On the record, 13 months later?

Garry Wills dishes about an off-the-record dinner President Barack Obama had with Wills and eight other “presidential historians” about how history might guide him in his presidency.  He notes that he is now breaking “a silence I have observed for over a year, against my better judgment. . . . I have argued elsewhere that the imposition of secrecy to insure that the president gets “candid advice” is a cover for something else—making sure that what is said about the people’s business does not reach the people. But I went along this time, since the president said that he wanted this dinner to be a continuing thing, and I thought that revealing its first contents would jeopardize the continuation of a project that might be a source of information for him.”  Wills continues, rather cattishly

But there has been no follow up on the first dinner, and certainly no sign that he learned anything from it. The only thing achieved has been the silencing of the main point the dinner guests tried to make—that pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson. At least four or five of the nine stressed this. Nothing else rose to this level of seriousness or repeated concern. 

I’ve written here before about Wills’s concerns about Afghanistan, and his (in my opinion) strange feelings of betrayal by a man who promised to escalate the war in Afghanistan throughout his 2008 campaign.  But his particular pique at Obama about Afghanistan takes on a new dimension now that we know that Wills was consulted by the President.  Wills gave Obama some good advice in my view, most of which Obama has ignored–but hey:  he’s the President!  He owns it now.  I still don’t get why people are angry with Obama for actually following through on a campaign pledge.

Wills’s blog post raises some interesting questions about professional ethics and the line between history and journalism.  These “presidential historians” tend not to be Ph.D.-holding Professors with university affiliations, but rather writers of popular histories and/or people with more ties to journalism (like Wills) than to the academy.  Did Wills commit a major breach of journalistic ethics in going on the record with an off-the-record dinner?  (After all, he agreed to it at the time–is this as bad as burning a source?)  Are there different rules for “historians” than for other writers?  (I don’t think so.)  It sounds to me like he’s mostly just piqued that Obama didn’t take his advice, and that he wants to keep his distance from the Obama presidency.

0 thoughts on “On the record, 13 months later?

  1. Hmm. Here’s the thing. If Wills and the other guests were invited under the auspices of advising the president – i.e., this was not an interview and was never seen by any of the parties as such – I don’t really think that’s the same thing as agreeing to interview a source off-the-record. In the second case, keeping the source’s identity confidential is about getting information to the public without jeopardizing the person who was interviewed; in the first case, it strikes me that agreeing to keep the conversation confidential is more of a courtesy – a courtesy that was supposed to allow such dinners to be ongoing – and not necessarily a breach of *professional* ethics. Now, it’s surely tacky, but really all Wills “revealed” was his own statements, which seems to me to be within his rights to do and really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to anybody, since it’s not like those views have been top secret before now. The only thing that changes here is that he reveals that he told the president directly, and, well, who cares? I mean, why should the president have listened to him?

    And so that’s what I think Wills’ problem really is here, and why he was motivated to “speak out.” He’d thought, when he agreed to the dinner, that he and the others would really have the president’s ear. He thought they would have ongoing opportunities to meet with the president and to “advise” him. Since both of those things don’t seem to be the case, his ego is bruised and he’s decided to whine about it in public. Tacky? Sure. But not on the same level as burning a source.


  2. Excellent point about advising versus interviewing a confidential source, and Wills’s right to reveal what he said. (He kept the other historians’ confidence.) I agree with you that Wills seems to be pouting. He seems almost as irritated at being ignored as he is concerned about the ongoing war in Afghanistan!

    (And I do think he’s honestly and legitimately troubled about the war. I just don’t get why he had all of these delusional beliefs about Obama.)


  3. Agreed, a president can’t claim to be a “source.” But what has Wills written or done that would give him any credible gravitas at all in a predictive sense about the consequences of military policies in an era, and on a continent, that he’s never really studied? We wouldn’t sit still for that glib transfer of purported insight or foresight in a first year graduate seminar, without at least interrogating the offering in some detail. But once you’re elevated to the status of a “public intellectual,” anything goes. As Historiann notes, this wasn’t exactly a post-campaign policy double cross. The grading impulse never fades, though: “No sign that he learned anything from it,” so let’s cut his funding for next year. Does “presidential historian” mean you can advise any president, on any issue? Citizen surely does, admittedly.


  4. Indyanna–excellent point about expertise and why Wills (and perhaps the other historians) expected that their advice might be heeded. (And too true about the “impulse to grade!” Ha!)

    As for the expertise question: anyone who’s played RISK knows never to get into an Asian land war, man. You don’t need a roomful of inteleckshuals, public or otherwise, to know that.


  5. The wisdom of the Princess Bride. I once titled one of my world history lectures “Never get in a land war in Asia”. It’s appropriate.


  6. I’d guess it’s more than pouting. He’s been a cheerleader. His guy is losing popularity. Wills doesn’t want to go down with the ship. “Not my fault. I told him.”

    Yeah. Right.


  7. I guess Gary Wills is pretty smart, I don’t know, because I’ve never read anything by him. I guess its good that Presidents of the United States occasionally invite historians of other US presidents over for dinner. It gives the appearance of gravitas and seriousness to both parties.

    I’d be more impressed if a sitting President (who ever he or she is, whichever party) actually betrayed an interest in something other than American history. I would be more intrigued if Obama had invited Jonathan Spense or R Bin Wong over for drinks and dinner, instead of someone who does Twentieth Century US Political history.

