We’re all used to a certain amount of doublespeak and bureaucratese in government hearings. That’s as old as forever. But in the past year of listening to testimony from government officials, there is something different about the boredom and indifference with which government testifiers skirt, dodge and withhold the truth. They don’t seem furtive or defensive; they are not in the least afraid. They speak always with a certain carefulness—they are lawyered up—but they have no evident fear of looking evasive. They really don’t care what you think of them. They’re running the show and if you don’t like it, too bad.
And all this is a new bureaucratic style on the national level. During Watergate those hauled in and grilled by Congress were nervous. In Iran-Contra, Olllie North was in turn stoic, defiant and unafraid to make an appeal to the public. But commissioners and department heads now—they really think they’re in charge. They don’t bother to fake anxiety about public opinion. They care only about personal legal exposure. They do not fear public wrath.
All this became apparent in the past year’s IRS hearings, and was pronounced in Tuesday’s Secret Service hearings.
Julia Pierson , the director, did not seem at all preoccupied with what you thought of her. She was impassive, generally unresponsive and unforthcoming. She didn’t bother to show spirit or fiery commitment. She was the lifeless expression of consultant-guided anti-truth.
No question was answered straight and simple. Everything was convoluted and involved extraneous data, so that listeners couldn’t follow the answer and by the end couldn’t remember the question. I am certain government witnesses do this deliberately—the rounded words, long sentences that collapse, the bureaucratic drone—so reporters will fall asleep and fail to file. An hour in Tuesday I expected the TV camera to slowly slide toward the ceiling, with the screen covered in a cameraman’s drool. “Mistakes were made.” “Our security plan was not properly executed.” Yes, you could say that of a story in which a nut with a knife burst into the White House and ran around the ceremonial rooms. Ms. Pierson neglected to mention in her testimony the story that would break shortly after she finished: Secret Service agents in Atlanta a few weeks before had allowed on to an elevator carrying the president a private security man, who reportedly jumped around taking pictures and was later found to be carrying a gun.
But does anybody in the government feel it is necessary to be truthful about anything anymore? Does anyone in the federal government ever think about concepts like “taxpayers” and “citizens” and their “right to know”?
Everything sounds like propaganda. That will happen when government becomes too huge, too present and all-encompassing. Everything almost every level of government says now has the terrible, insincere, lying sound of The Official Line, which no one on the inside, or outside, believes. The other day, during the big Centers for Disease Control news conference on the Dallas Ebola case, a man from one of the health agencies insisted in burly (and somehow self-satisfied) tones that the nation’s health is his group’s No. 1 priority. And I thought, just like a normal person, “No, your No. 1 priority is to forestall a sense of panic. To do that you’ll say what you need to say. Your second priority, connected to the first, is to assert the excellence and competence of the agency with which you are associated. Your third priority is to keep the public safe.”
Everyone who spoke was very smooth. “I think ‘handful’ is the right characterization,” said the CDC director to a Wall Street Journal reporter who asked if the sick man had contact with others before he was hospitalized. (That became “up to 100” the next day.) The officials were relentlessly modern-bureaucratic in their language. They have involved all “stakeholders.”
Was the sick man an American or a foreign national? “The individual was here to visit family.” Oh. The speaker’s tone implied he’ll tell us more down the road if he decides we can handle it.
What about those who traveled on the same plane as the man, and which flight was it? “Ebola is a virus. It’s easy to kill if you wash your hands,” said CDC chief Thomas Frieden . You are only infectious once you are sick, not before.
Ebola will not, all agreed, produce a full-fledged American epidemic. “We are stopping it in its tracks in this country,” Dr. Frieden said.
That may be true. But nobody thinks it because government doctors and professionals said it. Americans do not have confidence in what The Officials tell them anymore.
This is not only because we live in a cynical age. In this case it’s because people know the truth always contains uncomfortable elements, and in the CDC news conference very few uncomfortable elements were allowed.
They say the only thing you have to fear is personal contact, but they shy away from clearly defining personal contact. They suggest it has to do with bodily fluids, so you immediately think of the man sneezing next to you on the train. They do not want to discuss the man sneezing next to you on the train.
They did not want to discuss who the sick man was, his nationality, exactly what flight he came in on. They are good to their global masters! Sorry, just reacting like a normal person. There was a persistent sense the professionals had agreed to be chary with information that might alarm America’s peasants and make them violent.
We are locked in some loop where the public figure knows what he must pronounce to achieve his agenda, and the public knows what he must pronounce to achieve his agenda, and we all accept what is being said while at the same time everyone sees right through it. The public figure literally says, “Prepare my talking points,” and the public says, “He’s just reading talking points.” It leaves everyone feeling compromised. Public officials gripe they can’t break through the cynicism. They cause the cynicism.
The only people who seem to tell the truth now are the people inside the agencies who become whistleblowers. They call a news organization, get on the phone with a congressman’s staff. That’s basically how the Veterans Affairs and Secret Service scandals broke: Desperate people who couldn’t take the corruption dropped a dime. What does it say about a great nation when its most reliable truth tellers are desperate people?
Sometimes it looks as if everyone in public life is in showbiz, only showbiz with impermeable employee protections. Lois Lerner of IRS fame planted the question, told the lie, took the Fifth, lost the emails and stonewalled. Her punishment for all this was a $100,000-a-year pension for the rest of her life. Imagine how frightened she was. I wonder what the Secret Service head’s pension will be?
A nation can’t continue to be vibrant and healthy when the government controls more and more, and yet no one trusts a thing the government says. It’s hard to keep going that way.