Press Box

Madeleine K. Albright Through the Spin Cycle

Washington’s season cycle is unvarying. In the summer, it gets so hot folks stir-fry spark plugs on the sidewalk. Come fall, the rich and the powerful abase themselves for a seat in the Washington Redskins’ owners box. In winter, snow flurries shutter the city. And in spring, pollen eruptions make the press corps so itchy and bitchy that they compose whack jobs about the government officials they’ve spent months building up.

Today’s springtime whack-job recipient, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, gets hers from John Lancaster of the Washington Post. Lancaster’s Page One piece applies the usual methodology for knocking a Washington god off his pedestal: He strings together not-for-attribution quotations to prove that the once universally worshiped (even by Jesse Helms!) Albright is no longer “at the top of her game.”

Of course, the Post understands too perfectly the journalistic arc from hero to chump. A scant six years ago, the paper’s indefatigable media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote about the similar journey from toast to roast of another female Clinton cabinet member. Kurtz wrote, “[T]he media have a way of launching public figures into the stratosphere and then yanking them back to Earth without a parachute. In what has become a classic Washington ritual, the press pack has suddenly opened fire on Reno, often using anonymous quotes for ammunition.”

Using Kurtz as our guidebook, let’s review the Lancaster story. In order to run Albright down, Lancaster must first list her accomplishments, which are substantial:

A few months into her tenure, she adroitly worked the phones to secure Senate approval of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a landmark treaty that had languished under her predecessor, Warren G. Christopher. She presided over a successful reorganization of the State Department’s massive bureaucracy. And in what is arguably her greatest triumph, Albright took the lead in selling Russia–and then the Senate–on the expansion of NATO to include formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe.           

Lancaster even quotes Balkans specialist Ivo Daalder, who worked for the National Security Council during Clinton’s first term, saying, “She got Kosovo right.” But then, Lancaster turns to his unnamed sources to document

the dominant impression from dozens of conversations with current and former colleagues, foreign policy experts, congressional officials and career diplomats. … Albright has not measured up to the high–and perhaps unrealistic–expectations that attended her debut as the first female secretary of state.

Only one of the experts, officials, and diplomats goes on the record about Albright’s shortcomings–Peter F. Krogh, Albright’s former employer at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. That Krogh dislikes Albright isn’t news. As Lancaster reports, he attacked her in the Wall Street Journal not long ago. Lancaster scares up two on-the-record sources, Zbigniew Brzezinski (National Security Adviser during the Jurassic Period) and Daalder, to take general swipes at the Clinton administration’s foreign policy, but neither dings Albright herself. (Lancaster does write that Daalder “has been sharply critical of Albright” in non-Kosovo areas, but, mysteriously, gives no examples.)

When Lancaster turns to the unnamed sources pummeling Albright, he records “a prominent foreign policy expert and academic who knows Albright well,” “a former NSC staff member who recently left the administration,” “one senior diplomat,” “a ranking diplomat,” “critics,” “a senior State Department official,” and a “Republican staff member” on the Hill.

Of course, not all unnamed sources in newspaper stories are loathsome or immediately suspect. Think of the valiant whistleblower inside a corporation or an agency who puts himself at risk to uncover criminal perfidy. But the Post keeps a unique subspecies of unnamed source alive, the Washington coward, who punishes his political enemies from the safety of anonymity. The Washington coward thrives inside the Beltway because he knows that journalists outnumber sources. (In almost any other American city, the reverse is true.) The Washington coward bargains from a position of power because he knows that the Post will compete in any race to the bottom for the unattributed quotation. As part of his calculation, he favors the Post because of its enormous influence and circulation.

The late Ann Devroy, a formidable Post political reporter, excelled at the Washington- coward form, stacking unnamed sources in her stories like green cordwood. Reading Devroy’s pieces critically, it was impossible to determine whether she was reporting the news or taking one side in a political feud. Likewise, Lancaster could be 1) on target about Albright’s “Waning Influence at Foggy Bottom,” 2) thumping Albright because it’s the only story left to be written about her, and therefore time to yank “her back to Earth without a parachute,” or 3) totally in the bag for his unnamed sources. The closest he comes to demonstrating his thesis of her waning influence, besides peddling anecdotes about who has the president’s ear, is in reporting that the foreign affairs budget has only “registered a modest increase” during her tenure and is still below its 1985 peak. That’s a thin thread to hang a secretary of state (or her reputation) by.

The good news for Albright is that the news cycle is forgiving. Who knows what rabbit she’ll pull out of one of her funky hats in the next nine months? Why, the Washington Post might even be calling her the comeback kid.