In Evelyn Waugh's novel "Scoop," the best book on journalism ever written, Lord Copper, proprietor of the Daily Beast, is followed around by a flunkie who responds to every statement he makes. When Lord Copper says something that is true, the flunkie says, "Absolutely, Lord Copper." When he says something that is false, the flunkie says, "Up to a point, Lord Copper."
American politicians and public officials are not followed around by such aides. But the press and public opinion can and often do perform the function of Lord Copper's flunkie.
Such has been the case in the Obama administration's responses to the would-be Christmas bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
On Dec. 27, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano went on the Sunday shows and said, "The system worked." The response was loud and unmistakable. Up to a point, Madame Secretary.
The next day, Barack Obama briefly interrupted his Hawaii vacation and, before hitting the links, referred to the "alleged" bomber as a "suspect" and "an isolated extremist." The response was less strident but plain. Up to a point, Mr. President.
In "Scoop," Lord Copper seems unflummoxed when his flunkie responds to his declaration that Tokyo is the capital of China, "Up to a point, Lord Copper." On the Christmas bomber, Obama and his appointees have shown themselves capable of learning, albeit slowly, from the responses of the public and the press.
Thus, late in the afternoon on Jan. 7, the 13th day after Christmas, in a twice-postponed press appearance, we heard the president, Napolitano and terrorism adviser John Brennan admit that the system didn't work and that the would-be bomber was not isolated and was a very specific and familiar kind of extremist.
Obama confessed "a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had." And the president who has junked the term "war on terror" admitted: "We are at war. We are at war against al-Qaida, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again."
Absolutely, Mr. President.
A chastened Secretary Napolitano acknowledged "systemic failure."
Absolutely, Madame Secretary.