2005-07-22 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

The Big Frame
by Stuart W. Mirsky

Here we go again. The furor of the moment is all about Karl Rove being implicated in the revelation that former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who famously embarrassed the Bush administration in a New York Times piece, had a wife who worked for the CIA. A law passed back in the eighties (opposed at the time by most of the Democrats who seek to invoke it today) makes it a crime to knowingly reveal the identity of a covert CIA operative. But that law only applies to cases in which the person revealing the agent’s name had this information from secret government sources (pass-ing on hearsay or rumor doesn’t count) and revealed it knowing that the exposed agent was operating under cover.

This was always a challenging claim to prove and now it turns out that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, didn’t actually qualify as an undercover operative for the CIA at the time she was allegedly “outed” under the terms of the statute anyway. To qualify you had to have been posted overseas within five years of the revelation of your activities, but Joe Wilson himself has provided information that Plame’s last overseas assignment was more than five years before the present brouhaha began. So, if Wilson’s wife was merely a CIA employee, stationed at Langley, she’d have been no different from any other government employee in a wide variety of agencies reporting to his or her job each day in full view of the man on the street.

Realizing that the law may not actually have been violated, the Democrats have begun a concerted campaign to shift the focus by demanding that Bush fire Rove anyway. Smelling blood and, believing Rove to be the political brains of the Bush outfit, they can’t resist the dual opportunity at embarrassing Bush while repaying Rove for their past presidential defeats by separating him from the president they love to hate. Even if no law was broken, they now say, it was wrong to reveal Plame’s identity since it was revenge on the whistle blowing Wilson. And didn’t Bush promise to sack any staffer implicated in the leak? (In fact, he didn’t.)

But why wouldn’t Rove have mentioned Plame’s role on background to a reporter since the question then on the table went directly to Wilson’s credibility as a critic of the administration? After all, if Wilson were a legitimately disinterested party, then his claim to have undercut the allegation that Saddam sought uranium yellow cake in Niger ought to have had some credibility with the White House. Wilson himself claimed to have been sent on his African fact finding mission at the initiative of Vice President Dick Cheney who was supposed to have made the request to the CIA. But Cheney has denied it, insisting he had no role in this at all. So how Wilson came to be our man in Niger is important to the credibility of Wilson’s own story.

Wilson, it turns out, had been an opponent of removing Saddam by force for years, by his own admission, and hardly fit the profile of a disinterested investigator. When allegations surfaced that his wife, an employee of the CIA in its wmd division, had actually urged his selection, Wilson loudly insisted she’d played no part in this. But the bi-partisan Congressional inquiry into pre-war intelligence concerning Saddam subsequently found and documented a copy of an internal CIA memo from Plame that actually recommended her husband for this task. Based on this memo and on the testimony of another CIA operative that Ms. Plame was involved in the selection process, the bipartisan group concluded that, contrary to Wilson’s public statements, Ms. Plame had been instrumental in his selection.

That same Congressional report also determined that, contrary to Wilson’s later claims, the information he brought back from Niger was taken by CIA higher-ups as evidence supporting a conclusion that Saddam had, in fact, been actively trying to obtain precursor materials for nuclear weapons in that part of the world. The Butler Report, commissioned by the British Parliament, independently supported this conclusion when it noted that British intelligence assertions that Saddam had been seeking nuclear materials in Africa, and which Bush referenced in his State of the Union speech, were, in fact, “well founded.”

But even if all these facts militate against Wilson’s story, the Democratic critics haven’t given up. So how to explain this continuing partisan sniping in the face of an absence of facts? As if in answer, the New York Times Sunday magazine section recently ran a piece by Matt Bai about the Democrats’ current shift to what Bai calls a “framing” strategy. Repeatedly beaten at the polls across the nation, the Democrats, Bai explains, have latched onto the advice of people like linguistics professor George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkely. Lakoff, a left-leaning academic, “became exasperated over the drift of the Kerry campaign last summer” according to Bai and complained that “I went to bed angry every night.” Moved to find a way to help the beleaguered Democrats, Lakoff applied his thinking about language to what he thought he saw happening in political discourse.

According to Lakoff, political and other arguments are less about facts, or proving one’s claims, than about the resonances one’s statements kick up in the minds of others, reflecting the mental constructs each listener relies on in his or her understanding of the world. Whether these are hardwired or culturally predetermined is yet to be clarified but the point he makes is that we should not be appealing to reason or facts in our debates but should aim to hit certain hot buttons in the human brain instead. People, says Lakoff, understand things they hear in relation to a larger context or “frame” of reference with which they can identify. Thus, the point in discourse is not to make one’s case but to tell a good story . . . one your listeners will identify with. Lakoff thinks the Republicans have been doing this better than the Democrats for years and wants to change that. In simpler times we used to call this sort of thing propaganda.

Indeed, Bai notes that key Democratic leaders have seemingly endorsed this view. Speaking of the recent decline in Bush’s numbers on social security reform, Bai reports that Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Minority Leader in the House “bragged” to him about the Democrats’ success at recasting the issue in the way Lakoff was recommending. Referencing the current social security debate, she told Bai “we branded (the Republicans) with privatization and they can’t sell that brand anywhere.” She went on to note that public approval of Bush’s proposal is “. . . down to, like, 29 percent or something. At the beginning of this debate, voters were saying that the president was a president who had new ideas. Now he’s a guy who wants to cut my benefits.” At this, according to Bai, “Pelosi laughed loudly.”

So, political discourse has come back to what it’s always been at its worst. Back in the fifties a fellow named Vance Packard wrote a well received book called The Hidden Persuaders  about subliminal messaging and how big corporations subverted the truth to influence our thinking when we were least aware of it.

Now, if Bai is right, many Democrats seem to have embraced that same strategy in their latest desperate gambit to regain the confidence of a disillusioned American electorate. If the facts don’t make the case you want against the president’s initiatives or against Rove, just alter the narrative and pluck a few chords in the public’s brain. They’ll never notice. All you have to do is to recast your words in order to change what Lakoff and other sympathetic academics have called the “frame.” Even if it means you have to frame ‘em. 


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