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.