BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, while President Bush toured Africa, bestowing American goodwill, back home the war in Iraq was generating some bad vibes. There's the fury of some military families over the mounting death toll in Iraq; the nagging questions about the ever-elusive weapons of mass destruction; the administration admission that there's no evidence that Saddam Hussein purchased uranium from Niger and the official re-write of the capture of Jessica Lynch. Thread by thread, the administration's tightly coordinated war message appears to be unraveling. Journalist and former presidential advisor David Gergen joins me now. David, welcome back to OTM.
DAVID GERGEN: Oh, it's good to talk to you again, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems that the White House is just sputtering. The swagger and the confidence seem to be gone. Is that your take, and if so, do you think that it's going to have political consequences for the public at large?
DAVID GERGEN: I wouldn't go so far as to say the [LAUGHS] swagger is gone, but I would say that they're on the defensive and I think unless they come to grips with this soon, it will have political consequences. I was surprised by the president this week while he was in Africa being fairly dismissive of the charge over Niger and whether the fabrication and what, what got into his speech on the State of the Union. Rather than being defensive, I would have counseled him to go on the offensive and to be angry about what happened within -- why in the Dickens did anybody let him say that?! I, I start with the position that the president himself thought it was true, and that Condi Rice thought it was true. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: Well that's one place to start.
DAVID GERGEN: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: There are other places to start [...?...].
DAVID GERGEN:Well, but if you assume that, then the natural response from someone who's been misled by his own administration is to be angry, and to let some heads roll for how this information got into his speech and why he got put into this position.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, on this program we have discussed a great deal how this White House has a level of discipline and coordination that we have rarely seen -- maybe never seen -- in prior administrations in terms of message-management.
DAVID GERGEN: They've been extraordinarily disciplined right from the get-go. There's a level of loyalty to the president, to the mission of the president and to the message.
BOB GARFIELD:Well at the risk of belaboring the obvious, what are the advantages of an administration being so consistently on-message from the very beginning?
DAVID GERGEN: Well in the fir--first place it creates a sense in the country that this is a very well-disciplined, organized and sophisticated administration. The confidence level in the leadership goes up. But it also helps on the persuasion. You know, one of the critical goals for any president is not only to make a decision but to persuade others to follow and-- this administration I think has taken to heart the notion that if you can find a simple message and repeat it long enough, that people will give you permission to do what you want to do, even if they may not fully agree with you. I think most people who've worked in past White Houses admire how much discipline they've had.
BOB GARFIELD: David you're an inveterate advisor to presidents -- Democrat and Republican--
DAVID GERGEN: Too many, probably.
BOB GARFIELD:[LAUGHS] Putting aside the particulars of this predicament, what would you counsel this president or any White House about the advisability of being so disciplined and being so on-message if there's not absolute certainty that the simple oft-repeated message is absolutely true?
DAVID GERGEN: I'm sure this administration would not want to hear this and think I'm crazy, but I happen to be a proponent for an administration that's much more open. There's a danger when you get an administration that gets very closed and very buttoned-up, and that is that you can begin to get group-think within the administration. You know, I went, I went through Watergate with President Nixon, and I can tell you -- we circled the wagons. There was a sense that everybody out there was out to get you; that the press in particular had pitchforks in their hands; they were coming over the barricades -- and the only people you could trust were inside. And of course then you begin talking to each other and you, you don't even understand why people on the outside are angry! You don't get it! And we saw that in the Vietnam War! That the administration got very internalized; they weren't open to talking to critics. To a degree, the administration which has been extraordinarily successful with this buttoned-up, disciplined approach so far now finds itself trapped by some of its own rhetoric and by events that are spinning a little bit out of control. And I think that's why this past week they've stumbled some. They can't contain these State Department officers or people like Joseph Wilson, the ambassador who went to Niger. He comes back and writes an article in the New York Times -- they can control it! I mean that - Joe Wilson was definitely off-message. And they can't control events on the ground in Iraq, but people are, you know, popping up in urban areas and taking shots at our soldiers.
BOB GARFIELD:Certainly in the case of Vietnam and in the case of Watergate the public was way behind the press in terms of getting frustrated with the administration and-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
DAVID GERGEN: Yes--
BOB GARFIELD: -- its perceived responsiveness. And from the very beginning of the George W. Bush administration the press has been pulling its hair out about the closed nature of the White House. Do you think the public is at this point catching on or do you think that the president has-- more political capital and good will to burn?
DAVID GERGEN: This president has a lot more political capital and good will to burn. He's in very good shape politically, still. He's on the commanding heights, because we are on a war-basis, war-footing, and because people feel he has been -- even if they have some questions about particular reports that he's used --they think Saddam was a terrible guy. But-- having said all of that, there is something now starting to eat away; there is not just Iraq and what was said before and what's happened since. There is also an argument starting to take shape that there have been many an occasion when the administration seemingly has said one thing and done another; that the rhetoric has not always matched the deed. And that is an issue - if the Democrats can pull that together - could be corrosive for the president unless the administration turns itself inside out - to get all the facts out about what happened before we went into Iraq and to solve the problems that are popping up in Iraq itself. It's not sustainable to have every day or so a story about more Americans losing their lives in Iraq and next to it a story that we were misled about some element before the war started -- those two things coming together are not sustainable.
BOB GARFIELD:All right, I asked you what you would advise the White House. Now I want to ask you what you think the White House is going to do. Do you think it will revert to its old patterns of telling the same story again and again and again or do you think they're going to start to err on the side of more transparency?
DAVID GERGEN: I do not think they'll move toward a lot of transparency without pressure or time. The new press secretary at the White House is very much in the same school of let's-keep-a-buttoned-up, disciplined-operation. Karl Rove, the chief strategist, is very much in that school. It's worked for them in the past. I think that they'd rather ride out the storm than change the strategy.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well David, as always, thanks very much.
DAVID GERGEN: Okay, take care.
BOB GARFIELD: David Gergen is a political analyst and former presidential advisor. He joined us by phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts.