Why tell-all books are harmful

Charles Blahous Contributor
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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.

Accounts like Mr. Rattner’s do not advance the cause of genuine transparency; they instead further a breed of phony transparency. If the president cannot receive candid advice during his own policy sessions without his staff members fearing leaks, then those musings will be driven out of those policy sessions and into private individual conversations. The inevitable result is that even the president’s own staff will know less about the president’s thinking than they otherwise would. This is not transparency.

Mr. Rattner’s published account is especially troubling in that he describes a heated exchange between two senior advisors who still continue to serve President Obama. For these advisors, the concern about whether their counsel to the president will be broadcast is no longer abstract; it is a troubling reality that may thereafter inhibit the content and manner of their advice. The revelations are especially poor form in that we are asked to take Mr. Rattner’s word that his account is accurate; the two advisors involved are not currently at full liberty to present their sides of the story.

By no means does this imply that the ideas considered and rejected by the president should be withheld from public view. But as I found in writing my own book on Social Security policy-making, it is entirely possible to provide a thorough account of the ideas considered without getting into who said what in which meeting. (This is one implicit reason why presidential archives are not opened for historians for some years, after which doing so is less likely to undercut the rigor of ongoing policy deliberation.)

One hesitates to delve into the specific episode related by Rattner in his book, for fear of further publicizing his subjective take on a private exchange between individual advisors. The episode, however, does speak to a subject of legitimate general interest: specifically, the process by which the NEC acquaints the president with the range of views among his team.

In any well-functioning policy apparatus, it is rare that opinions on all details of a policy decision will be unanimous. The NEC director may make a determination that sufficient agreement exists to present the president with a recommendation fairly portrayed as a majority or consensus view. Even if this is the case, however, it is vital that alternative views be presented to the president — especially if at least one of his own advisors has found it convincing.

The reasons for this are various. One is that even if the president agrees with the majority position, he needs to be familiar with the strongest argument that will be made against it. A second is that the credibility of the NEC process depends on all participants trusting it; those in the minority must know they can make their case to the president if they so choose. Third, and most importantly, the president might well side with a minority against a majority. (If John F. Kennedy had only been presented with the majority opinion of his own advisors during the Cuban missile crisis, there might have been an air strike that precipitated a disastrous and preventable nuclear exchange.)

There are various ways for the process to break down. One is for the advisor with the dissenting view to take it to the president without working through the NEC process. Another is for the president to be advised only of the majority view without a structured presentation of the extent of disagreement. These are equally problematic, and the NEC must take equal care to prevent both. Either can lead to uninformed decision-making, as well as bad feelings among the team.

The bottom line is that no matter how the process is conducted, the president’s advisors need to be able to offer him their counsel — and yes, even to have heated exchanges in the hallway — without later reading a transcript of their remarks in the newspapers. If they cannot, the presidency and the national interest are harmed.

This article originally appeared on Economics21.org.

Charles Blahous was recently confirmed to serve as one of two public trustees for the Social Security and Medicare programs, and is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.