A reflection on propaganda, American-style. I discuss President Obama's interview on 60 Minutes after the raid on Osama bin Laden's residence in Pakistan.
One of the intellectual pleasures of being an American living abroad -- I live in Spain -- is to observe the subtleties of your own country's propaganda efforts.
I was reminded of this smarmy side of the American political game the other day when I saw that North Korean news anchorwoman crying on television as she announced the death of President Kim Jung Il. You had to wonder if she would take the death of her own father any harder.
That was the point of the scene, of course: the Dear Leader's death was like your own father's. It was the point for North Koreans, that is. The rest of the world probably found it -- let's be charitable, a man died -- melodramatic.
But that's the fascinating thing about international politics: how each nation retains, generation after generation, its personality; how it cannot think, though it can feel; how certain sentiments root so deeply in one national psyche and wither without a trace in the next. Koreans apparently react to tearful displays; Americans react to to cool leaders who play saxophone or make snappy speeches.
Some countries don't need personal identification with their leaders. In Spain, of the six men who have been president, only one, Felipe Gonzalez, had any sort of personal charisma. Presidents here are just heads of the political parties that win elections. It is King Juan Carlos, jovial and distinguished, that personifies the country and that people relate to personally. And the mainstream media, as everywhere, plays its propaganda role bathing him in kingly mystique.
The trick to propaganda is that it can never look like propaganda. And it works best if the people presenting it don't consider it that way either. I would imagine that the Korean anchorwoman really was deeply moved, and if the director had to tell her to save her tears till he gave her the on-the-air countdown, it was only the reverential thing to do.
The image of the crying anchorwoman finds its American parallel in President Barack Obama's interview on 60 Minutes with Steve Kroft a week after the raid on Osama bin Laden's (ugly) house in Pakistan last May.
Is it hard to think of 60 Minutes, that scion of investigative journalism, as a propaganda mouthpiece? That's exactly the point: it doesn't look like one. And just as the North Korean television director told the woman to put everything she had into reading the death announcement, no doubt Kroft saw the post-raid interview as his duty as a patriot and a newsman.
I wonder how the questions were prepared. In cooperation with Obama's people, as with the recent Jay Leno interview? If Obama didn't submit the questions, he certainly had advance warning on them.
And, what questions! The killing of bin Laden was an event that, big or small in the general sweep of events, was certainly key to America's sense of 9-11 closure, not to mention Obama's re-election. Questions swirled -- and swirl still -- around the raid. Yet Kroft, who like all the 60 Minutes guys goes tooth and nail after fraudsters, mobsters, gangsters and sundry sleazeballs, played the softest of softballs with the president.
A violin might have been playing in the background when he asked Obama, "This was your decision -- whether to proceed or not and how to proceed. What was the most difficult part of that decision?" (To give Obama his due, he occasionally seemed uncomfortable with Kroft's hyper-sensitive, muscular portrayal of him.)
The reason it was difficult to proceed was, as Obama had just mentioned, "We didn't have a photograph of bin Laden in that building. There was no direct evidence of his presence. And so the CIA continued to build the case meticulously over the course of several months."
Kroft never asked how it was that, in months of surveillance of the house in Abbottabad, the CIA had never taken a photo of bin Laden, never recorded his voice. In all that time, no thin, six-foot-six bearded gent ever once passed in front of an open window? With all the super hi-tech devices available to the CIA -- the American CIA, that is, not the CIA of, say, Cameroon or Paraguay -- no recording of his voice was ever made?
All they needed was to match up a voice print of bin Laden yelling "Anybody see where I left my glasses?" or telling the kids to eat their spinach because the Prophet Mohammed did, and look how far he went. If I had been president, and if the greatest intelligence-gathering agency in the world could not find a trace of one man in one house over a period of months, I would have concluded that he wasn't there and called off the mission.
But "direct proof" would have had to be presented to the public, wouldn't it? There was the rub. And as we saw with the faked dead bin Laden photograph briefly floated on the Internet and quickly torn to shreds by sour conspiracy theorists, presenting direct proof was only asking for trouble. So somewhere the decision was made to lie by omission. And to give this crucial absence covering fire, it was couched -- by Kroft and the mainstream media -- in terms of how difficult the lack of evidence made the president's decision.
Not that I'm criticizing: I've used that technique myself in two novels.
