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ron suskind

Suskind is the author of The Price of Loyalty [2004], an account of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill stint in the Bush administration, and The One Percent Doctrine [2006] about the war on terror. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted July 26, 2006.

Tell me a little bit about the access that you had when you were writing the [2002] Esquire piece. What that was like?

... The [Esquire] profile was of [former Bush Communications Director] Karen Hughes. Now, journalists, we need to pitch and pitch to the folks at the White House. Mark McKinnon was helpful, the media guy. [He said]: "Look, it's the midterm elections. The president is having trouble with women voters, [from] what I understand. It would be nice, I would gather, if they knew that his right-hand man was a woman, truly and fully." ...

I interviewed almost everybody in the West Wing. It was extraordinary. At one point I even had a desk across from Karen Hughes' office. ...

Why do you think they chose you to do it, and were you surprised?

Frankly, I think part of it is they didn't really do all their homework. One of the things that someone said to me later, a person close to the Bush crowd, is, "Don't mistake conviction for thoroughness." They often don't engage in the kind of due diligence you'd expect. In this case, maybe they didn't do that. I had written a big work of narrative nonfiction that really touches the heart, and maybe they were thinking that's more of what I did at this point.

In any event, what was clear is that they were feeling a kind of confidence. They had a kind of hubris, ... especially in early 2002. If you had to look at a few months of this administration as to maybe the perils of-- of overconfidence, you probably would look at these few months. At that juncture I think they were feeling a kind of warmth: "We are giants, and let someone document that." So that was, I think, part of what got me in the door and got me that kind of access. ...

[Hughes] ultimately ends up announcing her resignation at the very end of my reporting. That was a surprise to everyone. It was so closely held inside of the White House that really just the president, the first lady, the vice president [Dick Cheney], Andy Card knew. ... I called everyone back and said, "I think it's fair for me to request one more interview with everybody." ...

“I interviewed almost everybody in the West Wing. It was extraordinary. At one point I even had a desk across from Karen Hughes' office.”

Ultimately, the key interview ends up being with Andy Card, the chief of staff. Andy, in his office, commits a kind of cardinal sin, which is candor. He just sorts of lets it out. He goes through the particularities of what it would mean that Karen is leaving. Essentially, he says, the whole balance of the place will be out of whack. Hughes has been a pragmatist; she has been a clear-eyed realpolitik to Karl [Rove]'s more ideological view. He says that Karen has been the beauty to Karl's beast. Essentially, he walks into every meeting with the sharp sword of partisanship, and she beats it into a ploughshare. ... Of course that goes into the story.

The story comes out in early June of 2002. Esquire faxes it immediately to the White House. ... Later, Dick Cheney was Bigfooting around the West Wing, looking for heads. ... And the vice president's advice to Card was, ... "Your job is to go out and say he made this up, that he lied." ...

[What was the media fallout?]

What I saw that weekend [after the article came out] was fascinating. First on Friday, [then-Press Secretary] Ari Fleischer ... says, "We're going to get a pool of money together to buy Ron Suskind a tape recorder." [In other words], that the story is more fiction than fact.

Now, he says this sort of as a joke, but that's everything for me. That's my reputation. I've been a reporter for 20 years, and I don't ever get things wrong. That's important in terms of my professional status. ...

So what do you do?

Well, that weekend, Andy Card goes out to do his road show for Homeland Security. Of course, all people want to ask about is this Esquire piece and these quotes. ... Card tried to do what the vice president recommended or ordered him to do, and it didn't work. He just couldn't manage it. ... At that moment, I think the Fourth Estate said, "Fine, then we can pile on," and the story roiled through the media for the next month. ...

Is this when the White House really started to lock down and not give anyone access every again really, or had it happened before, and you were sort of the exception?

In terms of their media strategy, their lockdown -- keep the mainstream press out -- it starts from the very beginning. ... Presidents have always furrowed their brow and said, "Oh, God, do I have to meet with the gentlemen or gentlewomen of the press again?" But they understood that part of the role of being president is explaining yourself, and these folks, though unelected, are kind of proxies, are intermediaries, are in a way kind of ombudsmen. ... Every president, I think even Nixon, understood that, which is why there was regular access of the media, regular visits, and the newspapers had a rotation. They knew every year they would go in a certain number of times. They prepared for it. ...

That stopped when the Bush administration arrived. ... Clearly they said, "Let's look at why that has always been the case, and let's move in some other direction." That direction was to say, the mainstream press will not have regular access to this president. ... What is the thing that is to be avoided? The informed, unmanaged question. That's the most dangerous thing at a press conference anywhere. So what you do is several things at once: First off, from the very beginning, you close off the sources for the informed question; you tell everyone in the administration new rules of the game. ... No one would speak to a reporter ever without permission.