    Because right now, when any sitting president wants to have dinner with a bunch of historians that do US presidential history, you know that they are pretty much thinking of themselves and their elusive ‘legacy’ first, and not really developing their sense of historical empathy.

    This is not to put the hate on American history. I just think sometimes its worthwhile to look at the history of another country, in a different time, essentially a completely unfamiliar society and just get your head in a different place. I know I sound like a DFH, but seriously, its good to step out your own historical context for awhile. Then you can come back to try and see it in a different light.

    And I agree with Indyanna and would take it a step further. Do historians really have a professional expertise that enables them to give competent policy advice? I mean, I can give some background on the Republic of Megalomania. I can tell some great stories about the Megalomanian Empire. I can probably explain some of the cultural context to policy makers. But really, that doesn’t mean I know or understand the political decisions of the Megalomanian Prime Minister better than the average journalist. In fact, I probably know less, because I spend most of my time reading nineteenth century newspapers, not current ones.


  8. I’m getting a different vibe from the fact that the meeting was off the record than you all are, I think. So far, most of my career has been in non-profits in Washington, so I’ve been in my fair share of off-the-record government meetings. Often, the reason for it being off the record is not really related to protecting sources.

    As far as I can tell from what Wills has written, a list of discussion topics was not prepared for this meeting, or disseminated afterwards, which leads me to believe that “off the record”, in the context of this meeting, was code for “please feel free to discuss topics in a wideranging manner, with a viewpoint to overarching themes/ideas instead of specific pet proposals, so that we can learn from the past without being in political danger should we follow your advice”. In other words, I bet the president was looking for more information about strategies/methods/things-to-keep-in-mind, and not specific directives on what to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Wills mentions in his article that Obama asked for more information when he brought up signing statements. I have a feeling Obama was hoping for a more substantive answer than “they’re illegal” – maybe something like a reference to how divisive and problematic Pres. Bush’s extensive use of signing statements was, or a discussion of how they muddy the waters for future law enforcement. Clarity of the law would be an issue of concern for the President, but hearing that it’s illegal from one presidential historian with no law degree when we’ve been doing it for ages without a peep from the White House counsel is just a waste of his time. Having the meeting be off the record means that they can talk a little more freely, but also that, should Obama have chosen afterwards to sharply curtail his use of signing statements or otherwise change his modus operandi he might not get pounced on in the press for being a flip-flopper. At the same time, if the meeting turned out to be useless for him, it preserves the dignity of the attendees.

    Oh, and “at least four or five of the nine” only means about half the group. Which means the group was divided, and the takeaway for the president is that Afghanistan is both important and divisive. Something tells me he already knew that, and was acting accordingly.


  9. I think it was an unspoken quid pro quo: presidential access in exchange for a tame press. I don’t think Wills gives a damn that his advice wasn’t followed. I think he’s pissed because he qave the quid, a tame press, and didn’t get the quo, presidential access. He says it right there: Obama broke the deal, so I’m no longer bound by it. I don’t think he was being catty at all.

    The question becomes: has Wills really bolted the barnyard for wild pastures or is he trying to coerce Obama into filling the feed trough?


  10. Thanks for your perspective, takingitoutside. I don’t mind that there are “off-the-record” meetings. I just wondered why Wills would agree to having one when he’s objected to them in the past, and then went ahead and disclosed his comments in the blog post. Seems conveeeenient, doesn’t it?

    I too wondered about his math. We only have his word to go on (so far)–but it might be true that Afghanistan was the most important theme of the night to more than just Garry Wills.

    Matt–I think you’re right that “presidential historians” are all about buffing the legacy. But, I think it’s good when presidents care about their future historical memory. That might make them less prone to disastrous decisions (see George W. Bush, who cares nothing about history, versus Bill Clinton, who cares a great deal about how he’ll be remembered. Me, I think Clinton was the better President. Then again, the only American historian who became President has a very mixed record: Woodrow Wilson!)

    As I recall, Bush called in some scholars of modern Central Asia to brief him on Afghanistan and the Taliban in the leadup to the invasion in November, 2001. That didn’t do much good, in my view. I agree with you that it would be great if presidents consulted experts in the history and culture of more than just U.S. Americans, though–and maybe not just before launching an imperial war or invasion? But, we’re talking about the U.S. of A.

    I don’t get the sense that Obama cares much about U.S. foreign policy, or that he has a vision he wants to impose on it. He’d like to preside and be admired by the people of the world, but he knows he can’t do much unless and until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are brought to an end. I’m not sure what his vision is beyond that. He seems to delegate a lot to Clinton, but taking key hotspots out of her portfolio (Afghanistan, Israel) appears to have introduced less clarity and more chaos into the whole situation.


  11. And, to Emma: I don’t think Obama cares what the NYRB and its 3,000 readers think about him much at all. Wills knows that he’s irrelevant now, as you point out. I think he’s trying to get over a massive Hopium overdose.


  12. I fail to understand the core of the exchange. Dealing with the niceties of Wills exchange with Obama and the fine definition of the nature of the exchange is totally subjective. Everyone can see in the meeting what she wants. We cannot find out how Obama defined the meeting; it’s all given through Wills’ subjective report. Personally, I don’t care much what Wills feels or wants.

    We do, however, know the we are stuck in Afghanistan with no hope for a solution.


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