters' respect. And perhaps most important, the fact that he was talking at all communicated something important to his constituents: McCain didn't have anything to hide.
"This man is a United States senator," said Roger Mudd, introducing a segment on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in November 1989. "He is John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and you are about to hear him say something that very few senators have ever said before. Listen carefully."
"It was a very serious mistake on my part. The appearance of a meeting with five senators was bad and wrong and I agonized over it at the time." It was a clip from McCain's Arizona press conference.
"The four other senators involved in the Keating story, Democrats Cranston of California, DeConcini of Arizona, Glenn of Ohio, and Riegle of Michigan, all had been following a policy of stonewalling the press," Mudd said on the show. "McCain, however, seems to be trying to talk the story to death."
"I'm doing everything I can to try and set the record straight, again, admitting that I made mistakes, and serious ones," McCain said in one of the clips Mudd showed of the senator granting numerous interviews. "But I did not abuse my office, and I think that's the key to this issue. The fact is, I want to talk to anybody that wants to talk to me because I feel the more that is known of my involvement in this issue, the better off I am."
In that MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, Mudd called McCain's "open-door policy" a roll of the dice. McCain plays a mean game of craps, so he knows something about rolling dice. His strategy paid off. The Senate Ethics Committee outside counsel, Robert Bennett (a Democrat), largely absolved McCain; he survived the scandal and went on to forge a very successful Senate career and a strong presidential run in the 2000 Republican primaries.
Lessons from the Keating Five scandal served me well during a dustup at the Pentagon. That crisis -- every day, it seemed, had at least one -- involved Lieutenant General Michael W. Hagee. Hagee -- a brainiac, a Marine's Marine, revered by uniforms and civilians alike -- was about to reach the high point of his career: taking the oath as the thirty-third commandant of the Marine Corps.
Hagee's ascension, while important, wasn't on my radar screen. He sailed through Senate confirmation. His swearing-in ceremony was only a few days off. As far as I knew, all was going according to plan.
Then my phone rang. The head of Marine Public Affairs was on the other end of the line. "Ma'am," he said, employing the formal salutation I never quite got used to, "there's a story in the works."
A few months before, after Hagee was nominated, he had ordered his staff to investigate all of his medals to ensure he had the paperwork on hand to back them up. It was a routine precaution -- a point of honor, and a matter of public relations smarts for a commander about to take a highly visible job.
The staff quickly turned up the paperwork to back up all the medals but three. No one seriously suspected bad faith on Hagee's part; one of the medals in question was the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, for example, and Hagee was widely known to have served heroically in Vietnam. This was a case of missing paperwork, pure and simple. The documentation was somewhere in the vast archives of the Marine Corps' records branch, and probably in Hagee's personal files as well, but the chances of its turning up before Hagee took over command of the Corps were slim.
Just to be safe, Hagee decided not to wear those decorations when he sat for his official photograph. But when the portrait was distributed to the press, an eagle-eyed reporter for Stars and Stripes compared it to an old photo of Hagee and noticed the discrepancy.
There was, of course, a clear explanation for Hagee's not wearing the medals. Still, the story had all the makings of a Washington scandal du jour: Hagee's opponents -- he didn't have many, but everyone in power has some -- could make it look as though a general about to take command of the Marine Corps, arguably the branch of the military most known for its devotion to honor, had been caught having worn medals he didn't earn. A similar allegation had, in fact, driven Admiral Jeremy "Mike" Boorda, the chief of naval operations, to suicide just a few years before.
The story was about to break by the time the Marine public affairs officer briefed me.
"Does the SecDef know?" I asked, using the Pentagon shorthand for Rumsfeld.
"Don't let him hear it from somebody else," I warned.
Not long after that call, Hagee and I were standing in Rumsfeld's office as Hagee explained the situation. When he finished, Rumsfeld turned to me.
"What do you think?"
"It could be a problem," I said, stating the obvious. Not an effective tactic with Rumsfeld.
"What do you think we should do?" he shot back.
We had plenty of options. We could, for example, have let the story sit with Stars and Stripes and hope it didn't go any further. Or Hagee could strike a defiant tone. Neither, I believed, would work.
"Sir," I replied, "I think General Hagee should brief a large group of the media and explain this himself before somebody else does."
The lighting is dim in the SecDef's office, but I think the blood drained from Hagee's face. This Marine, who served in Vietnam and Somalia, was awash in anxiety at the prospect of facing a room full of reporters. That reaction was understandable but, as it turned out, groundless. To his credit, Hagee held a briefing within hours, explained the decision to remove the medals, answered every question directly and honestly, and made no excuses for the mix-up. For their part, the Pentagon press corps was tough but generally respectful. The coverage was thorough but, for the most part, not sensational.
The New York Times coverage was a scant 239 words, and the lead sentence captured the story in a simple and nonhyped way: "The incoming commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Michael W. Hagee, said today that he had stopped wearing three military decorations because he and top aides could not find the documentation for the awards," Eric Schmitt wrote. Given how bad the story could have been, not bad.
A few others wrote more, but they gave play to Hagee's stand-up behavior.
Describing the process by which one documents commendations, Hagee said, as quoted in the third paragraph of Vern Loeb's Washington Post story, "I should have been more aggressive, and I should have had this done much sooner."
All the stories made sure readers knew that Secretary Rumsfeld had issued a statement giving Hagee his strongest backing.
A few days later, probably with a few more gray hairs, Hagee became commandant of the Marine Corps.
McCain's and Hagee's stories are less remarkable for what happened than for what never occurred: spin. All they did was go straight to the press and tell their stories. There was a time when it might have been different, when the last thing someone in their position would have done was volunteer to go before the press and lay out all the facts -- unvarnished, untainted, unspun. Chances are a mouthpiece would have been dispatched to do the talking. If the "principal" had appeared personally, every word would have been poll-tested in advance, the timing of the news conference precision-calibrated to hit just the right moment in the news cycle, and questions planted with friendly reporters.
That's no longer true, or at any rate, it shouldn't be. Information travels too quickly. Sunshine permeates every corner of public and corporate life. A public figure who tries to hide from it is bound to be exposed -- not just for what he or she has done, but for being unwilling to face it.
Because they faced the issues squarely, McCain and Hagee came out of the flare-ups with their integrity not only intact but enhanced. Reporters respected them for facing the music and telling the truth. Their approach could be summarized as a three-part strategy:
- Own up. McCain shouldn't have met with regulators in the first place, and he said so. Denying the obvious would have cost McCain the credibility he needed to fend off the charges that were genuinely unfair. Similarly, even if it clearly existed, Hagee should have had the documentation for the medals in hand before he ever put the medals on. By saying that openly, he avoided a round-robin of stories picking apart his denials.
- Stand up. McCain admitted what he did do, but he didn't engage in confessional politics. He rebutted unfair charges with a simple message that could be repeated ad nauseam: "I never asked any regulator to back off Keating." Hagee explained forcefully that while he took responsibility for not having the documentation, the medals were genuine.
- Speak up. McCain and Hagee spoke up early and often. No matter what's being alleged, charges unanswered are charges assumed to be true. Most important, they spoke up personally. Had they sent a staffer like me out to do the talking, they would have looked like they were hiding. By putting themselves on the line, McCain and Hagee let people know they were the kind of leaders who took responsibility for their actions and who weren't afraid of the truth.
