The Impending Death of Honest Expertise

By Steven Luxenberg

Before I offer a single thought, before I express a single opinion, I’ll bet you’re already wondering: Who’s this guy? What’s his agenda? Where is he coming from?

What I have to say, and the facts that I put forth to support my thesis, won’t be nearly as important to many readers as trying to figure out my motivation. And because I’m writing in a Washington newspaper, and Washington is the epicenter of the disease that I am about to describe, the questions will take a familiar form. Am I a Republican or a Democrat? Conservative or liberal? Am I settling a score, riding a hobbyhorse or—skepticism demands that this be asked—advancing my career?

Call it the death of honest expertise.

It’s a Washington parlor game. The players prove their sophistication by holding fast to the belief that everyone has an agenda, that independence is a myth. During the Clinton administration, this reached new heights when Hillary Rodham Clinton declared the existence of a vast right-wing conspiracy, a preemptive strike that served not only to dismiss all of the Clintons’ known critics, but future critics as well.

The latest case in point: Richard A. Clarke, who served four presidents (three Republican, one Democratic)—most prominently as White House chief of counterterrorism during this administration and its predecessor. He has written a book about his experiences, saying that the Bush administration didn’t take the al Qaeda threat seriously enough. (I note, skeptically, that he allowed the book to be released last weekend in a well-coordinated media campaign designed to maximize sales, thereby upstaging his own testimony on Wednesday before the government panel investigating the 9/11 attacks.)

Here’s what happened the very next day: Clarke’s account sparked a serious discussion of the many issues he had raised; the Bush White House thanked him for trying to make sense of what he had learned in 30 years on the job; and the media kept their focus on what he said and not why he might be saying it.

Of course, nothing I wrote in that previous paragraph is true. (It’s sad what passes for an active fantasy life in Washington.)

Here’s what really happened: Administration officials undertook a counter media blitz. Clarke is a partisan, they said. He is disgruntled. His “best buddy” is the chief foreign policy adviser for Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting. He “wasn’t in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff.” He “may have a grudge to bear because he probably wanted a more prominent position.” The book, said presidential spokesman Scott McClellan, is “Dick Clarke’s American grandstand.”

And that was just Monday.

I don’t know Clarke. I don’t know whether his book is accurate. I’m told, by people whose skepticism I respect, that he is a man of strong opinions and enormous ego. If he had asked for my advice, I would have told him that if he wanted his criticisms to be taken seriously, he should have skipped “60 Minutes” last Sunday and refrained from saying, among other things, that he finds it “outrageous for President Bush to run for reelection on the grounds that he has done such great things about terrorism.” It’s hard to be seen as an impartial truth teller when you’re lobbing verbal grenades at the president during a campaign year. (Not surprisingly, the target tends to shoot back.)

My point isn’t that Clarke is getting a raw deal or that the White House went into attack mode. As they say on K Street, Clarke is a big boy. He knew what he was doing, and he doesn’t need our sympathy. My point is that all of us—politicians, journalists, even readers—have become reflexive in our distrust. Our first instinct is not to say, “I’d like to see his evidence,” but rather, “What ax is he (or she) grinding?”

And there are plenty of sharpened axes out there. As I write about Clarke, I’m wondering whether he’s really a good example. But that, too, is my point: No one is a perfect example. We don’t live in vacuum-sealed packages, free of connections or history or motivation. It’s perfectly appropriate to ask questions about a person’s background, and then to consider whether the answers have any bearing on the matter at hand. It’s not appropriate to assume that behind every opinion or study is a hidden agenda just waiting to emerge.

It’s easy to point fingers at the politicians for this state of affairs, but that seems pointless—their partisanship goes with the territory. What I find more disappointing is how even beacons of independent expertise seem so eager to shed their outsider status and sign up officially for one side or the other.

When Bush v. Gore went to the Supreme Court after the 2000 election, Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School was one of Gore’s primary legal advisers. Tribe is undoubtedly a fine advocate as well as a noted constitutional scholar. But his representation of Gore permanently identified him with a side. After the court ruled, he wrote a scholarly paper titled “The Unbearable Wrongness of Bush v. Gore,” in which he responded to another law professor’s view of the court’s decision. I read Tribe’s paper with interest, but his position as Gore’s lawyer left no doubt where he would come down.

When I have tried out my thesis on friends and colleagues, the more skeptical ones have said, “Aren’t you being naive? In a world of spin and self-interest, don’t we need to know whether someone is pushing an agenda?” Of course we do. But we also don’t need to undermine those who might be playing it straight.

A specific example: In September 2002, on the day that President Bush addressed the United Nations for the first time about Iraq, I was one of two journalists invited to appear on a cable talk show. The other guest was an editor from the New York Sun, and he was describing an editorial that his newspaper had run about Brent Scowcroft, who had served as national security adviser under the first President Bush. Scowcroft was back in the news because he had written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal opposing military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The conversation was one of those shorthand discussions that fly by continuously on cable TV, the kind that most listeners would find hard to follow. The gist of the Sun editorial seemed to be that Scowcroft, whose op-ed had attracted media attention because he was a Republican criticizing a Republican administration, might have business interests that might explain why he had come out of the woodwork. I was unfamiliar with the editorial, so as I listened on my earpiece in The Post newsroom, I was grateful that I wasn’t being asked to participate in this part of the discussion.

Then the voice in my ear said, “Steve, would you accept a piece from Brent Scowcroft” if he now submitted one to Outlook?

(Time for full disclosure, as columnists like to say: I have never met Scowcroft, and his byline has not appeared in Outlook during my nearly eight years as its editor. My answer on the cable show was spontaneous and in no way intended to induce Scowcroft to write something for Outlook rather than for a competing news organization.)

I wasn’t sure what Scowcroft had or hadn’t done, but the cable host’s question struck me as ridiculous. My answer was blunt: I strongly objected to the premise that Scowcroft’s opinions were now tainted. (I have since read the Sun’s editorial, which faulted the identification accompanying Scowcroft’s op-ed for not mentioning that he runs an international consulting company and chided the media for not looking harder at Scowcroft’s client list.)

It was possible, I suggested, for Scowcroft to state his honest view of how to deal with Iraq and also have business interests that might be, in some tangential way, affected by geopolitical developments. But bar him—and, presumably, others in like situations—from expressing their views in opinion columns? Whom does that serve?

Perhaps now you see where I’m coming from.

© The Washington Post; printed here by permission

The Washington Post
Sunday Outlook
March 28, 2004