Still, let's not be too hard on Kroft. In American political culture, the president's word is never to be called into question, and especially not during a Presidential Soulful Chat in the Roosevelt Room. Imagine the reaction -- the calls, the emails, the outcry -- if Kroft had pulled the president up short and said, "Wait a minute, Mr. President. Are you telling me that you sent two helicopters of men to raid a place when after several months of hi-tech surveillance no trace of Osama bin Laden had been found? You sent those men on the strength of a story about a bin Laden courier?" That would have been Kroft's last 60 Minutes segment.
Steve Kroft knows how to read the landscape. His job was to pour the syrup, and he had an XL bottle of it:
KROFT: Was it hard keeping your focus?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes. Yeah.
KROFT: Did you have to suppress the urge to tell someone? Did you want to tell somebody? Did you want to tell Michelle? Did you tell Michelle?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know one of the great successes of this operation was that we were able to keep this thing secret. And it's a testimony to how seriously everybody took this operation and the understanding that any leak could end up not only compromising the mission, but killing some of the guys that we were sending in there.
What a sweet, cuddly man, our president is -- Kroft too, since he let Obama dodge the question about Michelle. And that bit about "keeping focus" -- that speaks for itself. Can you imagine Kroft asking a dishonest stock broker if it was hard keeping his focus while robbing a 70-year-old lady of her pension?
And then there was the nonsense about the dead bin Laden photos circulated in the White House and deemed too ugly for public release. And here the exchange between Kroft and Obama truly smells of collusion:
KROFT: Did you see the pictures?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes.
KROFT: What was your reaction when you saw them?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It was him.
That was Obama's reaction? What an odd thing to say. If you had asked me about my reaction to a photo of a dead man shot in the head, I would have said, "Horrible. It made me sick." And if Abbottabad had been a real raid -- fully, not to say easily, documented -- and if there were no question that they had taken bin Laden, that is roughly what Obama would have said.
Yet Obama's "reaction" was to use the question to insist it was really bin Laden. Which says to me that it wasn't. Apart from the gaps in the official story is the evidence that points to the probable death of bin Laden at the end of 2001. But skepticism, in American political culture, has to await other venues and other days. Kroft said nothing; Obama had made his point.
And Obama, who knows a thing or two about making a good impression, continued to make hay while the 60 Minutes sun was shining:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That's not who we are. You know, we don't trot out this stuff as trophies. You know, the fact of the matter is this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received. And I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he's gone. But we don't need to spike the football.
Which he himself had just spiked, with Steve Kroft's help.
I was born in Detroit in 1959, though I lived my formative years in Stillwater, Minnesota, a town just south of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, or at least one of the villages he based it on. I graduated from Stillwater High in 1977 and from the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis in 1983; I have a B.A. in International Relations. I took a leisurely six years to finish my college education. Along the way I studied in both Spain and France, and saw most of western Europe; I also learned Portuguese.
I have always been an English teacher -- work I stumbled into as a student in Madrid. Finishing college, I lived in Quito, Ecuador, where I taught English. I also traveled around South America, visiting almost every country, most notably Brazil, and have been back to Ecuador and Brazil since then, traveling and researching books.
I settled permanently in Madrid in 1985, and married a few years later. I keep my bread buttered by teaching English courses on a freelance basis in Spanish companies in the Madrid area. If you look at my web page, you'll see that half is for my English business.
I give an hour, maybe two, of class, then pack up my briefcase and leave behind my students clinched to their computer screens; I can never be too grateful to teaching. My work also gives me time to write, every morning roughly between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. (the Spanish lunch hour), since at that time Spaniards are too busy raising company profits to ponder the mysteries of the verb Get.
As to my writing, I will only say that, as in holding English class for seven bank technocrats at 8 a.m., I try to speak brightly, move things briskly, and teach minimally. No example should be without its humor, no lesson without its respect for people's intelligence.
And so from my perch in Spain I write about America -- often in verse which I'm reluctant to call poetry -- and try to offer the perspective of one who can see it both inside and outside, both the trees and the woods. It is an extraordinary time in the nation's history, especially regarding the growing contempt between the governors and the governed. It will end badly. But in the meantime, what a magnificent spectacle, like one of Tintoretto's immense canvases boiling with humanity. Damn the falling rates of literacy; it's a great time to write novels.