Of course, the McCain and Hagee stories were simplified by the fact that, at bottom, they really hadn't done anything wrong. Sometimes, though, you do just plain blow it. And on those occasions, it's more important than ever to do the talking yourself. Take it from someone who has gotten it wrong as many times as she's gotten it right. This tradition reaches so far back into my past, in fact, that the very first sound bite of my career was none other than these eloquent words, doubtless destined for eternal remembrance in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations:
"I screwed up."
It was my first political campaign. I was press secretary for Kansas congressional candidate Morris Kay in 1982, and I was on the front page of the Topeka Capital Journal acknowledging that I had misrepresented my candidate's views on Social Security. I must have missed the staff meeting on Social Security, because in some hastily written -- and unapproved -- press release, I left the senior citizens of northeastern Kansas with the distinct impression that "Mo" was going to ruin their retirements.
Morris Kay had bigger problems than me, like a very talented opponent, Jim Slattery, who went on to win. But he was very kind to me. For starters, he didn't fire me. Secondly, he laughed about it after I held an impromptu press conference before the Topeka press corps to admit my mistake.
"That wasn't too bad, was it?" he asked when I crawled back to the campaign headquarters down the street.
"I guess not," I mumbled. And then I went into the bathroom and threw up.
Now, you'd think apologizing on the front page and throwing up in the campaign office would have taught me a lesson. But ten years later, I was still at it. On the 1992 Bush-Quayle campaign, I seemed to find myself apologizing a lot. For referring to women as "chicks" (I thought you could do that if you were the youngest of five girls). For suggesting that then candidate Bill Clinton had so little national security experience he thought B-52s were a rock group. For referring to then President Bush as "studly" when he rode on a fire truck, as compared to Michael Dukakis in his infamous tank ride.
All of those comments paled in comparison to what I said about Pat Buchanan. We were heading into the Republican Convention after a tough primary season, thanks to Pat Buchanan's aggressive pounding on the president. Ross Perot was in the wings waiting to cause trouble, and even though the economy had started to improve, the public perception was just the opposite. All in all, it was a cranky time.
Conflict being the name of their game, the White House press corps and other political pundits were salivating at the thought of what Pat Buchanan's role might or might not be at the Republican Convention. Let him speak despite the fact he had said some pretty nasty things about the president? Keep him out and further alienate the right wing of the party, already distrustful of the president?
Those decisions were being made at a much higher pay grade than mine. What I did have to do, however, was endlessly repeat our mantra when asked if Buchanan would speak at the convention:
"Those speaking at the convention will be supporters of the president," we would utter -- with a somewhat straight face -- to the hundreds of reporters asking. This went on for weeks.
Labels on some prescriptions warn users against operating heavy machinery when under the influence of certain drugs. One mattress ad campaign highlights the importance of getting a good night's sleep. Neither drugs nor sleeplessness was my excuse the night that George Condon of Copley News Service called.
Just a couple of months before the Houston convention, George, a real pro, was doing his version of the "will he/won't he" story on Buchanan and the convention. Here's the part of the conversation on which George and I agree:
George: "So Torie, will Pat be speaking in Houston? Will he get a prime-time slot?"
Me, answering robotically as I sifted through other phone messages and notes on my desk: "Anyone speaking at the convention will be a supporter of the president."
George: "Come on. Really. Will he be there?"
Me: "All speakers at the convention will be supporters of the president." I knew the slight change in wording wouldn't get me anywhere with George, but I was sick of hearing myself say the same thing over and over again. But I did. George and I repeated ourselves about six times until we were both laughing. Here's where our version of the story differs:
George: "Come on, Torie. One last time. Will Pat Buchanan be a speaker in Houston?"
Me (laughing): "All right. Here's my real, off-the-record answer: he has to get down on his hands and knees and grovel on broken glass with his mouth open and his tongue hanging out -- and then we'll talk."
George (laughing): "Great. Talk to you later."
George says I never said the off-the-record-part. I say I did. It doesn't matter. I never should have made the comment -- even in jest.
About seven the next morning, I got a call from a friend, clearly concerned.
"You really have a death wish, don't you?" he asked me. And then he gave me the awful news that my quote about glass and knees and Pat's tongue was on the front page of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
My stomach churned, and I swore at myself for about a minute. And then I started writing the apologies -- first to President Bush, for yet another mistake on my part that added to his heartburn, and then to Pat Buchanan, for having uttered one of the more tasteless comments that year.
"Please know that if anyone should be groveling it should be this press secretary" was part of my apology to Buchanan.
It's hard to believe, but reading my words on the front page of the paper wasn't even the worst part of the day. That came a little bit later when I asked a young fellow on the staff, Matt DeCamera, to hand-deliver the letter to Pat Buchanan. It was still early in the day. If I groveled enough, maybe we could minimize the impact of the follow-up stories that would start erupting as others in the press corps heard about Condon's piece.
"Bad news," Matt blurted out when he ran into my office less than an hour after heading out to deliver the letter. "Buchanan is at the Washington Hospital Center right now, and he's going to have open heart surgery today," he said, wasting no time getting to the point.
"Oh my God" is all I could think and say for a while. Now I felt really bad, and not for myself. "He could die on the operating table and the last thing he'll have heard is my nasty comments," I groaned. Adrenaline and panic took over. Now I cared less about what the president would think and more about Pat Buchanan's health and well-being. I shoved the letter and some cash for a cab into Matt's hands.
"Get yourself to the Washington Hospital Center and don't leave unless you've gotten this letter to him," I said as I pushed him toward the elevator. Ever resourceful, he did manage to make it into the pre-op ward at the Washington Hospital Center and tracked down Bay Buchanan, Pat's sister. Proving the Buchanan family had more class than I did, Bay Buchanan called me within an hour.
"Don't worry," she said to me as I mumbled rambling apologies over the phone. "I read your letter to Pat. He laughed and joked that he's said worse things."
Pat Buchanan survived surgery, thank God. I didn't get fired. Life went on. Now, I know what you're thinking. We had the Morris Kay campaign in 1982. The Buchanan disaster in 1992. Surely by 2002, I'd learned my lesson, right? Well, in a manner of speaking. Because the lesson I'd learned by then was to apologize quickly and honestly. But the mistakes? Those kept coming.
Like many people during the first few months after 9/11, I spent far more hours at the Pentagon than anywhere else. This is not a complaint, just reality. So often people would ask me how I put up with the pressure and the hours and with being away from my family. "Easy," I'd reply. "I think of the many men and women in uniform -- doing the hard work. I get to go home at night. I get to sleep in my own bed and see my kids. They are asleep a lot when I see them, but I do get to see them, unlike the many deployed fathers and mothers away from home for months at a time." I had the easy job, I always thought. Heck, nobody was shooting at me.
December was upon us in no time. And though I could not figure out how to factor in time for my father's birthday or my husband's, both early in the month, I was bound and determined to make my daughter's. She was turning five on December 5, and birthdays at that age are a big deal.
The day started out badly. A B-52 flying in support of opposition forces north of Kandahar had dropped its ordnance near friendly forces some twelve hours earlier. Three U.S. Special Forces members were killed and another nineteen U.S. military were wounded. Five Afghans operating with our forces were killed as well, and scores more injured.
