Weapon of Mass Communication

If not for sixteen specious words about African uranium, George W. Bush's post-war P.R. would be humming along. Instead, the man responsible for coordinating the White House media effort, 32-year-old Dan Barlett, has spent the past few months in crisis mode. Can he get the message—and the messenger—back on track?
The kid stays in the picture: This page, watching the president hold forth on Fox News.
Photograph by Chris Buck

At 1:45 p.m. on Friday, July 18, White House communications director Dan Bartlett strode into the James S. Brady Briefing Room to confront a large, hostile, and deeply skeptical group of reporters. The issue in play was an erroneous assertion by George W. Bush in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” While that statement was true in the narrowest sense— the British had indeed reported it—the U.S. intelligence community had serious doubts; a similar line had been cut from an earlier presidential speech. But Bush had uttered those sixteen words anyway, and then the White House had compounded the problem by blaming the Central Intelligence Agency, a spectacular tactical mistake that triggered an ugly political catfight. This was serious stuff: The president’s honesty was being called into question. The press, which already suspected that the government’s intelligence on weapons of mass destruction had been sexed up to serve Bush’s political agenda, had gone into overdrive. Bartlett, an affable 32-year-old Texan with all-American good looks, was there to take his best shot at cleaning up the mess.

The orgy of finger-pointing and recrimination was definitely not business as usual. Like his former boss and mentor, Karen Hughes, Bartlett ran a tight ship. The 52-person communications shop he controlled was famous for its lockdown discipline and airtight message control. Reporters often complained about how stingy it was with information and how stubbornly it clung to the designated message du jour. Now all hell was breaking loose. While tape recorders clicked on in the Brady Briefing Room, Bartlett—speaking on background, as he often does, as a “senior administration official”—launched into a marathon defense of the war. He not only had to deflect criticism of the bogus uranium story; he had to rebut the larger implication that the entire justification for the war was tainted.

To help make his case, he had persuaded the intelligence agencies to declassify portions of a National Intelligence Estimate, which included their principal summary of Iraq’s weapons programs. Bartlett showed reporters the parts where the agencies had overwhelmingly agreed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He showed them where it said that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa, and he showed them the State Department’s claim that those reports were “highly dubious.” The thrust of the briefing was: Look, we didn’t make this stuff up; we got it from our intelligence agencies, and yes, there was some doubt about the uranium deal, but it wasn’t conclusive. After an hour of questions, Bartlett believed he had done as much as he could to reassure the press of the White House’s sanctity of purpose. “When I gave the briefing,” he said, “I thought I was giving them everything we knew.”

To his chagrin, the administration had made yet another set of assertions that turned out to be wrong. Four days later he was back in a briefing room—this time the Roosevelt Room, which holds far more reporters, and this time on the record—to earnestly explain why the sixteen words were mainly the White House’s fault after all. Over the weekend White House officials had discovered that George Tenet, the director of the CIA, had told them himself that the uranium story was bogus not once but three times.

“It was like being punched in the gut,” Bartlett told me when I interviewed him in his West Wing office in August, describing the feeling of being at the center of the media storm. “Every time we thought we had it under control, something else popped up. There was never an intention to shift the blame onto the CIA. But that was clearly how the rank and file perceived it.” Bartlett also insisted that part of the problem was timing: When the news broke—triggered by then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer’s concession that the sixteen words should not have been in the speech—Bush, Bartlett, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice happened to be in South Africa, and Tenet was on the West Coast. Bartlett was thus unable to follow the first rule of damage control: Put all the players together in the same room and plan strategy.

“There is a sense,” he said with a sigh, “as the frenzy comes upon you, almost of resignation. You know it is going to run its cycle. The question is, how long?”

Considering what Bartlett does for a living, which is to get the spit knocked out of him with alarming regularity by the velociraptors of the media, he seems altogether too nice. You might expect instead someone far more layered, riven, scarred. You might expect someone with a world-weary and perhaps faintly self-indulgent sense of the great burden he bears. You would not be quite ready for this pleasant escapee from a Norman Rockwell painting, this self-possessed former chapter president of the Future Farmers of America who says he has never harbored any strong ambition to be, or to do, anything in particular. Sitting in the quiet, sunny office he inherited from Hughes, it is hard to imagine that he spends a good deal of his eighty-hour-plus weeks engaging in “crisis communications,” a White House euphemism for “what you do when you’ve got a thousand reporters breathing down your neck.” And yet, by virtue of several large accidents of fate, a sui generis relationship with Bush, a taste for combat, a rare ability to schmooze reporters without compromising his boss, and a talent for putting out political fires, this hyperbaric corner of the West Wing is emphatically his domain.

Aside from his youthfulness, his wholesomeness, and the question of what such an even-keeled guy is doing in this graveyard of the well-intentioned, the reason to be interested in Bartlett is that he is the linchpin of the most far-reaching, tough-minded, and technologically advanced government communications operation in history—one whose sophistication, sweep, and scope make even the silken spinners of the Reagan era seem primitive by comparison. While Reagan’s

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