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The Bush Media Whitewash
July 26, 2001
by Jeffrey Kramer

Have you read the report of the big splash I made at the recent cosmology conference in Italy? Here it is:

GENOA, Italy, July 21 -- Just before a 40-minute meeting with Stephen Hawking this afternoon, Jeffrey Kramer told reporters they would discuss the prospects for a theory of quantum gravitation, considered one of the great unfinished projects of modern physics, and have "a very honest and open dialogue" about the formation of black holes.

But when Kramer got behind closed doors, quantum gravity never came up, and the two physicists had no substantive discussion about the theory of black-hole formation that Kramer has proposed, according to a senior administration official. (Mr. Kramer has publically speculated that black holes form because "they just like it black out there, where it's dark; you know, when you have a lot of darkness, things get blacker.")

The omission was a small glimpse of what European physicists and U.S. officials described today as Kramer's effort to bring his own inimitable brand of Brooklyn sweet talk to the world stage at this weekend's meeting of Nobel prize-winning astrophysicists.

Kramer aides say he likes to focus on guiding principles, not specifics. Summit participants said he carried that approach to a series of meetings with the physicists, preferring to focus on common ground and trying to win them over with personality rather than mastery of calculations.

While the meetings were private, the picture-taking sessions here often found Kramer playing a familiar role, emphasizing his upbeat nature. On the opening day of the summit, he winked, he patted backs, he mugged. He kept to his tradition of bestowing nicknames on new acquaintances, jovially referring to the wheelchair-bound Hawking as "Lance," in reference to the current leader of the Tour de France bicycle race.

In describing the meetings, other world leaders and their aides often remarked on how friendly Kramer seemed, but could not point to an issue on which he had changed anyone's mind. or indeed left any lasting impression on it. Nobel laureate Subramanyan Chandrasekhar was encouraged by Kramer's comments that "research is a good thing, especially in trying to weasel out of difficult facts," but was left unsure of what type of research budget Kramer would accept, or indeed if he would contribute anything at all towards the research regarded as absolutely necessary in solving key cosmological problems. (Kramer's aides later explained that he meant to refer to "ferreting out" difficult facts.)

An Italian physicist who had read minutes of several conference sessions said Kramer "is showing a lot of awareness of our common interests." The physicist added, "A lot of what he says is along the lines, 'Okay, look, here I can't follow, but if you can do something there, I'll promise to have someone get back to you about it later.'" The official also said he was surprised to stick his head into the meeting room and "very often" see Kramer ebulliently telling knock-knock jokes to Russian cosmologist Andrei Linde, and expressed hope that this could lead to a new level of international cooperation and a new golden age of science.

After Kramer's trip to Europe last month, several top European officials complained that Kramer promised to consult with them about quantum physics and the black-hole question, when in fact he had already made up his mind. Before this week's trip, Kramer told European reporters his approach would be to "just tell people what I think" because "that's the way science works; you have to stick to what you believe is right, no matter what anybody else tries to tell you, or what kind of evidence they bring out."

Kramer was not in a combative mood, despite the criticism, said a senior aid who spent most of the weekend coaching the Brooklynite. "He tends to take a positive view," the official said. "A lot of these are discussions about: How do we accomplish X? And how do we accomplish Y?

He approaches those things with a great deal of energy." The aide chided the one reporter who began a piece by noting that Kramer has never gone beyond high-school geometry, saying "we expect this kind of partisan sniping from time to time, but the great majority of Americans trust Mr. Kramer's heart , and want him to succeed abroad."

Kramer's approach, however, can raise questions about his ability to deal with complex topics. Today, after reporters elicited a long list of subjects Kramer did not discuss in one-on-one meetings with Hawking and Linde - time, space, gravity, atoms, stars, forces of nature, numbers larger than two digits - the briefer was asked what Kramer did bring up in the meeting with Linde.

"Mr. Kramer brought up the sun, that was one sentence, said he agreed with Linde that it was hot," the briefer said. A senior researcher who was paid an undisclosed sum to be barricaded with Kramer behind closed doors this weekend, said the astrophysics novice seems to be learning fast. "He's very well briefed, and internalizes it all," the official said. "In these meetings, he works completely without notes." (Details of the researcher's consulting contract with Kramer have not been disclosed, but such contracts typically forbid the consultant from engaging in any conduct which might in any way damage the image of his client.) * * *

That's the report. What kind of headline would you expect to accompany it? Probably something like "Foolish Amateur Drowns in Sea of his own Nonsense." Or, if the headline-writer felt compelled to keep to the great tradition of journalistic objectivity, despite the obvious temptation to be blunt about the ridiculous fraud he had just seen described, we might read "European Astrophysics Panel Hears American."

The Washington Post has just published their report on Bush's meeting with the G-8. The details of that report (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A32235-2001Jul21.html) were, I submit, close enough to the parody of it you have just read to make it clear that no particular skill was required to compose the parody. (Yes, I know: politics is not nuclear physics. But climatology is science; pollution and health studies are science; nuclear defense systems are, as the saying goes, rocket science; and George W. Bush went to Europe to "discuss" all these matters.) Here are some of the common elements:

Bush, like myself, somehow had "a very honest and open dialogue" on important topics without having to go through the tedious business of "substantive discussion." Bush, like myself, somehow made up for this omission of that optional ingredient, substance, with his (no, this part wasn't my invention) "brand of... sweet talk." Bush, like myself, "likes" to "focus" on "guiding principles, not specifics," much as fish "prefer" to "maintain their primary residence" in "the water, not the sun-parched sand of the Gobi Desert."

Bush "prefer[s] trying to win [critics] over with personality rather than mastery of issues"; similarly, when I play golf with David Duval, I prefer trying to win my share of the skins with funny faces and fart noises while he's in the middle of his swing, rather than with mastery of iron play.

Like me, Bush is described as superb at "winking," unsurpassed in "back-patting," a very paragon of "mugging." One might dare to question, however (unless one is Frank Bruni), whether "mugging," "winking," and "back-patting," really should be listed as evidence of the extraordinary diplomatic mastery of George W. Bush. It might be considered relevant, for example, that despite his very best efforts, George is still far excelled in all these vital presidential skills by the average chimpanzee.

And so on, and so on.

In short, the Post article shows, to anyone paying the slightest attention to its contents, that Bush disgraced his office and the nation he represents with his lame impersonation of a world leader. Despite all the euphemisms and evasions worked into it, the piece should close the case to any but the most blinkered partisan that, when it comes to global warming - or the nature of the nuclear threat - or AIDS - or international lending policies - or a hundred other topics, where the stakes for America and the world could scarcely be higher, Bush not only knows jack shit about the subject, he doesn't give a damn about even beginning the process of learning how to climb to the jack shit level.

The headline the Post chose to run on this disgraceful performance was: "Bush Employs Light Touch in Dealing With G-8 Leaders." I doubt that the Bush camp could have better encapsulated their propaganda point if they had composed the headline themselves.

I hope I live to the day when we start seeing more honest headlines, like "Bush Employs Series of Ridiculous Bluffs in Attempt to Hide Ignorance, Unconcern."

 
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