Rear Admiral John D. "Boomer" Stufflebeam, a deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff, and I briefed the media on the incident that day. We had few details, and the press was frustrated at our inability to state precisely what had happened. "You also need to appreciate that as a close air support mission, this is one of the potentially most hazardous types of missions that we use as a military tactic," Stufflebeam said. "Calling in air strikes nearly simultaneously on your own position, on enemy forces that you're engaged in close proximity to, is a hazardous business and takes very fine control and coordination and precision. And this is, I think, illustrative of what we have seen in training when sometimes things just don't work out perfectly."
Friendly fire accidents do occur -- less than in the past, but they're still inevitable. And they're tragic. The veteran Pentagon correspondents understand that and tend not to overdramatize what is already a terrible event. The briefing skittered about that day. In addition to the friendly fire incident, we were dealing with a controversy over a request by a Navy reservist's family to have him buried in Arlington with his father. A female Air Force officer had also filed suit to protest Central Command's policy that women service members in Saudi Arabia wear the abaya -- the pullover dress Muslim women wear to safeguard their modesty -- when off base.
About halfway through the briefing we got the first hint of what was to come. But I missed the clue.
Q: Torie, this morning the pool reporters were ordered to stay in their quarters during the transfer of casualties to Rhino base. Can you explain why the only media in Afghanistan was kept away from that situation?
My answer was a truthful one.
Clarke: I actually just don't have much information on it. I know I've gotten an e-mail or two from a couple of reporters. So we're looking into what the circumstances were. Clearly, there was a lot going on.
The briefing went back to lots of questions -- many of them hypothetical -- about how the friendly fire incident happened.
The last question of the briefing was raised as a "housekeeping" issue.
Q: I know that you may not know what the exact circumstances were at Camp Rhino, where it's reported that, in fact, U.S. pool members were locked up and kept away from covering the treatment for -- the medevac treatment for -- these soldiers that were injured. But is it the Defense Department/Pentagon policy to prevent media coverage of any U.S. military killed or injured?
Q: And if such an event occurred, would the Pentagon try to rectify that situation?
That question put me in a tough spot. A pretty good rule of thumb for dealing with the media is never to answer questions that start with "if." They're hypothetical. Had I accepted the presumption of the question, I would seem to be acknowledging that the event did occur. Maybe it did, but I didn't know yet. So I reverted to another rule of thumb: every question is an opportunity to present your message. I tried to answer by stating the Pentagon's policy:
Clarke: What we will try -- what we try to do, and what we will continue to try to do, is provide access and facilitate media coverage of this very unconventional war. If something could impede or hinder operational security or could put lives at risk, then we will not let something go forward. But as a general course, as a general principle, what we're trying to do is facilitate coverage. And we would not -- again, I -- let's not talk about specifics here, because we don't know. But as a general principle, we want to facilitate coverage, and we will.
Q: So you really have no information right now that any reporters were impeding anything or --
Clarke: Right. I've just gotten a couple -- I just got a couple of calls on it, and we haven't had a chance to run it down. But I will.
I didn't. And that was the first big mistake of the day.
After the briefing, numerous other issues rose up, as they always did. I was busy. With the birthday party coming up, a pressing question on my mind was whether I had confirmed Nancy Edson, the puppet lady. I did not get pinged again on the reporters' being denied access at Rhino. It never crossed my mind again. Driving home, I did think about those who had been killed and injured in the friendly fire incident. I thought about their families as I drove home to mine in suburban Maryland.
The party was in full swing by six p.m. Fifteen five-year-olds packed full of sugar were enjoying Nancy's innovative rendition of "The Frog Prince in Japan," a fairy tale. Just as I was giving myself a mental pat on the back for my multitasking abilities, all hell broke loose. My pager, cell phone, home phone, and secure phone upstairs went off simultaneously.
The page was from Army Colonel George Rhynedance, my senior military assistant. Like all of Rhynedance's messages, this one was to the point: "Have problem. Call."
The caller ID number on my cell was one I recognized immediately as a major bureau chief with whom I spoke frequently.
The secure call was from Cables, the Pentagon communications system. Rhynedance had them call me just in case I didn't have my pager on. "We're not positive yet," Rhynedance said when I called in, "but we think we may, indeed, have barred the media from covering the victims' return at Rhino."
No way, I thought. Nobody would do that. Policy and practice dictate that when horrible friendly fire incidents happen in combat, the news media should be allowed to cover them, with consideration given to the next of kin.
"Get as much as you can by way of ground truth from Rhino and call me back," I yelled over the din of the birthday party. Next, I dialed the bureau chief, a serious sort who never called with idle complaints.
"Do you know that some of your guys locked the reporters in a box at Rhino so they couldn't cover the friendly fire victims?" the bureau chief asked.
"I find that really hard to believe," I said. "But I'll check it out and get back to you." I hoped it wasn't true, but I was beginning to think the worst.
The phones rang nonstop for the next forty-five minutes, and the complaint was the same from all: "Your guys put the media in a box." It had taken a few hours for the reporters at Rhino to reach their editors back in the States, but the trickle of questions at the earlier briefing was now a torrent of accusations.
The first problem was lingo: the Marines at Camp Rhino wouldn't call it a box. They would call it a room, admittedly a small room; some called it a warehouse. And, although I never saw it, several there told me it was a room with no windows. Whatever it was, a well-meaning officer did what 99 percent of us would do in the same situation. When he saw the victims coming back into Rhino, he immediately thought of their families. He didn't want anybody back home seeing their loved ones on TV or in a photograph before the military had notified them. So he kept the media away -- good intentions, but flatly contrary to policy.
But the big failures were mine -- on several levels. First of all, I did not anticipate what might happen when a friendly fire incident did occur. They are an unfortunate part of life in the military. We worked hard every day to improve Pentagon policy on so many aspects of this new and unconventional war. I should have thought through what we would do when friendly fire happened. I didn't.
Second, I didn't pick up on the early clues. The news media -- especially the longtime Pentagon correspondents -- get better information than just about anybody. And they often get it sooner. I should have paid more attention to the questions and e-mails I got that morning and during the briefing.
Finally, if you say you're going to follow up on something, follow up. I left the briefing, tackled other issues, and then headed home, despite having committed before the Pentagon press corps to get to the bottom of the issue.
I deserved every bit of grief I got throughout the rest of the day, the night -- and the next morning. You know the day will be bad when your first call from outside the building is Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. Howie writes about the media and frequently points out -- accurately -- the challenges of managing the often antagonistic relationship between the news media and the government. Calling back a fellow who writes about the media is not -- in my book -- as important as working with the media who cover you, but Howie has great radar. And he has a keen sense for a real controversy. He's also a nice guy. I called him back.
"People are furious," he said, stating the obvious.
"No kidding," I said. "And they have every right to be. What happened goes against policy and all our training. It shouldn't have happened, and we'll fix it." I wasn't sure right then how we would fix it, but this time I was determined to follow up on my commitment. By late that morning we had followed up. We e-mailed and faxed to all bureau chiefs a letter from me.
We owe you an apology. The last several days have revealed severe shortcomings in our preparedness to support news organizations in their efforts to cover U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
We have a significant responsibility to provide your correspondents the opportunity to cover the war. It is a responsibility that we take seriously. Our policy remains the same as it always has been: Keeping in mind our desire to protect operational security and the safety of men and women in uniform, we intend to provide maximum media coverage with minimal delay and hassle. That has not always been the case over the last few days, particularly with regard to the coverage of dead and wounded returning to the Forward Operating Base known as Rhino.
The letter went on to describe the actions we took to address the problems. They included assigning more senior staff to handle media logistics in the theater, and reissuing guidance that clearly expressed our intent, "maximum coverage, minimum hassle."
