In 2005, the United States Department of Defense announced a list of excess military bases that it wanted to close as part of a cost-saving measure. Anyone who has lived near a closed base will appreciate that this is an incredibly disruptive thing for communities who lose an important employer, community members, both in uniform and their families, and a source of pride—an operational military unit in their home-town that embodies all of America’s ideals. For these reasons, base closures are almost always opposed by elected-officials in their own state or district. So when a base in Massachusetts was on that list in 2005, the whole delegation went to work to save the base.
And we won. The base was taken off the list and kept open. But the Base Re-Alignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission moved the fighter squadron from the base. I still remember the conference call with staff from the governor’s office as well as the other offices in the Massachusetts delegation. It had never occurred to us that we could save the base and lose the fighter squadron. We kind of scratched our heads, and licked our wounds, and tried to make sense of the decision.
Then one of the voices on the call reminded all of us that we set out to save the base, and the base had been saved. In that moment, we had our story to tell the world: our bosses, acting in the greater interest of the country and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, had convinced the august members of the BRAC Commission that the base was too important to close.
It was technically true. It was also spin.
I found myself thinking about that story this weekend, when Attorney General William Barr released his summary of the Mueller report. Ultimately, I expect we’ll find his top-lines to be technically true. But I also expect, once we have the benefit of the full report, that we will recognize his summary as spin.
Truth be told, this is exactly what I’ve worried about publicly over the last month.
Just last week, I cautioned everyone to resist being sucked into the spin, to wait until we’ve actually seen the Mueller report—not the Barr summary of the Mueller report, not some leaked excerpt of the report (because we know that’s coming), and certainly not some uninformed speculation about the report. The reality is that everyone talking about the Mueller report on television, on the radio, and in the press right now is speculating. Everyone. No one has read what Mueller actually wrote.
About a month ago, I warned about the power of narratives in politics. The candidate who characterizes an issue or an opponent first, is likely to set the dominant narrative around that issue because it’s much easier to set the record than to correct the record. That why the president was so quick to declare that he had been completely exonerated by Mueller. I read the Barr summary, and on the obstruction charge, even Barr’s letter to Congress makes it clear that the investigation did not exonerate the president.
Spin is a fact of life in politics. We don’t have to love it to realize that we’re unlikely to eliminate it. But as an informed citizenry, we have the duty, at minimum, to think for ourselves.