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May 5, 2004
Powell: I'm No Casualty

Colin Powell, appearing on Larry King last night and reported on CNN this morning, rejected the notion that his tenure as Secretary of State has made him a "casualty of war" and that he enjoys his job despite some difficult days:

In an interview with CNN's Larry King, Powell disputed the popular caricature of him as a frustrated and sidelined figure soldiering along in an administration where he's not appreciated.

"I enjoy serving my country. I enjoy this job," Powell said. "But are there difficult days, are there tough times? Sure. These are tough issues. They're tough issues to get your mind around ... There are debates. Sometimes you win debates, sometimes you lose debates."

"That's not the point. In this job ... the issue is not to win or lose a particular debate. The issue is to make sure that the president gets the very best information he can get, honestly, in order to make decisions for the American people."

His response counters an upcoming article in GQ, presumably stuck between the hair gel ads and a review of Tommy Hilfiger underwear, that accuses the administration of turning Powell into a depressed and increasingly irrelevant scold due to the war in Iraq. This article, linked by Drudge, interviews a number of people on the record, including the Secretary of State himself. However, the interviews and their presentation are so histrionic that they defy belief, and it becomes quickly apparent that Wil S. Hylton's pulp-fiction style intends on delivering a message whether he hears it or not.

For instance, Powell's interview is held off until almost the end of the article, prior to which Hylton treats us to an amateurish buildup of his own opinions of Powell and other members of the administration. In fact, in a 6500-word article on a top-notch interview, it takes Hylton 3500 words of his own editorializing to get to any substantive portion of the actual Powell interview. After this lengthy and tiresome prologue, Hylton then spends just 1200 words on his primary subject, and makes an interesting admission in the last paragraph of that section:

Soon Powell was offering advice on how to attack the flank in battle, providing a glimpse of the exclusive club made up of the world's foreign ministers, and all the while brushing aside my questions, such as when I asked about whether he wanted to quit the administration and he snapped, "I never speculate on that," careening into a five-minute dissertation on China. When it was finally over, he stood up to say good-bye, flashed me a sly smile, and said, "You didn't get as much substance as you might have wanted."

In fact, the only time the subject of Powell's supposed dissatisfaction with the job comes up is in that paragraph. Hylton only detailed reporting of Powell for quotation is in reference to an obscure incident in Spanish-Moroccan diplomacy over disputed possession of an island off the coast of North Africa. This anecdote takes up two-thirds of Hylton's report on his interview with the main subject of his piece.

Unfortunately, other administration officials aren't so fortunate. Hylton writes about Condoleezza Rice, for instance, with such venom that it utterly reveals his biases:

I got a small but precious glimpse of the show when, shortly after I interviewed Colin Powell, I met with Condoleezza Rice in her office at the White House, a bright and white and airy room that looked like a wedding cake turned inside out, where Rice sat prim and pretty beneath an Impressionist painting in a black business suit and bright red lipstick, smiling politely as she lied through her teeth about the war between the State Department and the Pentagon, as though no such conflict could possibly exist, not in her immaculate White House, and the century-long battle between the two agencies had, in fact, come to a screeching halt on January 20, 2001, when she and the Texan came to town. ...

"There isn't some kind of little DOD [Department of Defense] cabal out there," she snapped, "saying things to Taiwan that the rest of the government isn't saying." ...

And yet even after I had read Wilkerson's quote aloud to Rice, she refused to budge from her script. "As a government," she said weakly, "we use all of the elements together in order to effect policy. They're working always in concert."

Even from a strict writing perspective, "she said weakly" is poor structure; using adverbs in that manner gets beaten out of you in first-year Composition or Creative Writing in college, and is usually only seen in Harry Potter novels. Here, of course, it's used to indicate that Hylton broke her down during his interview with her. More examples:

When asked about Powell's relationship with Vice President Cheney Woodward's book described the two as barely on speaking terms; Rice then claimed that they are "more than on speaking terms: They're friendly...very friendly" [Powell "mentor" Harlan] Ullman said, "I can tell you firsthand that there is a tremendous barrier between Cheney and Powell, and there has been for a long time. It's like McCain saying that his relations with the president are 'congenial,' meaning McCain doesn't tell the president to go fuck himself every time." Then he added, "Condi's a jerk." ...

When pressed, Rice acknowledged that it might have been possible for U.N. ambassador John Negroponte to have made the speech, but insisted, "There's really nobody else that can do it." When I pressed a little further, asking, "So there was never a discussion?" she spat out, "No. Everybody said it would have to be Colin," adding a moment later, "We wanted to have enough of a profile. It was an important presentation. Extremely important presentation. So we wanted to have enough profile."

Hylton gets even more hysterical when he recounts his interview with Richard Armitage, putting in enough exclamation points that his article comes dangerously close to resembling a National Enquirer story on Bennifer rather than a supposedly serious piece on Colin Powell and the politics of foreign policy:

"Four days!" Armitage practically shouted when I mentioned Powell's visit to the CIA. "Four days! And three nights! The secretary is a man of honor! He values being credible. To be credible, you have to be able to stand behind what you say. That's why he fieldstripped it. Just like, you ever heard of fieldstripping cigarettes back in Nam?" He was referring to the process of tearing up smoked cigarettes so they will decompose quickly and leave no trace for the enemy. "That means tear it up and shake the tobacco that's left to the wind," Armitage said. "He fieldstripped it."

"On the last day and night [at the CIA], the secretary called me, and he said, 'I need a little extra reinforcement.' So I went out there and spent Sunday and Sunday night with him. He needed someone. He was the voice throwing everything out, and he wanted another loud voice at the table."

The amateurish writing, the 3500-word editorial prologue, the lack of substance in Hylton's interview with his subject, and the obvious contempt in which he holds everyone but Powell and Powell's staffers should have indicated to GQ that Hylton's effort should have been shelved, and Hylton himself sent back to the men's-cologne beat, where he could feel free to indulge his penchant for editorializing in the midst of his reporting and use as many exclamation points and adverbs as his heart desires. I suspect GQ hoped to put a designer tuxedo in the window with this article, and wound up with nothing more than an off-the-rack knockoff of a mediocre Joshua Micah Marshall blog entry.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 5, 2004 5:58 AM

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