It ended with a statement of a very sincere belief and a commitment that became even more critical in the months ahead:
The road ahead will not be easy. While we cannot do everything you might want in covering this most unconventional of wars, we can guarantee one thing: we will keep the lines of communication with you open at all times to address these and other issues.
Many in the news media gave us points for admitting past mistakes but made clear their skepticism that we'd improve going forward.
"We appreciate the Pentagon is willing to recognize that this was the wrong thing to do," Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief of the Associated Press, was quoted in a New York Times piece by Jim Rutenberg. "But the general at Rhino, or any other place where the media is deployed, has to let the media do their job."
Sandy is a true professional in a town of wannabes, and I took her comments to heart. It was one thing for those of us in Washington to say something. More importantly, we had to ensure that people in the field really understood our expectations. It was a lesson that would pay off well down the road as we built the complex embedding program for Iraq.
The apology generated its fair share of controversy within the Pentagon and Central Command. Policy and practice notwithstanding, many in uniform and civilian clothing alike thought it was just fine for the Marine major to have done what he did at Rhino.
"The press are a bunch of vultures," one flag officer said to me in the hallway the next day. "There's no reason for them to shoot pictures of some poor bastards who just got shot up."
I could understand the emotions, but I disagreed. We had our job to do and the press had theirs. When we raise our hands and promise to uphold the Constitution, that includes defending the First Amendment.
Early the next year, we made another big mistake, and this time, there was no controversy about 'fessing up.
One morning in early 2002 -- during Operation Anaconda, part of our strike against Taliban and al Qaeda holdouts in Afghanistan -- then Captain, now Rear Admiral T. L. "T" McCreary hustled in to see me. "T," then special assistant for public affairs for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a consummate pro, the kind of guy who stopped by my office several times a day or more to share information, plot strategy, or just check in. On this morning, he was pumped up. Our troops in Afghanistan had discovered a Global Positioning System device in a cave known to be an al Qaeda hideout. The name "G. Gordon" was stenciled on the handset in bold black type.
The implications of the discovery were big: Gary Gordon was a Medal of Honor winner killed in Somalia in 1993 in the incident later memorialized in the book and film Black Hawk Down. If his GPS device found its way to an Afghan cave, that indicated a connection between al Qaeda and Somali warlords. This was news, and it could prove what many had long said: al Qaeda was more than a ragtag band of malcontents. It was a sophisticated terrorist operation with global reach.
Needless to say, some of the higher-ups around the Pentagon were eager to get the news out, and we had a daily media briefing scheduled within the hour. Something in my gut said to hold back. The story felt rushed; the pieces fit together a little too cleanly. "Where has this thing been for all these years?" I asked once or twice. But the pressure to get it out was intense, and I caved. We could announce the discovery, I said, provided we qualified it heavily and made sure Gordon's family was notified of the discovery before we said anything publicly.
There is no such thing as a slow news day at the Pentagon, and March 20 was no exception. There had been a friendly fire incident at Fort Drum, New York, that morning that, very sadly, had killed one soldier and wounded more than a dozen others. Interest in the recently announced military commissions was intense. And, in a real case of snafu -- a high-class military acronym meaning "situation normal: all fouled up," except that "fouled" is not the precise word typically employed -- the day before, a well-meaning Defense Protective Service (DPS) officer had arrested Fox cameraman Greg Gursky and held him briefly for taking footage of what looked like a suspicious traffic stop on Route 110 next to the Pentagon. It was against DPS rules -- prominently posted all over the Pentagon -- to take unauthorized photos or video while physically on the "reservation," as the grounds are called.
Briefing with me that day was Air Force Brigadier General John W. Rosa Jr., deputy director for current operations on the Joint Staff. Rosa and I often argued good-naturedly about who got to brief what. The more news you could deliver, the less of a punching bag you were during the briefing. On this day, given my concerns with the "too good to be true" aspects of this story, I was more than happy to let Rosa do the honors on the G. Gordon front. No profile in courage, I know.
After my brief remarks on the Fort Drum accident and some comments on the military commissions, Rosa launched into the discovery.
Rosa: While our forces were searching one cave in the Anaconda area on Monday, they discovered a hand-held GPS, Global Positioning System unit. The GPS had the name "G. Gordon" on it. We currently believe this GPS belonged to Army Master Sergeant Gary Gordon, an Army Special Ops Force soldier killed in Somalia in 1993. Sergeant Gordon was honored with the Medal of Honor for his actions in Somalia. And the Army's notified his family that this item has been found.
The announcement had the expected result. From the podium in the briefing room, I watched reporters' eyebrows arch upward in unison and saw their pencils start flying.
Q: For General Rosa, what significance do you place on the fact that this GPS equipment that was found that came from Somalia, what does that say about previous suspicions that al Qaeda was linked to the forces of Mohamed Aidid back in 1993 in Somalia?
Usually it's nice when the reporters tee up exactly what you want to talk about, especially in briefings carried live. This time, we would come to regret it.
Rosa: That's a good question, one we've been doing some thought about. There are a couple of conclusions you may draw. First of all, we've said all along that we suspect that al Qaeda, being a worldwide network, and the fact that this piece we currently think originated from Somalia, would obviously tie -- could obviously tie al Qaeda to Somalia.
Rosa tried to qualify the information with that word "could." If I had been doing my job well that day I would have jumped in and underscored the qualification even more. I didn't. The news was all over TV within minutes. It didn't last long.
About an hour later, we heard from the Army Times. While many media were busily booking military experts and talking heads to speculate about the importance of the story, this fellow went to a more sophisticated source: the manufacturer. He learned that the GPS device in question wasn't manufactured until 1997, well after the Black Hawk incident in Somalia.
"G. Gordon," it turned out, was the nickname of a soldier deployed in Afghanistan who had given the device to another who fought against al Qaeda in Operation Anaconda, one of the largest military offensives in Afghanistan.
I groaned, kicked myself for not heeding my instincts, and got to work. Just talking with the Army Times wouldn't be enough. This news too was bound to get out. And more than a few journalists joined us in rushing to get the story out. They looked bad as well, and some of them might take it out on us. We had to fix this one ourselves.
I told the staff to draft a statement admitting the mistake. "Make it short, and don't make excuses," I said. "Just say we screwed up and get the correct information out. And make sure Gary Gordon's family knows." Then I hightailed it to Rumsfeld's office to fill him in. The last thing we needed was for Rumsfeld to hear it from someone else before he knew the whole story.
Rumsfeld rolled his eyes. "Clean it up," he ordered. That's one of Rumsfeld's cardinal rules: when you screw up, fix it and fix it fast. During Rumsfeld's own briefings, he encouraged us to interrupt him -- right there in front of reporters and, often, a live TV audience -- if he made a mistake.
The moment the statement was ready, we released it, posted it on the DOD Web site, and sent it to thousands nationwide by blast e-mail and fax. When a transcript of the morning's briefing was posted on the Pentagon's Web site, we inserted the statement in brackets. "DOD Clarifies Origin of GPS System," the release headline read. "Initial indications that the GPS unit potentially belonged to a U.S. servicemember killed in Somalia several years ago have now been determined to be inaccurate," we stated briefly. We explained how the GPS device in question found its way to Afghanistan, quite innocently, it turned out. It wasn't the kind of media story I like to see, but it was over quickly, and some reporters went out of their way to compliment our candor in admitting our screwup.
