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What if the Clinton White House had done this? [Updated]

What if the Clinton White House had done this? [Updated]

From time to time, Josh Gerstein of Politico has observed that the mainstream media has glossed over things the Obama administration has done without subjecting it to the firestorm of protest that greeted a comparable (often less egregious) action by the Bush administration.

Some of the items are quite serious: the targeted drone strike on an American citizen or the creative interpretation of the UNSCR on Libya or the prominent role in sensitive national security policymaking given to domestic political advisors. Others are less so: the frequent gaffes like misspelling "Ohio" or the priority given to golf games or the record-breaking prominence of fund-raising.

The issue is not necessarily that President Obama deserves condemnation for any of this. Rather, the issue is that the Obama administration seems to have no idea how generous the media’s double-standard is.

A recent report made me think that it is not only the Bush administration that is the victim of this double standard. The Clinton administration has some grounds for a complaint, too.

In a lengthy article exploring the extraordinary influence over policy wielded by Valerie Jarrett, the New York Times reports on an incident I have never heard about before:

"Ms. Jarrett cuts an elegant figure in the West Wing, with her pixie haircut and designer clothes. Aides say she can be thoughtful in little ways that matter, enlisting the president to rally staff members after political or personal setbacks. But she can also be imperious — at one event ordering a drink from a four-star general she mistook for a waiter — and attached to the trappings of power in a way some in the White House consider unseemly for a member of the staff.

A case in point is her full-time Secret Service detail. The White House refuses to disclose the number of agents or their cost, citing security concerns. But the appearance so worried some aides that two were dispatched to urge her to give the detail up.

She listened politely, one said, but the agents stayed." (emphasis added)

This is a remarkable anecdote, and it immediately called to mind one of the signature anecdotes from the Clinton White House. I wrote about it in my book because it took on iconic status as a symbol of the poor civil-military relations of the early Clinton era. Early on in the Clinton tenure, Lieutenant General McCaffrey was over at the White House for a meeting. As I described it:

"While there, he greeted a young Clinton staffer who allegedly replied, "I don’t talk to the military." McCaffrey presumably related this back at the Pentagon, for the story quickly spread throughout the Beltway community as apparent confirmation that the new commander in chief — who once wrote that he loathed the military — was surrounding himself with advisors who were viscerally anti-military. The White House, which was already reeling from the backlash against the president’s proposal to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military, quickly scrambled to undo the public relations damage of the petty snub. In a highly choreographed move, the president invited General McCaffrey to jog with him at a summit meeting, and the distinguished military officer agreed, thus graciously conferring absolution on his commander in chief."

Now civil-military experts can spend a lot of time in the bar debating how much of the McCaffrey story really happened the way it is usually reported, and if it did, how significant it really was. But there is no debate about how much attention the anecdote got (a google search on "I don’t talk to the military" and clinton generates some 3,690,000 hits).

Is there any doubt that if George Stephanopoulos had confused a 4-star general with a waiter it would have gotten huge play? (Yes, I know there were also reports about the Clinton team asking the White House military aides to serve canapes and drinks at social functions. That, too, got lots of attention, and in some ways might seem a better analogue to the Jarrett incident. But those particular military aides were substantially more junior and, in fact, had social duties as an important part of their regular functions, in addition to their core mission of carrying the "nuclear football," so I give the Clinton White House more slack on that.)

The context is different. As Tom Ricks has noted, the Obama White House has very fraught relations with the military, but they are nowhere near as fraught as Clinton’s were in 1993. Moreover, the Clinton-era snub seemed intentional whereas it was (apparently) only inadvertent in the Obama-era case.

Still, if the Jarrett anecdote gets no more commentary than the brief discussion I am giving it here, I think my fellow Clinton White House veterans can be excused if we start a new meme: "what if the Clinton White House had done this?"

Update: A friend who follows civil-military affairs just as closely as I do but with a better memory than mine, pointed out to me that the Jarrett incident was reported at the time. It is possible I saw one of those earlier reports and just forgot about it — my 90-plus-year-old parents like to say that their forgettery overwhelms their memory, and perhaps I am heading into the same zone. But I think it is more likely that I didn’t notice at the time and, certainly, the incident did not get extensive coverage the way the McCaffrey incident did.

In my post, I suggested two possible reasons for this, both of which I think are true. First, the McCaffrey anecdote was intrinsically more toxic and also fit more readily into an existing narrative of a President who "loathed" the military. Second, there is an undeniable double-standard, with the press giving the Obama Administration a pass for things they would have framed far more negatively in previous Administrations; as the Politico editor put it, the mainstream media is "quite smitten with the Obamas" and their coverage obviously reflects that fact.

My friend suggested yet a third reason: Gen Chiarelli, the Vice Chief of Staff for the Army, whom Jarrett confused with a waiter, went out of his way to defuse the incident. I think this was an important factor, and perhaps co-equal with the other two. At least initially, the McCaffrey incident went viral (if that term applies to those early days of the internet) because someone spread the story back in the halls of the Pentagon. The most likely person to spread that story was General McCaffrey himself. After it became notorious, McCaffrey collaborated with the Clinton White House in tamping down the furor, but it is plausible that McCaffrey did less than Chiarelli did in the initial stages to minimize the incident.