I don't know if this is widely known, but they issued cell phones to everyone in the administration. This is a first. So they have their office line, but they also have a cell phone that's issued -- inside of the White House, certainly -- to key officials, so that any call you make to a reporter is easily knowable and findable [in] the databases of the White House. If you speak to a reporter without permission, there will be consequences. ...

You close off the leaks by saying, "There are penalties for leakers." You close off the place or the places in which you get the information, as a reporter, from the truly informed question. ... Message matters. Message matters almost as much as actions. This is the philosophy.

[Other administrations have tried to do the same and failed.] What makes the Bush administration so successful at this?

A few things made it a successful strategy. One is the view that access is really the currency. If you constrain access to the president or the key officials, then each moment of access will be more valuable, like a precious mineral, and in exchange for that precious mineral I can exact conditions. That's the idea. ... Reporters do need access. We have trouble living only on the thin gruel of official-speak. ...

How is it that they're able to contain their message so carefully?

You never, ever speak without permission about the president. God forbid you should have access to the president, have ever met the president -- you never speak to anyone about it, ever, without specific permission from on high. It's a centralized model, hierarchical, top-down. And if you do that, if you speak without permission about the president, you risk permanent exile, period. You get the call. ...

Permanent exile means a lot to someone who's affectionate to the president, who's a Republican supporter, who's contributed money, ... with a president coming into office, exerting his authority, and all the goodies that might emerge from that or might flow from that. But that is what you risk if you speak to a reporter without permission. ...

[Talk to me some more about the administration's retaliation against journalists.]

Part of the playbook from the White House is to attack journalists, to say: "You are not an appropriate repository of public faith. Your role we do not feel is valid, to act as an intermediary between us and the public." The way you do that is treat the press just like any other interest group in Washington. There is no special role or special designation. We could be the health care lobby, or we could be the anti-gun lobby -- whatever. ...

In this case, what they do is they attack the journalists themselves. They did this to other journalists [as well as myself]. They do it in terms of access in some cases. "We didn't like what you wrote in The Washington Post or The New York Times, so you don't get any calls back for maybe quite a while. So now what are you going to do?"

With me, I don't have access issues. I don't need their access at this point. People come to my office -- they come to me. And frankly, the line goes around the block at this point. So they've got to come after me as an individual. After The New York Times Magazine piece runs in October of 2004, just two weeks before the election, ... there's this interesting moment where [then-Republic National Committee Chairman] Ed Gillespie is on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, and Gillespie says, "This story that's making all this news, well, we just want to tell you that we at the RNC have done some investigating on our own." Now Wolf is sort of startled, and he says, "Do tell." [Gillespie] says: "Yes, we have investigated Ron Suskind, and this is what we have uncovered. ... We checked a variety of records, and we found that Ron Suskind" -- and he holds up a sheet of paper -- "that Ron Suskind is a registered Democrat in the District of Columbia."

Ah, the smoking gun. ... And the fact is that some journalists I don't think register for political parties for this reason. I've never felt that was important. The fact is, I can vote for anybody; independents, Republicans, Democrats. But I'm a registered Democrat in the District of Columbia. It was listed as a crime.

What makes this administration so sure of themselves and so [bold] that they can just go ahead and do this and believe that they're going pull it off? ...

Their view from the beginning -- and Karen Hughes and I had a talk about this during that interview process -- was that they don't need the mainstream media. ... There are other avenues now for them to get their message out. There is the friendly media -- Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or the conservative press -- and ultimately they would attempt to keep the mainstream press away. ...

There's no doubt that the existence of the friendlier, conservative-leaning media was clearly an arrow in their quiver, a key arrow in their quiver, in terms of them saying, "Let's ignore the mainstream media as best we can." Will there be any penalty? ... I think their view was: "We don't think so. There are a lot of people out there that don't like reporters, who are not that happy with the television networks. There's been a movement for decades about truth and media and all those groups attacking them, calling them liberal." ...

[Do you think the media has a liberal bias?]

I absolutely reject that idea that the press is liberal and what it does is liberal. In my view, it's like accusing a doctor of malpractice or a lawyer of malfeasance. The fact is, most journalists I know are not particularly political. They move around a lot. And to say that by virtue of whatever my political beliefs may be that I would compromise what I do as a journalist and not understand where those lines are drawn is just exactly the same as accusing a professional of some manner of perfidy. ... It is no different, and I utterly reject it.

But the fact is that it has been a convincing case that they have made without a clear counterpoint. And all of that fit together, whereby folks were saying, "Well maybe I'll go to Fox News; maybe that's the place that I can get the news in some way unfiltered." Of course, nothing, I think, could be further from the truth. ...

Let's talk about your friend John DiIulio, [former director of the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives]. ...