At first glance, our strategy may sound counterintuitive. React to questions about the mistakes, sure. Explain the facts, absolutely. But why would the Pentagon go out of its way to announce bad news? The reason is simple: in the Information Age, the bad news is going to get out. The only questions are who will tell it first and will they tell it accurately.
The same rule applies in the business world, politics, or anywhere else. Wait for somebody else to tell the story, and you're probably not going to like how they tell it. Try to stonewall or blur the truth? Your competitors and the media that cover you will eat you for lunch. If reporters believe they've caught you doing something you were hoping to hide, the coverage is magnified by a factor of ten. If you leave off the details -- or, worse, mislead the audience -- you'll turn a one-day story into several days of follow-ups, every one of which will both repeat the bad news one more time and, to ice the cake, accuse you of having lied about it too. What seemed at first like an honest attempt to come clean will end up looking like a deceptive manipulation scheme.
And don't expect too much glory for coming clean about bad news. A bad story is still a bad story. One of the most common mistakes people communicating with the public make is treating the media like underlings whose job is to do what you tell them. The fact that you come clean doesn't mean they aren't going to cover what went wrong in the first place. They're supposed to. Remember, they don't call it "taking your lumps" for nothing. But it's a heck of a lot better to take them on your own terms.
And telling the truth yourself does have its benefits. Most reporters thought more highly of McCain after the Keating Five scandal than they did before. That's where the national media first caught on to the fact that he's a straight talker. Admitting mistakes -- or delivering your own bad news -- can be a fine example of turning the customer. Ask Michael Phelps.
The six-time Olympic gold swimming medalist is either a communications genius or someone who got good advice when he was charged with drunk driving in the fall of 2004. Within a few days of his arrest, Phelps was calling media outlets all over the place with a simple, straightforward, no-excuses statement: "I'm sorry."
"Last week I made a mistake," Phelps said in a prepared statement. "Getting into a vehicle after anything to drink is wrong, dangerous, and unacceptable." Appearing at a Baltimore health and fitness exposition just a few days after the incident, Phelps took multiple questions from reporters before signing autographs. "I wanted to look people in the eye and tell them that I made a mistake. I want to reach out and affect as many people as I can." He appeared on the Today show the following Monday and repeated the core message: "The mistake that I made is a big mistake. This is something that -- every single morning I wake up and I look at myself in the mirror and I have to live with the mistake that I made."
Reputation and endorsements at stake, Phelps chose the best course of action and executed it flawlessly. And it paid off. His fans -- always loyal -- seemed even more impressed with him after. Before the incident, I didn't know a lot about Phelps. Afterwards, I saw him as an honest kid who took responsibility for his mistakes. As Daniel de Vise reported in the Washington Post following Phelps's Baltimore appearance, "In this crowd, there was nothing but sympathy."
In a similar vein, here's a counterintuitive notion for you: the best thing Martha Stewart ever did for her reputation was go to jail. Don't get me wrong: all things considered, it would have been best had she not gotten into trouble to start with. But once she was convicted, volunteering to go to jail even though her case was on appeal was a masterstroke. It showed her as human and vulnerable -- the exact opposite of the superior ice queen the media savaged her as being. And even though she continued pursuing her appeals, she was still taking responsibility -- quite refreshing in the storm of finger-pointing that followed other corporate scandals.
When Leona Helmsley got out of prison, her hotel chain came up with one of the best marketing lines ever. "Say what you will," the glossy ads in high end magazines said, "she runs a helluva hotel." Rather than dodge the obvious, Leona embraced her problems and made them -- sort of -- a positive.
Say what you will about Martha Stewart, and I know next to nothing about what she did that put her in the slammer for six months, but she knows how to tell her own story, even under the toughest of circumstances. As soon as charges flew that she may have broken the law, Martha and her team launched a Web site called marthatalks.com. Simple and straightforward, it was Martha's side of the story in her own -- and sometimes her lawyers' -- words. The site included "Notes to Martha," expressions of support sent in by friends and fans, "Other Voices," excerpts of editorials and reporting favorable to her case, and even "Trial Update," a section devoted to briefs and substantive updates on the trial's progress.
By the time Stewart entered the West Virginia prison nicknamed Camp Cupcake, Martha Stewart Omnimedia and the famous TV show producer Mark Burnett were workng on a couple of TV shows for her when she got out, and the company's stock price was up. Greg Schneider of the Washington Post called it an example of "raw, stubborn survival" in a 2004 year-end piece headlined "Martha, like Deficits and SUVs, Showed Staying Power."
I called it exceptional communications skill. Tell your own story and don't hide from the obvious. At their best, statements from CEOs are usually murky. But Stewart's statements on marthatalks.com were straight to the point. Even her preholiday letter posted at the end of 2004 made no attempt to disguise her whereabouts: "When one is incarcerated with 1,200 other inmates, it is hard to be selfish at Christmas.... So many of the women here at Alderson will never have the joy and wellbeing that you and I experience. Many of them have been here for years -- devoid of care, devoid of love, devoid of family."
Stewart neither sought nor seemed to want sympathy. Her Christmas letter focused on her fellow inmates and her newfound views on sentencing and prison reform, not her personal predicament. Was Stewart's prison-era PR program self-serving? Absolutely. But it was also in the best interests of the company and its shareholders. Stewart's team deserves credit for developing a comprehensive and aggressive program to help her recover from a serious setback. She deserves more credit for having the guts to execute it. And while she may not have sought sympathy, that's exactly what her honesty got her.
"I am confident that you will come through this with dignity and that in the spring you will be back to business as usual," wrote one fan. That letter expressed a common theme, that Martha got more than she deserved from the prosecutors. "We feel it is a travesty of justice that such a fine lady as yourself should have to serve time when hardened criminals are let go on technicalities every day. If it were up to us, you would never serve one day."
I doubt Stewart's company manufactured the fans' notes. They didn't have to. Stewart has her critics, to be sure, but many admire what she did with her company. And many of them weren't going to abandon her when things looked bad.
The pharmaceutical giant Merck seemingly employed a similarly straightforward approach in 2004 when they had to pull their high-selling arthritis drug Vioxx after studies showed that its users faced an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Hum "It's a Beautiful Day" and you'll remember their omnipresent ads even now. Pulling the drug wasn't the hardest part: the hardest part was figuring out how to tell so many audiences -- customers, physicians, and policy makers among them -- while maintaining the credibility of the company as well as confidence in its other drugs.
Merck could have taken the easy path, and a decade or more ago, they might have: just let the media cover the story. The Vioxx study was everywhere, so it wasn't as though Merck had to be the ones to deliver the news, and no one could have blamed them had they not wanted to. This was devastating news about one of their most important products. According to Merck, some 2 million people worldwide used Vioxx at the time of the announcement; about 84 million had used it since it came on the marketplace in 1999. Literally millions of people were impacted by the news. No spin, no bluster, no fancy words could get around that. Merck execs took what looked like -- at first blush -- the better approach, an up-front and forward-leaning one.
In announcing their decision to pull Vioxx, Merck head Ray V. Gilmartin said, "We're taking the action because we believe it best serves the interests of the patients."
Call me cynical, but the decision also best served the company's interests. Already hit with a lawsuit by a Missouri woman who claimed her daughter was misled about the potential risks of Vioxx and died as a result, the company was clearly worried about additional lawsuits and the enormous toll -- on their finances and reputation -- of drawn-out litigation. No matter what the reasons, Merck handled the decision and the accompanying communications challenges well. The first day, they had senior executives on several major cable shows to answer the many questions. Good for them, I thought.
