Thursday, May 29, 2008

Poor little scotty (or the new strategic uses of pathos)

Not me, but Mclellan, who as everyone knows or should know, has decided to come clean about his past involvement in the foreign policy disaster we now refer to as the Iraq war. It's a pretty amazing development, but maybe shouldn't be, considering the number of outraged and agonized confessionals of former government employees. You can read the story almost anywhere, but here's a recent bit in the NYT's.

But this blog isn't about policy; it's about persuasion. And I can't help being both horrified and impressed by the shrewd and eerily consistent strategy the Republican officials and party flunkies are using to manage the bad news.

Rather than deny the charges or battle Mclellan point by point, they have decided to insinuate that there's something wrong with him, suggesting a breakdown of some kind. The tone was set early by the current, icily gorgeous Press Sec, Dano Perino, No one has specifically claimed a psychotic episode, but the repeated infantilizing use of his first name (rather than his last or full name) and the words "sad" and "puzzled" more closely match the language of someone concerned about the mental health of a friend or relative rather than an organization confronting a brazen attack on their ethical standards by a former insider.

Rove and Fleischer dutifully expanded on the strange-state-of-Scott story with their pop-psychological "this doesn't sound like Scott," in a tone suffused with befuddled concern.

I'm inclined to call bullshit on their false pathos, but perhaps Scott really does sound different. Perhaps it doesn't sound like him because he's not lying anymore. Or maybe he sounds different because he's so racked with guilt over his involvement in a PR farce that's cost well-counted American and countless Iraqi lives and untold amounts of unnecessary human suffering.

If you want to get a sense of what this can sound like try talking to former and now clean ex-cons speaking about their past crimes, or read about how a former aide to Colin Powell describes his involvement in Powell's speech to the U.N. on bogus intelligence as the "lowest point in his life." Here. Yeah, that does sound a lot different from "Bring it on" now that you mention it.

In any case, this strikes me as whole new strategy against what we might call the truth or (less polemically) any information that doesn't support the party line. Perhaps we've moved past the "I don't recall" defense utilized so effectively by Reagan and the "I wasn't informed of what my own staff was up to" attempted with varying degrees of success by Donald Rumsfeld and Enron executives, and moved onto variations of "He's lost it," to damage the credibility of anyone who dares to say something we don't want to hear.


fiveisbetter said...

Really interesting post. It is as if the administration gets together to figure out how best to brand their detractors.

Valerie Plame never really looked the part of a secret agent for the CIA, since pop culture has taught us to expect people like James Bond or Jason Bourne. Solution: position her as a dumb blonde, essentially a clerical worker eager for 15 minutes of fame and Vanity Fair photo shoots alongside her Hollywood-loving hubby.

Paul O'Neill was a bit of a maverick, so position him as a loose cannon trying to get noticed and salvage a career in its downward spiral. (much the same story for Richard Clark)

Scotty was always a bit child-like, a short and chubby guy who became petulant when asked difficult questions. Solution: position him as somehow mentally deficient, once a smart guy but now riding the short bus.

If you successfully define the opponent before they can define themselves, you win.

I wouldn't blame it all on the GOP since this was also something at which Camp Clinton was king. (most people would probably be surprised to hear that Monica Lewinsky was a salutarian at Bel-Air High and has a masters from the London School of Economics)

Really ugly stuff.

sk said...

Great examples. Almost a taxonomy of ways to discredit your opponents. But I'd still argue that the real innovation here is the use of sympathy to discredit the speaker.

Picus said...

meh. The war isn't all either side cracked it up to be. Sorry, but it isn't, and in case you missed it, it is coming to an end.

Funny the media isn't covering that aspect, though, too few guys are dying.