Insiderism in Action

Bob Woodward got himself a nice little scoop, an audio recording from spring 2011 in which Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland delivers a message from her boss Roger Ailes to David Petraeus, encouraging him to run for president, among other things. The facts that Ailes sees himself as a Republican kingmaker and that Fox is not just an observer but a participant in American politics are news to no one, of course. Nor is McFarland's fawning tone a surprise, nor the fact that she asks Petraeus whether there is "anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?" (Petraeus responds that he'd like the coverage to be a bit more fawning). Others have pointed to various parts of the conversation, particularly when McFarland passes on Ailes' advice that Petraeus should only accept the job of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, since from there the Obama administration would feel that they couldn't contradict him, which would put him in a good position to run for president (Petraeus replies that he'd also like to be CIA director, the post he eventually got).

But there was another part of the conversation I found most interesting. "Can I give you the gossip that I picked up?" McFarland says. She then proceeds to lay out what she has learned, as a well-connected insider, about the Obama administration's hidden agenda:

Obama wanted to do Obamacare, which is a sixth of the economy. He wanted to do environment, which is basically controlling all aspects of the economy. And education, which is the future. So he pushed for Obamacare, got that done. They didn't anticipate [the] 2010 results, but he now is going to lie low, and be very centrist, so that they win in '12, and then they get the other two. Now, what they need—and this is not from the Chiefs, this is from political people—what they need to cement it so that it doesn't get reversed is a third term. And that means 2016, they need to win, the Democrats need to win, and they need to win with their guy, their kind of guy. So that then you have this stuff is locked in place for a generation—nobody can come in, like Reagan came in, and reverse. And that's their plan. You're their problem.

Obama's sinister plan is finally revealed! See if you can follow along here: First, pass legislation advancing your ideological goals. Next, keep winning elections to prevent the other party from overturning your accomplishments. Diabolical! Those kind of Machiavellian machinations have no place in a great democracy like ours.

OK, so maybe the idea that it's diabolical is a subtle undertone rather than McFarland's explicit point. But I think this kind of thing happens a lot with people who work in some capacity in politics: there's always a lot you don't know, and it's tempting to present your rather pedestrian analysis of events as something born of insider knowledge. McFarlane is a national security analyst and a Republican, so chances are she knows no more about this White House's planning on domestic policy than the cab driver who took her to the airport for her trip to Afghanistan.

But in Washington, as in many other places, knowing things few other people know is highly valued. That knowledge can be substantive expertise that comes from lengthy study and experience, or it can be the inside scoop, which comes from knowing the people who know things that they're not telling other people and having them tell you. When the two come together, then you've got something (that combination is, ideally, what reporters can offer their readers). In this case, McFarland is trying to show the general that she's in the know. I can't blame her for that—we all all would like to be considered impressive people, particularly by someone we admire (and her admiration for Petraeus is plain). She no doubt thought that by offering Petraeus "gossip" about political matters, she could be of use to him, which he might appreciate. She didn't have any information to offer, so she gave him what pretty much anyone could have given him. That doesn't make her a villain, but it's still interesting to see this kind of interaction play out.

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