I'd lay a bet, by the way, that some of their lawyers were apoplectic over this strategy. With litigation pending, most lawyers counsel silence. They're fine people, and they're doing their jobs, which is to keep their clients out of trouble in the courtroom. But many a lawyer has protected his client in the courtroom at the expense of his reputation in the court of public opinion, and the punishments handed down in the latter are often far more damaging. In this case, I'd guess, Merck correctly calculated that the most serious risk the company faced was a loss of public confidence in its product.
According to the Washington Post's David Brown, Vioxx accounted for slightly more than 10 percent of Merck's annual sales in 2003. A market research firm, IMS, estimated that Merck spent $500 million in 2003 promoting the drug to doctors through advertising, free samples, and visits to physicians' offices. Faced with perhaps its biggest challenge ever, the company spared little expense when it came to the damage control campaign.
Full-page ads in major national newspapers said it loud and clear:
Merck & Co., Inc., announced today a voluntary withdrawal of VIOXX. This decision is based on new data from a three-year clinical study. In this study, there was an increased risk for cardiovascular (CV) events, such as heart attack and stroke, in patients taking VIOXX 25 mg compared to those taking placebo (sugar pill).
Merck said what they were doing and why, in a straightforward fashion and with no excuses. The full-page ads, as with most of the company's communications about pulling the drugs, also pointed patients and doctors to Web sites for more information -- Web sites that, for the most part, were relatively straightforward.
The fact that Merck seemed to admit what was wrong gave them the initial credibility to refute charges that were inaccurate. Here too, they didn't count solely on the news media to carry the day for them. They used multiple communications vehicles, including Web sites and advertising, to address the more egregious charges. They reminded consumers and the medical community that they had "extensively studied" Vioxx before seeking regulatory approval and had taken steps to gather additional information about the medicine. Underscoring what clearly would be important in the legal challenges, the company stressed again that it had voluntarily withdrawn the drug from the market.
Merck's communications strategy wasn't a one-hit wonder. It was a comprehensive and sustained program to address the crisis. The strategy preserved the company's credibility in the early weeks of the crisis and may have even bolstered it, at least for a while. In a November 19, 2004, New York Times article, reporter Alex Berenson wrote that Merck CEO Gilmartin had received better than expected treatment when testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, partly because of how the company had handled the crisis once it broke.
"Merck as a company and Mr. Gilmartin personally can draw upon a reservoir of credibility that has not been available to many of the other companies that have come under fire," Berenson wrote. "His differences from other executives even extended to the way they testify. Where others came to Congress flanked by legions of lawyers and public relations experts, Mr. Gilmartin sat alone in front of the Committee." The headline over the article was one no spin doctor could ever buy: "For Merck Chief, Credibility at the Capitol." Credibility, I might add, that he may not have had before the tough story broke.
All good, right? Not exactly. As months went by and scrutiny continued, the fault line in the Merck PR plan became apparent. Despite the company's well-delivered public assurances about Vioxx's safety, reports surfaced that Merck had continued to market the heck out of Vioxx, even though internal research and outside studies suggested good reasons to be concerned about the drug's risks.
People who follow pharmaceutical companies far more closely than I do can and will find fault, I am sure, with many of the company's actions and motivations. From an outsider's perspective, it sure looks like there must have been more information than they shared with the public.
And the strategy took its toll. Barely six months after pulling Vioxx, Merck faced thousands of lawsuits, its stock price was some 60 percent off its peak, and CEO Gilmartin was forced into early retirement with a badly damaged reputation.
"For Mr. Gilmartin, yesterday's announcement ends years of failure," stated the May 6, 2005, New York Times story announcing Gilmartin's departure. "Mr. Gilmartin is widely liked personally, but his tenure at Merck has been little short of disastrous." The reporter who wrote the story? The same Alex Berenson who saw Gilmartin's credibility grow before Congress the previous fall.
The legal system will determine whether or not Merck's actions were wrong. As you face challenges and problems in your organization, know one thing for sure: no reservoir of credibility, no matter how deep, will sustain you if you lie or deliberately misinform. It's wrong for the obvious reasons, and it's stupid, too. Especially in this era, information will get out. Enterprising reporters will find it, often aided by disgruntled employees or those sincerely concerned about their organization's activities. Read the book 24 Days by Wall Street Journal reporters Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller about Enron's collapse to get a clear picture of how insiders will expose what they think needs to be exposed. Time after time, Enron employees offered the reporters important tips, documents, and background that helped guide their reporting, reporting that contributed significantly to Enron's downfall.
And thanks to the Internet, these days people don't even need reporters to get their information out publicly. With a few minutes and some keystrokes, they can let the whole world know what you might not want revealed.
If you ever hear yourself saying, "Don't worry, no one will ever find out," about so
mething unpleasant in your organization, just slap yourself. Negative information will get out, one way or another. And no communications plan, no matter how well developed and flawlessly executed it might be, will save you if you're lying. The truth will come out.
For a great example of a CEO who admits his mistakes -- not to mention for some good reading -- peruse the annual Chairman's Letter from Warren Buffett to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. Read just a few examples, and several things become apparent. One, Buffett embraces simplicity. He writes in clear, straightforward, and grammatically correct sentences. He makes important and insightful references to societal and economic factors that influence his decisions. He tells some good jokes -- the kind you can tell your parents. And he admits mistakes.
As far back as the seventies, Buffett's letter is sprinkled with admissions of weakness, poor judgments, and miscalculations. "While our operating earnings per share were up 37% from the year before, our beginning capital was up 24%, making the gain in earnings per share considerably less impressive than it might appear at first glance." Buffett actually goes out of his way to highlight the caution in his 1977 letter. "We had mistakenly predicted better results in each of the last two years," he writes, describing their textile operations. Despite a downturn in all textiles nationwide, Buffett makes sure his shareholders know that "some of the problems have been of our own making."
The 1986 Chairman's Letter starts with a brief description of the company's net gain of 26.1% or $492.5 million, mostly crediting managers of the major operating businesses. And then Buffett wastes no time getting to the problems. "So much for the good news," he writes in just the fifth paragraph. "The bad news is that my performance did not match that of our managers. While they were doing a superb job in running our businesses, I was unable to skillfully deploy much of the capital they generated."
After describing one acquisition, that of a small company named Fechheimer, Buffett went on at length about his failings. "Meanwhile, we had no new ideas in the marketable equities field," according to Buffett. "So our main capital allocation moves in 1986 were to pay off debt and stockpile funds. Neither is a fate worse than death, but they do not inspire us to do handsprings either. If Charlie [his number two at Berkshire] and I were to draw blanks for a few years in our capital-allocation endeavors, Berkshire's rate of growth would slow significantly." So Buffett admits his big mistake for the year and wisely manages expectations going forward.
Adopting one of John McCain's favorite sayings, "May the words I utter today be sweet, for tomorrow I may have to eat them," Buffett acknowledges late in the letter that the company has bought a corporate jet. With a frank recitation of the plane's costs and an admission that it was not absolutely necessary, Buffett also recalls his past opposition to such purchases. "Your Chairman, unfortunately, has in the past made a number of rather intemperate remarks about corporate jets. Accordingly, prior to our purchase, I was forced into my Galileo mode. I promptly experienced the necessary 'counter-revelation' and travel is now considerably easier -- and considerably costlier -- than in the past. Whether Berkshire will get its money's worth from the plane is an open question, but I will work at achieving some business triumph that I can (no matter how dubiously) attribute to it."
