Why tell-all books are harmful

In my last piece, I explained the White House’s economic policy process as directed by the National Economic Council (NEC). The NEC process is a critical determinant of national policies, and one worthy of greater public appreciation. A new book from Steven Rattner has emerged, purporting to shed light on this process as it related to the auto industry bailout. The “tell-all” nature of published excerpts from the book is exactly the wrong way to go about this.

Rattner’s accounts of the sometimes-heated deliberations among President Obama’s advisors are entertaining and potentially informative for those of us on the outside looking in. That said, they are profoundly damaging to the president’s access to unvarnished counsel, and are therefore bad for everyone affected by the quality of the president’s decision-making.

To understand why merely requires that one envision a meeting between the president and his senior advisors, at which consequential economic policy decisions are to be discussed. Now imagine that a camera is placed in the room, and the participants are told that their conversation will be aired at some unspecified future date. The inhibiting effect of this upon candid, uncensored discourse is obvious.

Those who author these “tell-all” accounts sometimes justify their conduct in the name of public transparency. Americans have a right to know, after all, how their elected leaders are making decisions. But such publications actually lead to less transparency rather than more.

The president needs to hear his advisors’ unfiltered thoughts, including and perhaps especially those thoughts that might be publicly controversial. His advisors need to be free to brainstorm and to wander together down a few blind alleys before arriving at the policy that will be presented for public evaluation.

If the president cannot have these discussions with his advisors within a structured, thorough internal process, then he essentially has no alternative but to seek such counsel in ad hoc individual conversations, out of earshot of any potential “leakers.” This deprives the president of the assurance that all relevant ideas have made their way to him, and also deprives him of the opportunity to have these ideas vetted in vigorous internal debate.

It is, of course, important for the administration and for Congress to be publicly accountable not only for the decisions they make, but also that they demonstrate that they have fairly considered policy alternatives. But it is important to distinguish between genuine transparency and phony transparency.

Phony transparency occurs when public events are disingenuously misportrayed as the venues in which critical decisions are made — when those critical decisions were actually made elsewhere. Voters and the press often express frustration over the “canned” remarks of officials in public settings where greater candor would be refreshing. The contemporaneous publication of “tell-all” accounts is one sure way to inject such artifice into the few settings where candor is now operative.

When, earlier this year, the administration held a televised “health care summit” to which leaders from both parties were invited, no actual policy development took place during it. Elected officials instead arrived with carefully-rehearsed presentations, designed to best present their own policy prescriptions to the public.

There absolutely is a role for this manner of public argument. But no one should be deceived into thinking that the White House or Congressional leaders ever intended to actually develop their respective policies in that public setting. True negotiation, let alone policy development, will always to a certain extent occur within private conversations and meetings. If the president really wants to negotiate in good faith with the Republican leader, for example, he doesn’t invite CNN to listen in on the call.