Just the Facts, Mr. President

The president has been taking time thinking about Afghanistan. I cannot see why this is bad. If he’s really thinking, he’s not dithering—thought can be harder than action, weighing plans as hard as choosing and executing one. A question of such consequence deserves pondering. A president ought to summon and hear counsel before committing or removing American troops.

The president is not, apparently, holding serious discussions with the most informed and concerned Republicans from Capitol Hill and what used to be called the foreign-policy establishment, and this, if true, is bad. The cliché that politics stops at the water’s edge is a fiction worth preserving. It’s a story that ought to be true and sometimes is true. There seems to be something in this president that resists really including the opposition. Maybe it’s too great a sense of self-sufficiency, or maybe he’s bowing to the reigning premise that we live in a poisonously partisan age, that the old forms and ways no longer apply. But why bow to that? To bow to it is to make it truer. The opposition is full of patriots who wish their country well. Bow to that.

Jack Webb as Joe Friday in “Dragnet”All will depend on the outcome. If his decision is sound and ends in success, history will not say he was indecisive and Hamlet-like. If his decision results in failure, history will not celebrate his wonderfully cerebral deliberative style.

President Obama will tell us his decision soon, probably in a speech. Because it will be big, and high-stakes, there will be people telling him he must do many things, including tug at the nation’s heart strings and move it with his vision. He really shouldn’t do this.

Now of all times, and in this of all speeches, sheer, blunt logic is needed. He must appeal not to the nation’s heart but to its brain. America is not in a misty-eyed mood, and in any event when the logic of a case is made, when the listener’s head is appealed to, his heart will become engaged, because the heart is grateful. He’s talking to me like I’m a person who thinks, like I’ve got an IQ. Thank you, Mr. President!

It is a secret of politics, a deep inside secret known to so few that even the most experienced operatives are unaware of it, that people are thinking creatures. They’re not “the masses,” waiting to be manipulated. They think, they calculate. This is true now more than ever.

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One day in October 1962, a young president had to tell America something dreadful. What had once been a friendly nation 90 miles from our shore, a nation we’d long and until very recently been used to seeing as peaceful and nonthreatening, was receiving from the Soviet Union nuclear weaponry that we had every reason to believe would be or were aimed at us. It was dreadful news—literally, dreadful.

The president had to tell his country, which didn’t have a clue, all about it, and announce in the same speech what exactly he was going to do and why exactly his plan was the right one and deserved support.

That was a lot of pressure for one speech to bear. John F. Kennedy and his speechwriter Ted Sorensen bore it by being direct, densely factual and no-frills. Hard to imagine a speech beginning more bluntly than this:

“Good evening, my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere. Upon receiving the first preliminary hard information of this nature last Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., I directed that our surveillance be stepped up. And having now confirmed and completed our evaluation of the evidence and our decision on a course of action, this government feels obliged to report this new crisis to you in fullest detail.”

He did, in a style that assumed the intelligence of those listening, that assumed as a matter of course their ability to follow an argument and absorb densely presented data.

It would be a real relief to hear this approach from anyone in public life today. Politicians in general no longer assume that we all more or less operate on the same intellectual level, with roughly the same amount of common sense. Instead they talk down to us.

Mr. Obama is in a drama not as urgent as Kennedy’s, but every bit as consequential. The president needs to tell the public what his plan is, how he came to it, how it will work, why it will work, why we should back it, and why the world should view it with sympathy.

He will be talking to a nation full of people tested by a difficult and dramatic decade and anxious about their daily lives. But they will be willing to make a last great push if that push seems thought through, serious and credibly argued for with believable facts. Americans know their taxes at all levels of government are going to go up, as will future spending, as will the national debt. It is one thing to make a war decision in a time of plenty, with the optimism and daring such a time brings. It is another to make a war decision in a time of constriction, and the anxiety that brings.

Which gets us back to style.

“Just the facts, ma’am,” the actor Jack Webb, playing Detective Joe Friday, used to say on the old TV show “Dragnet.” He’d be interviewing the witness to a crime and she—and it was always a she—would wring her hankie, embellish and share her feelings. Joe Friday would stop her. He didn’t need her emotion, he needed to hear what had happened to solve the crime: “Just the facts.”

That is the phrase for the moment. The facts, and a sound interpretation of the facts, are the only thing that will satisfy the public.