I'll make you a bet that most shareholders didn't begrudge Buffett that plane -- if only because they trust and appreciate him.
These statements also show that when Buffett admits mistakes, he takes on the responsibility himself rather than passing it along. The 2003 shareholder letter included -- as usual -- an understated and quick rundown on Berkshire's amazing progress. In the thirty-nine years of Buffett's management, Berkshire Hathaway's per share book value grew from $19 to over $50,000. Describing the common institutional pressures facing other organizations, Buffett points out that Berkshire, fortunately, was saddled with none of them. "At Berkshire, neither history nor the demands of owners impede intelligent decision-making. When Charlie and I make mistakes, they are -- in tennis parlance -- unforced errors."
Contrast that candor with the convoluted statements and brashness of Enron executives. Seasoned financial reporters covering Enron complained about the company's overly complicated and misleading statements, earnings reports, and explanations. Reporters struggled to get to the bottom of the company's complex and, as it quickly became apparent, improper financial transactions.
Even the savviest analysts were perplexed by some of the company's explanations, which caused them to have serious doubts about its future. Smith and Emshwiller recount an October 23, 2001, conference call designed to allay investors' concern over the SEC investigation and mounting negative stories. CEO Ken Lay and other Enron execs repeatedly dodged tough questions about the company's management of what looked like serious potential liabilities.
But even longtime Enron fans were starting to have doubts. David Fleischer came on the line. The Goldman analyst offered not so much a question as a plea. "With all due respect," Fleischer said, a note of urgency in his voice, "you know what you are hearing from some of these people and many others that you haven't heard from on this call is that the company's credibility is being severely questioned and there really is a need for much more disclosure....There is an appearance that you are hiding something."
Ken Lay's shareholder letters -- especially compared to Warren Buffett's -- were an exercise in exuberance and pomposity and certainly wouldn't address concerns like Fleischer's. Phrases like " astonishing success" and "enormous competitive advantages" and "unparalleled" filled the pages. In Lay's world, there were no downsides, no problems or challenges ahead. In short, no reality.
One of the best reasons to 'fess up early and completely is to move past a bad story. When you aren't forthright about your mistakes, stories dog you much longer than they need to. It's a lesson the Bush White House learned the hard way in the summer of 2003.
Think back to the now infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner that hung behind the president on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln when he announced that "major combat operations" were over. I had been pushing for senior officials to greet troops as they returned from combat. The first I heard of what became the Lincoln fiasco was when the White House called to ask my opinion about the president's flying to the West Coast to greet sailors returning home from duty.
"I think that'd be great," I replied. Then I rushed out the door to accompany Rumsfeld on an overseas trip. The next time I heard about it was when the whole world did. We were in Rumsfeld's hotel suite for a meeting when CNN International began showing images of the president jetting onto the deck of the Lincoln, emerging in a flight suit, and announcing that "major combat operations" in Iraq were over. In his defense, the president did go on to state that some of the toughest fighting might lie ahead, that there was much more hard work to be done, and that Iraq remained a dangerous place. I cringed, not least because I hadn't followed up with the White House on the event. No news is often good news, and since I hadn't heard anything from the White House about the president's trip, I had assumed everything was going swimmingly with the Navy on the plans for the event.
While the president's precise words were correct, the triumphal mood of the event -- punctuated by the "Mission Accomplished" banner -- left the impression that the administration was declaring victory in Iraq. For months, every subsequent story on Iraq reported the number of soldiers who had died there since the president had declared the end of major combat operations. Democrats accused the president of using the military as a political backdrop.
All in all, not a good story, but the White House, loath to admit it had fouled up, made matters worse. Their first explanation was that the sailors on the Lincoln had made the banner themselves without the White House's knowledge. Then the media figured out -- surprise, surprise -- that there were no printing facilities on board where a banner that size could have been made. At one point months later, the explanation was that the "mission" the banner said had been "accomplished" was just the Lincoln's particular tour from which it was returning. Some said that the Lincoln's crew had asked the White House to have the banner made. In the end, the White House grudgingly admitted that maybe that banner might not have been such a good idea. By that time, their credibility had sustained a hit, and their reputation for stubbornness had been ratcheted up a notch. Had they skipped straight to the apology, the effect might very well have been the opposite, and they would certainly have spared themselves a few days of heartburn in the interim.
When critics accuse the administration of refusing to admit obvious mistakes, Rumsfeld, as a senior member of the team, often gets painted with the same brush. Actually, he's better at admitting mistakes -- and has a faster instinct for doing so -- than anyone else I know. And early in his second run as secretary of defense, two events quickly triggered that instinct.
In the spring of 2001, China downed an American reconnaissance plane and took its twenty-four crewmembers prisoner on Hainan Island. A diplomatic standoff ensued as the Chinese and the United States argued -- quietly -- over the return of the crew and plane. Confusion broke out on April 30 when the Pentagon put out a statement that called for suspension of U.S.-China military contacts, even as the Bush administration worked hard to maintain the relationship and downplay the seriousness of the incident. The DOD statement was pulled a few hours after its release, and Rumsfeld accepted responsibility for the mistake even when most fingers pointed at an aide.
Appearing a few days later on CBS's Face the Nation, he said, "There's no question that I made a mistake. A mistake was made. To the extent there's any fault...to be assigned, it's certainly as much mine as anybody else's, and I'm in charge."
About the same time, Rumsfeld had picked a one-star flag officer as his senior military assistant. The selection raised eyebrows because most of the recent senior military assistants for secretaries had been two-stars or three-stars, a grade inflation, if you will, since Rumsfeld's previous stint as SecDef in the seventies. He wanted to "cool things down," so he chose Rear Admiral J. J. Quinn. Quinn gave the job his best 24/7, but it was hard for a one-star to command the influence he needed to manage the front office's interaction with three-stars, four-stars, and senior civilians. Rumsfeld and Quinn talked it over and decided, together, that the best thing to do was to get a three-star. When Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks asked about the decision and the rumors swirling around it, Rumsfeld stepped up to the plate. "It turned out I made a mistake, just to be blunt about it, thinking that a one-star could, simply, because he was in the secretary's office, get the place to move at the same pace that a three-star could or a two-star," Rumsfeld said in the May 17, 2001, interview. "And I guess it was just an honest mistake on my part."
By admitting the mistake early, Rumsfeld helped the whole building move past the problem more quickly. Quinn, as the secretary called him, "is absolutely first-rate" and wound up in charge of a carrier strike group -- a far better job, some might say, than the one he had.
A willingness to admit something stinks is a powerful tool. In fact, doing exactly that made one of the toughest tasks in Washington -- closing excess military bases -- a lot easier. That process is run by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, created in 1988 to deal with the reality and the ever-present politics of U.S. military facilities that are obsolete or redundant -- in short, not needed.
Not needed, that is, unless you're a citizen or the mayor or the local congressman from that area. Over the years, many people in these communities have become very attached to their bases for financial, emotional, and political reasons. Closing them, despite reams of quantifiable evidence that they no longer serve a useful purpose to the military, became next to impossible because of the political pressure put on the military, Congress, and administrations.
