An interview with a pessimist

John Leo

3/8/2005 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
Q. Dr. No, you have achieved superstar status in a very competitive field--negativity and pessimism. How have you achieved that, Doctor?

A. The way I see it, every silver lining contains a new cloud. You just have to look for it. Maybe you noticed that right after the Iraqi elections, when most people were euphoric, half the reporters in New York and Washington started waving around a1967 news clipping, headlined "U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote, Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror." It was all over the Internet, too. That was me. It was a two-fer--deflating optimism and comparing Iraq to Vietnam, always a trump card in my profession. I also got Teddy Kennedy to demand an exit strategy right on the eve of the voting. When optimism threatens to break out, I usually look for Ted.

Q. Good idea. I thought you did a nice job on the walk-up to the elections, about how the vote would be small and therefore illegitimate, the U.S. didn't have enough troops to guard the polls, mass violence would probably break out, and maybe we were headed for a theocracy or a civil war.

A. Thanks. Nobody works harder than us negativity professionals, though it's true that the actual voting turned out badly for us. The biggest blow was that the Arab press reported positively on the vote. As you know, previously the most recent positive reports in the Arab media were all in the eighth century. But we still had a big impact. I was particularly proud of one post-election newspaper report in New York, "Premature Jubilation as Iraqis Go to Polls." It complained that Shiites took voting instructions from their leaders, the Kurds had only one slate, and some association of Muslim scholars had declared the voting illegitimate. Everything that anybody could view as wrong was piled into one doom-and-gloom article. I loved it. Working to tamp down premature jubilation is what our profession is all about.

Q. Tell us about some of your other efforts in Iraq.

A. Well, we recommended stressing the daily count of dead American soldiers. We also pioneered all those references to terrorists attacks as "the bloodiest since" some day or other--January 1, maybe, or any date picked at random, like Lincoln's Birthday or Groundhog Day. Nice. Nobody thought to make that "bloodiest since" comparison during World War II or Vietnam. It's been a big breakthrough. Now we're working on the theme that American soldiers murdered a lot of journalists in Iraq, but people tend to want evidence when you bring that up, so it's a problem. We've also generated two year's worth of claims that Iraqi women are no better off and in some cases worse off today than they were under Saddam. Of course under Saddam they got turned over to rape squads, sexually tortured, and beheaded. So we have some work to do there.

Q. Weren't you afraid that the Iraqi vote would make Bush look good?

A. That's been a tough one. A lot of folks have been looking forward to a collapse in Iraq, so they could gloat over Bush's failure. But rooting for your own country to lose a war doesn't seem to play well in the media for some reason. When the Soviet Union fell apart, to deny Reagan any credit, we pushed the idea that it would have happened anyway. Iraq has been a mess, but things seem to be going Bush's way, and we can't say he didn't shake up the Middle East just as he said he would.

Q. So how are you handling things, given the uprising in Lebanon, the pro-election noises in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, democracy restored in Ukraine, restiveness in Iran and the brightening prospect of a deal between Israelis and Palestinians?

A. Well, we're trying a bit of it-would-have-happened-anyway to keep from crediting Bush. We're also suggesting mixed press reports saying that, yes, there are signs of optimism, but disaster may be right around the corner. Just look at all the headlines that included "New Promise of Democracy and Threat of Instability" and "Iraq's Election, Its Outcome Murky, Is Seen as a 'Jungle of Ambiguity.'" "Future Looks Bright But Is Really Bleak" would be our ideal headline. We're taking our usual doom-and-gloom predictions and gluing them on the end of the optimistic reports. This is just an interim strategy, mind you. The Druze leader in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, said he had been cynical about elections in Iraq, but the democratic revolt is spreading. He said, "The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all are saying that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it." So you can see what we're up against. We badly need a new infusion of pessimism. Maybe I should just call Teddy again.