Well, it's a fascinating moment, the DiIulio episode. DiIulio and I knew each other at a distance. He reviewed this other book I wrote, A Hope in the Unseen. ... I think we had generally good impressions of one another. We start[ed] to talk, ... and it was just an extraordinary interview. ...

DiIulio arrives at the Bush White House [to carry out] Bush's public pronouncements during the campaign about these faith-based initiatives: that the churches are the last rampart against chaos in the inner cities; we need to affirm them in some way. DiIulio buys all that. He believes what the president has said on the campaign trail. He gets it. But he finds out otherwise. He leaves after about a year.

We speak actually almost not at all about the faith-based initiative. ... What's fascinating is that DiIulio was genuinely concerned for the president -- he likes the president. He said [to me], "This is very dangerous to make decisions without checking what we know [is] knowable, without doing any due diligence. ... The president needs to know that he is out on uncharted territory here if he doesn't have a policy apparatus that essentially nourishes decisions." ...

And he says after a pause, "It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis." After he says that, it's almost like he wakes up from a moment of testimony, and he says, "Can we make all of this off the record?" ... A couple of weeks pass. There's a Manhattan Institute dinner in Washington. DiIulio's the speaker. I go to the dinner, and DiIulio's had a couple weeks to think about all the things he said, and he says, "Well, it's all on the record, and I don't want you to worry about that. What do we have to fear about the truth?" essentially.

Few more days pass, and DiIulio's secretary calls me, and she says, "John wants to send you something -- a fax. But it's kind of long." ... It's about eight pages on the fax machine. It's a 3,000-word memo on the record, explaining his comments to me in the interview -- including the comments about the Mayberry Machiavellis. It's now called "The Manifesto."

[Editor's Note: Read an excerpt here]

It is probably the most telling, entrenching, heartfelt, substantive thing written by any insider in this administration, even to this day. DiIulio talks about the perils of not having a policy apparatus. He talks about the president and his strong, positive feelings for him. He says he's a good man. He says that the political mandate, if that's all you have, is going to get you into trouble. ...

So now in terms of the message machine, the White House is in a real jam, because the story comes out in the first week of December [2002], and it's clearly filled with these things that DiIulio wrote in his own hand, parceled out inside of this story. What do you do? They can't go with the first model, saying, "Suskind made it up." ... Now they have DiIulio himself expressing what he saw with his own eyes and felt at the key moments. What do you do?

That Monday morning, the first week in December, calls go from the White House to the University of Pennsylvania, [where DiIulio is a professor]. ... He already in that morning starts to make comments: "If I said the head of domestic policy, what she knows about domestic policy you could fit in a thimble, I'm sorry. If I said Karl Rove and the faith-based initiative is cottoning to the Christian right, I didn't mean it." That's the start.

At the noon press briefing, the questions are coming from every direction. Fleischer just shuts them down: "I'm not going to comment about Suskind's story. I'm not. But what I'll say is that John DiIulio's comments in that story are baseless and groundless." ...

At 4:00, I'm doing Inside Politics, the Judy Woodruff show on CNN. After the show I come out, and I turn on my cell phone, and there's about 40 messages. The University of Pennsylvania has now sent out a statement: DiIulio will no longer be available for comments -- ever, really. ... Essentially, at this moment, DiIulio retires from his role as a public intellectual. He will not be heard from again. ...

Did you talk to him ever again?

There were moments where I tried. I called. He vanished for quite a while. Even his friends he wasn't talking to. He had some personal issues with some illness in his family. He canceled speeches. ... He's a guy I've got enormous respect for, and I think it's earned respect. But at this moment, he ran into the White House meat-grinding machine, and John DiIulio essentially vanished. He retreated from his role in the marketplace of ideas. ...

Let's talk about [former Treasury Secretary Paul] O'Neill, another terrific story. [He was, like DiIulio, another administration whistleblower, but he felt he couldn't be hurt by their message machine.] Why is that?

That's interesting. What's fascinating about O'Neill is that O'Neill is ousted -- he leaves office -- the same week of the DiIulio flap, the same week that Esquire story came out. A month later, ... I'm essentially sitting in my kitchen with my wife, ... and she passes a little flyer across the kitchen table [that] says, "Paul O'Neill is speaking tomorrow night at the Celebrade Club," at which point I'm like: "Paul O'Neill -- that's impossible. The man's in the witness relocation program." ...