The problem has bedeviled administrations going back to JFK and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, accused of closing bases for -- what else -- political reasons, to punish congressional opponents. Aggrieved congressmen passed several pieces of legislation making it impossible for the president to eliminate facilities without their approval. Finally, in the mid-1980s, Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger marshaled forces to reduce excess military infrastructure. They created the first BRAC commission, from which the rest have taken their direction. Four "rounds" of base-closing efforts thus far have closed dozens of large bases and hundreds of small ones and saved -- by some estimates -- more than $25 billion.
BRAC, supposedly, would make the necessary yet distasteful task nonpolitical by appointing commission members beholden to no one except the American taxpayer. The commission members review and analyze a list of bases submitted by the Pentagon for possible closure or realignment and make their recommendations. The president and Congress must accept the whole package or send it back to the commission, which prevents political cherry-picking.
The theory is great, but the practical execution is far tougher. Despite every best intention to make decisions in a politics- and pressure-free zone, human nature takes over. Politicians, residents, retired military, and casts of thousands at PR firms spend millions of dollars on campaigns to influence decision makers back in Washington.
There have been four BRAC commission rounds thus far. And each time, those in charge at the Pentagon have tried to make the best of it by making the process seem palatable to the communities involved. Not Rumsfeld. "It is not something that anyone with any sense wants to go and do," Rumsfeld said in a Pentagon press briefing in early August 2001. "I mean, if you get up in the morning and ask yourself how you want to spend your time, that is not how you want to spend your time, running around up on Capitol Hill talking about closing bases in people's congressional districts and in their states."
Or, as his special assistant, Larry Di Rita, put it more succinctly in a meeting later that day, "You can put a lot of lipstick on that pig, but it's still a pig." Larry always has a way of getting to the point -- quickly.
The effect of this new -- reality-based -- approach to BRAC was impressive. First, just the honesty of it made the whole process less distasteful. Instead of everybody's trying to cast matters in a light they thought palatable to the other side, everyone just called it what it was -- a very difficult process. In and of itself, that made the effort more constructive. Secondly, it was a huge time-saver. Instead of hundreds of staffers spending thousands of man-hours on the impossible task of trying to craft initiatives and messages that would somehow make BRAC more appealing, we spent that time on the substance of BRAC and other pressing business.
Sometimes, how you talk about something makes a difference. Other times -- as with BRAC -- it matters little what you say or even how you say it.
That's certainly the case with Abu Ghraib, the scandal involving abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel. I hesitate to talk about it, because the story broke months after I left the Pentagon. I don't know all the details. I know that I can't possibly know everything, despite the heavy media coverage.
But I know enough to put the issue firmly in the category of a pig. At the end of the day, no matter what factors you consider -- and there were many that contributed to what happened at Abu Ghraib -- some human beings did horrible things to other human beings. No matter what crimes and atrocities those prisoners may have committed, they did not deserve the abuse, torture, and harassment they received. You can't get around that.
Should there have been better supervision of the MPs who participated in the abuse? Absolutely. Could civilian and military leadership have sounded alarm bells sooner at the first sign of possible abuse? Perhaps, but for the record, it was Central Command that first made the investigation public, not the news media.
On January 16, 2004, as part of his daily briefing, then Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy director for coalition operations in Baghdad, announced an investigation into reports of detainee abuse.
CentCom issued a statement that day that said all they could at the time:
Detainee Treatment Investigation
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- An investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a Coalition Forces detention facility. The release of specific information concerning the incidents could hinder the investigation, which is in its early stages. The investigation will be conducted in a thorough and professional manner. The Coalition is committed to treating all persons under its control with dignity, respect and humanity. Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the Commanding General, has reiterated this requirement to all members of CJTF-7.
Should Rumsfeld and others have demanded more answers earlier in the process? Ideally, yes, but practically, they couldn't. Had they become more involved, even asking private questions, they might have biased possible prosecutions. The lawyers at CentCom and in the Pentagon were adamant that no one, especially people like Rumsfeld high up in the chain of command, say or do anything that could be perceived as "command influence," given the ongoing investigations and likely prosecutions.
I understand their intent, but I still think the policy is mistaken. In my mind, there's clearly something wrong with a policy that doesn't allow a secretary of defense to reach down into the system and fix something that's gone horribly wrong, but that was the policy, and Rumsfeld and other higher-ups were bound by it.
Many said that once the news media started covering the story, the Pentagon should "come clean," release "all" the photos and any other allegations of prisoner abuse that had not already come to light. Under most circumstances, that would have been good advice. But the only thing worse than what happened at Abu Ghraib would have been the perpetrators' going unpunished because Rumsfeld or others seemed to bias the investigation. The Pentagon was forced to be circumspect in its comments and actions.
Getting "all" the information -- good and bad -- on the table was difficult because of the many people involved. There had been thousands of detainees under the control of hundreds of U.S. servicemembers. Done right -- which meant thoroughly -- information gathering would be difficult. Dribbling information out can be frustrating, especially when you want to release a flood, and you want the situation over. Missing something could be far worse.
The Pentagon did have more shocking photos of abuse in Abu Ghraib, ones that weren't seen in every newspaper and on every news program. In an effort to be more forthcoming, they allowed Congress to view them. Many made the case that those additional photos should be released in the name of transparency and because "they're going to get out there anyway." Thanks to the power of the Internet and the explosion of digital cameras, nobody -- even to this day -- could say how many photos were out there or know how to access them all. Of the arguments against releasing those photos, the strongest were made by the military leadership on the ground in Iraq. They made a passionate and convincing case that more photos released could inflame Iraqi public opinion against our troops more, putting them at even greater risk.
The nature of the crisis and the circumstances under which it occurred made the basic rules of communication far more difficult. Tell the story before someone else does, get all the facts out, answer all the questions. But the bottom line, no matter what facts were out there or what communications strategies were employed, was that this scandal was what it was: awful. And one person had the guts to talk about it that way.
Lost in most of the coverage of the prisoner scandal was something remarkable, something that transcends communications principles or tactics. And it relates to basic decency and honor. It will take years to appreciate, but Rumsfeld's testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 7, 2004, should be studied -- and admired -- as a true act of responsibility, accountability, and courage.
"In recent days, there has been a good deal of discussion about who bears responsibility for the terrible activities that took place at Abu Ghraib," Rumsfeld said in his opening statement before a packed committee room. "These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility. It is my obligation to evaluate what happened, to make sure those who have committed wrongdoing are brought to justice, and to make changes as needed to see that it doesn't happen again.
"I feel terrible about what happened to the Iraqi detainees. They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn't do that. That was wrong.
"To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was un-American. And it was inconsistent with the values of our nation."
Rumsfeld then spent several hours before the Senate and the House going into as much detail as he could in addressing the members' questions, comments, and accusations about what had happened. Most importantly, Rumsfeld did what very few people in leadership positions do in times of trouble. He took responsibility. He admitted mistakes. He apologized. He vowed to prevent future abuses and made clear his plan to do just that. He also offered his resignation to President Bush -- twice.
It has become a cliche of business management books to quote Harry Truman's old adage that "the buck stops here." Scores of policy makers and executives have cheesy reproductions of the sign on their desks, as if to say, "I am responsible." Donald Rumsfeld doesn't need signs.
Copyright © 2006 by Torie Clarke
Excerpted from Lipstick on a Pig by Torie Clarke Copyright © 2006 by Torie Clarke. Excerpted by permission.
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