On the Question of White House Kabuki

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Recently I mentioned an argument by Steve Clemons about the latest wrinkle in the endless back-and-forth between White House reporters and insiders on the White House staff. Since the dawn of time, reporters have been looking for the juicy anecdote on the lines of, "John Quincy Adams was worried. He took a sip of his Oolong Cha and turned to Vice President Calhoun. But could he really trust the wily South Carolinian? Ever since that fateful night in Philadelphia, the one they both tried to forget,...." One way or another, reporters have to make it worth the insider's while to share such information. This doesn't always or very often mean favor-trading of the crudest and greasiest kind. But always there is some assumed benefit to the source for providing this kind of dope. Personal esteem from the reporter -- a surprisingly important factor; a favorable tone to coverage of the source -- something very obviously seen in many Bob Woodward accounts; advancing the source's side in public or internal struggles; and so on.

Clemons said that during the Obama era the pressure for inside nuggets, with the resulting implicit favor-trading, was even greater than normal, because at the moment the market for Obama-insider books was hot. For the rest of his argument see this.

In response I got this question from a reader:

Is it generally the case that reporters actually get to witness authentic moments of intimacy, normalcy, candor, irreverence etc. on the part of presidents? Or does that "information" more or less exist on the same plane as, I don't know, a leak or a quotation on background or something.

From the perspective of the person who may want to buy such books 1-2-3 years down the road (I'm not even sure I am one), it would be useful to know whether these books are honest works of, well, reportage or if it's all some sort of kabuki [or] puppet show at five removes.

Kabuki.jpgA very good question, which once I thought about it made me realize that there is a day-vs-night distinction. During a campaign, reporters can and do see many of the juicy moments. Not all, but a lot. Campaigns are big and sprawling and chaotic. They can't afford to freeze anybody out, notably starting with the press. Everybody wants to talk about what's going on, and many people have seen some interesting version of reality. So campaign books can have a relatively high "saw it myself" quotient, and in general they are believable.

Once an Administration begins, however, the available vignettes are more like the five-remove puppet show. They represent administered rather than observed truth. By definition, reporters aren't there to see the big moments; also by definition, the people who are there to see have distinct self-interest in distributing certain versions of reality. By the time historians get around to sorting the evidence, they have a better chance of weighing the biases of the various early accounts. But when you read "inside" tales of Administrations still in power, bear in mind the back-story, motivation, and stylized kabuki-esque rituals behind any anecdote therein.
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Illustration is Portrait of Nakayama Tomisaburo, by Kabukido Enkyo, ca 1800, from Library of Congress collection, here.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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