FRAMESHOP:FRAMESHOP: ROLL THE TAPES, PLEASE

Just as silence from the White House played a key role in the Watergate scandal, silence from the White House is playing a key role in the "Leakgate" scandal now threatening the Bush Presidency. Just as President Nixon refused to...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 07/15/2005

Just as silence from the White House played a key role in the Watergate scandal, silence from the White House is playing a key role in the "Leakgate" scandal now threatening the Bush Presidency. Just as President Nixon refused to talk about the Watergate scandal, President Bush is refusing to talk about the current scandal. 

Because silence--the absence of talk--is such an abstract concept, whenever it is used to control political debate it must always be grounded in something concrete or tangible.  As a result, whoever controls the way silence is being defined will ultimately control the debate.

Consider, for example, the way silence was grounded in the Watergate scandal.

At first, Nixon framed silence through the idea of executive privilege.  The idea was that the President could remain silent as part of his Constitutionally defined job description.  While many Americans may disagree with it, as a frame it made sense. 

But slowly, the voice of opposition to Nixon found another way to frame silence in the very tangible, very concrete idea of tape recordings.  When it was discovered that every single conversation that Nixon ever had in the Oval Office was recorded on tape, those investigating the Watergate scandal were able to frame silence as the absence of those tapes.  The idea of "silence" shifted in debate to the image of "missing tapes."   Attempts by the American public to get the President to start talking gave way to a very real, easily understandable call for President Nixon to "hand over the tapes."  And ultimately, it was the transfer of those tapes that led to the resignation. 

What is fascinating about the transition from  "executive privilege" to "tapes" in the Watergate scandal is the fact that the idea of silence remained pretty much the same.  Whether he was claiming executive privilege or scampering about trying to avoid handing over tapes, Nixon was doing the same thing:  not talking to the American public about what happened.  But, as Watergate demonstrated so clearly, grounding silence in the image of "missing tapes" was a strategy that gave control of the debate to Nixon's opposition.

Now, let's fast forward to the current Leakgate debate to see how this same dynamic is playing out.

So far, the White House has played the silence card largely through their Press Secretary, Scott McLellan.  When asked about the scandal, McLellan has responded that the White House will not talk "during an ongoing investigation."  This same refrain has been repeated by President Bush and everyone else in the GOP communications network.

"Ongoing investigation," similar to the Nixon idea of "executive privilege," frames the idea of "not talking" by grounding it in a legal context.  Just like the President has certain rights and privileges that allow him to stay silent, investigators also have certain rights and privileges that allow them to insist that others stay silent.  Well...at least that's the logic being used by the White House.

Amazingly, even though this framing of silence by the White House seems incredibly weak on a factual level, it does seem to be holding.  The press corp grows increasingly frustrated with each round of questions to Scott McLellan, but as of yet, not one of them has tried to re-frame the idea of silence by grounding it in another image or metaphor.  As a result, the White House controls the framing of "silence" and (at least one vital aspect of) the public debate about the scandal.

How might the press corp re-frame the idea of silence so as to wrestle control of this important concept away from the White House?

By once again grounding the idea of silence in the concept of official recordings.

In reality, the President of the United States is a special kind of person in that there is no place in his world where silence exists.  Everything the President does or says as President is recorded in some form or another.  So the trick to getting past the silence move by the White House is for the press to just start asking for those records where they know the President's words and actions have been recorded.

In the early 1970s, tape recorders were the high tech records of the day.  Grounding the idea of silence in the notion of "missing tape recordings" was a way to use science and technology to seize control of the debate.

Today, the White House probably has many more forms of recording:  email, video, digital recordings, and so forth.

Rather than asking Scott McLellan over and over again to talk about the scandal, the time has come for the press corps to start asking for the White House to "hand over" tape recordings and emails and videos that show the President's involvement in this scandal.

Whoever controls how silence is being framed, will control this debate.  The faster the Press and the Democrats move to ground silence in something concrete, the faster they will be able to use silence to restore honesty to the White House.

© 2005 Jeffrey Feldman

© Jeffrey Feldman 2005, Frameshop

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