I go and I see O'Neill in the center of these tall, white-haired men in Brooks Brothers blue suits. ... And I see him there, and he looks at me, and we have a moment of recognition; The Washington Post had done a story about the Esquire pieces where they ran my picture. O'Neill's like, "You did that DiIulio story." I said, "Yeah." He says: "Good God, I've been thinking a lot about that whole thing lately -- for obvious reasons, concerning my own life. Why would a guy like that say those things?" And O'Neill says: "You know, this crew, this group -- the Bush crowd -- they're different. And I've known all of them." He says: "They're nasty in different ways, and they have very long memories. And John Dilulio's a young guy, kind of like you, and I guess he had to make a tough decision. Could he afford a 50-year struggle with them, both personally and professionally? I guess he decided he couldn't, so he pled for mercy."

We're just sort of standing there, and it's actually kind of quiet, and he looks off. ... And he looks back at me, and he says: "But here's the difference. I'm an old guy, and I'm really rich, so there's nothing they can do to hurt me." That was really the start of our relationship. ...

What's fascinating about this story is that they overreach: What they do to DiIulio in a way creates some of what occurs with O'Neill. ... People were kind of startled by it. It's almost like the baring of the teeth. ...

After [O'Neill first] leaves government about 20 years ago, he moves into corporate America. And at Alcoa, where he was just most recently, he became a zealot about transparency. ... From the top to the bottom, everyone was out in public. It was, "Best idea wins." If some guy in the factory floor in Australia has the best idea, he gets the bonus, not the senior vice president. ...

Again, don't mistake conviction for thoroughness. ... I said to Paul O'Neill, "Did they know who you had become through those years at Alcoa when they brought you into this White House, because in some ways, here you are, a transparency zealot, arriving in Dick Cheney's 'Dome of Silence.'" And he's like, "Nope, I don't think they did." ...

Let's talk about the "reality-based community." ... What does it mean? ...

In 2002, when those Esquire pieces were running, at one point they decided in the White House that maybe I could be educated. ... I was essentially set up to have a meeting with somebody from the inner circle who was going to tell me things that I ought to understand.

The aide and myself [were talking about] the global news cycles, about the fact that when you send out a message, it gets picked up now by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, by news outlets around the world. If that message is strong and coherent, it does alter the landscape. It creates its own kind of tailwind, its own kind of force.

At this point, [the aide] looks at me and says, "You know, Ron, guys like you are in what we call the 'reality-based community.' ... But that's not the way the world really works now. We're an empire of sorts, and when we act, we create our own reality. ... We're history's actors, who are willing to do what's needed, and you can study what we do. And if you start being nice to us --" he says at the end, "-- which you haven't been, maybe one of us will deign to visit you at that seminar you teach up at Dartmouth in the summers, in your tattered tweed blazer."

I said: "God, you're so angry at me. You know, I have a job here, and it's one with a real history, and I'm trying to do it effectively. The fact is, if you come to my office and check the books on the shelves -- any one marked "history" -- you will know that people who believe what you just said end up in history's dustbin. Just check the books. Don't trust me; check history." And he just sort of smiled at me and says, "Well, we've agreed to disagree." ...

... How does something like the "reality-based community" translate with how they treat the media?

... I think the view is that those in the mealy, muddling, fact-based, discursive, reality-based community are going to get caught in the weeds. They trust facts too much. They will make the mistake that some presidential candidates make, thinking that you win presidential debates like you won a high school debate, on debater's points. You don't win it that way; I think a lot of failed candidates will now tell you that. You win it with message; you win it with attitude; you win it with [what's] emanating from your posture, from your confidence. You stick to message. That's their view. The fact is, we are a nuisance. ...

[Where is the administration at now? ... They recently brought on a new press secretary, Tony Snow. What did that signal to you?]

The administration is right now in a puzzled and quizzical period. I think they are seeing that the message machine has started to work less and less. ... Up to this point, with Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan, it was get someone up there just to fight the press, to be almost like a splatter board. ... I think with Tony Snow, they're saying that's not working well enough. ... He's an articulate, sort of elegant guy. He can fence pretty well, and he's certainly more appealing to the general public than a Scott McClellan. They already feel like they know him. He was on Fox. He's someone who's been in your living room. Now let's put him up at the White House briefing room, and we'll see how that works. We'll see if some of this is transferable. ...

I think in the last year, two years, there has been a strong countermovement among the press, saying, "Now, wait a second -- we get a seat at the table in the Bill of Rights." The founders knew about us. ... They understood that the free press is one of the key things that will make a democracy work. Most importantly, a free press is at the center of what the founders might have called the self-correcting processes of self-governance.

... The fact is that in a way, journalists become a kind of default in the system when you don't have substantive two-party back-and-forth inside of the government. ... The media has become more forceful, has begun to recognize its traditional historic role and act on it, and truth is infectious. When you get people standing up saying, "I'm going to just tell the truth; what do we have to fear?," it encourages others, and it creates a counterresponse. And that counterresponse, I think, is what's occurring. And I think on balance, it is a good thing for democracy. Some people may challenge that opinion, but I certainly believe it. ...

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