Charles Brown: Do robots control John Bolton’s future?


At Tuesday’s State Department briefing, reporters again tried to get Spokesperson Sean McCormack to say something new about John Bolton. Here’s what he said:

Still looking for an up-and-down vote. Up-or-down vote.
We’ve been talking about this for months and, meanwhile, the issue of UN reform, which is a crucial issue not only for the UN but certainly one of great interest to the American people and the U.S. Congress, continues. Meanwhile, we don’t have a UN Perm Rep up in New York. Ambassador Patterson has been doing an excellent job, but we think it’s important to have John Bolton up there and we look for an up-or-down vote on his nomination.
It’s an issue the administration continues to work and we want and think that John Bolton deserves an up-or-down vote.
We think it’s important to have somebody up there as soon as possible and we’re still looking for the earliest possible date for a vote on Mr. Bolton’s nomination.

Ah yes, the glories of the State Department briefing. It’s enough to drive journalists to drink and make an otherwise intelligent briefer look like a drooling robot. In fairness to McCormack, it’s not his fault. Once again, it’s the clearance process.
Press briefings are covered by the same pesky clearance rules that John Bolton hates so much. Every morning, the press office drafts a list of questions that journalists might ask and sends them to bureau public affairs officers to write – and clear – official answers. The end result is called “press guidance.”
At State, press guidance is policy. The spokesperson is prohibited from saying anything that has not been drafted in advance and cleared. And once he says something, it’s holy writ. As a result, some of the most vicious infighting at Foggy Bottom is over what the briefer will say each day.
If you watch the press briefing, you’ll see the spokesperson bring a thick binder to the podium. It’s his bible, containing the day’s press guidance. And if he wants a future in the Foreign Service, you can bet he will stick to it even if it makes him look foolish.
Look at Tuesday’s exchange. McCormack says “up-or-down vote” five times. The spokesperson is not allowed to go off-message. The spokesperson is not allowed to think. The spokesperson is a robot.
Am I the only one that finds this the least bit ironic? If handed a carefully crafted, fully cleared statement, John Bolton would probably light it on fire. But right now, his future hinges on rote adherence to an official line.
Charles Brown