All The Columns That's Fit to Print

It’s a story that will surprise and disappoint all those citizens who believe in the objectivity and fairness of The New York Times. Just last week, the Times ran an opinion piece (grizzled journalists like to use the term op-ed, usually while gnawing on a day-old stogie and ogling dames) written by Senator Barack Obama. As you’ll recall from earlier episodes, Obama is running for president and is the presumptive Democratic nominee.

We have to use the word “presumptive” until the Democratic National Convention takes place, at which time he’ll be anointed as the actual nominee in a ceremony involving those old fashioned straw boater hats, bad theme music, one of those spinning hypnotist’s wheels, a chorus of broadcast and print journalists performing an a capella version of The Romantics’ “What I Like About You” and a balloon drop. Then they’ll all march outside, strip naked and dance under the light of the moon. Democracy at work.

Anyway, the Times ran Obama’s opinion piece, which he titled “My Plan for Iraq.” He originally called it “My Plan for Iraq, Version 2.0,” but aides suggested it didn’t sound decisive enough. It was a well-written little number that restated positions he had laid out in recent weeks. There were no surprises, although he kept referring to Senator John McCain as “Gramps,” which seems a little out of character.

Now that I’ve given you the background, here’s the surprising twist that I mentioned at the beginning. It turns out that McCain also wrote an opinion piece and submitted it to the Times during the past week or so, partly in response to Obama’s article from July 14. McCain’s opinion piece also focused on Iraq and was titled “Shut Up and Listen Dammit.” His staff lobbied for a softer title but to no avail.

Here’s where I did a television double take. The Times sent the McCain camp a rejection letter, or e-mail, apparently from the desk of the op-ed editor David Shipley. Shipley worked in the Clinton administration as a senior speechwriter and special assistant to the president in the mid 1990s. That, of course, is apropos of nothing. I mention it only to be churlish.

In his e-mail, Shipley wrote, “I’d be very eager to publish the senator on the op-ed page. However, I’m not going to be able to accept this piece as currently written. I’d be pleased, though, to look at another draft. Let me suggest an approach.”

It is here where one starts to think … “uh, what a load of crap.”

In the e-mail, obtained from the McCain camp, Shipley continues, “… it would be terrific to have an article from Senator McCain that mirrors Senator Obama’s piece. To that end, the article would have to articulate, in concrete terms, how Senator McCain defines victory in Iraq. It would also have to lay out a clear plan for achieving victory – with troop levels, timetables and measures for compelling the Iraqis to cooperate. And it would need to describe the Senator’s Afghanistan strategy, spelling out how it meshes with his Iraq plan.”

Shipley also reportedly added in his email that “… it would be nice if you could make reference to Senator Obama’s youthfulness and sense of style, I know he’d appreciate it.” Apparently the McCain camp was OK with making the suggested changes, but finally drew the line at the Times’ request to run McCain’s op-ed piece past Obama’s advisers for a final proofread.

Now, to be fair, the Times has published several op-ed pieces from McCain over the past decade. And it’s a fact that a newspaper’s op-ed page can go back and forth with a writer over possible drafts before agreeing to publish something.

Why, I’m sure Mr. Shipley didn’t just take Obama’s first stab at “My Plan for Iraq” and run with it. Dollars to donuts the Obama camp also received a rejection e-mail for their first submission and had to rewrite until the demanding Mr. Shipley felt editorial justice was served. Yes, I’m guessing that’s just what happened.

My guess is that the Times asked some pretty penetrating questions regarding the Obama op-ed on Iraq. I have this on good authority because the PWB’s very own Bobo the Talking Intern has a college drinking pal who happens to know someone who works at the Times. While I would stop short of calling this person a “reliable source,” I do think we’re on safe ground describing them as someone who may or may not know what they’re talking about.

This individual told their friend, who in turn passed along to Bobo, that prior to running the Obama op-ed, the Times had a hard hitting discussion with the Senator to nail down a few facts. Frankly, I’ve always been admiring of the way that Obama stands up to the constant media interrogation, and this recent alleged conversation with the Times is just one more example.

Regular readers of the PWB will know that occasionally I’m a bit hard on the staff here, particularly the interns. I must admit, on this occasion, Bobo proved me wrong. He got the call from his college pal, who set up the meeting with the friend, who then relayed the details of the conversation with Obama. Despite the lateness of the hour, and the fact that Bobo had just spent several hours at a local karaoke bar, he still had the presence of mind to take notes. While he later dropped his notebook in the men’s toilet after encountering some tainted schnapps, most of the pages were recovered.

PWB Official Transcript

Codename Source — “Thor”

Subject — NYTimes Grilling of Senator Obama Re: Possible Op-Ed “My Plan for Iraq”

Editor #1 (described as male, older, rumpled suit with faint odor of bratwurst and onions): Senator, we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us about your possible op-ed piece. As you know we can’t just run any old submission … as The New York Times, we have certain standards.

Obama: Not a problem, happy to help.

Editor #2 (male, older, seersucker suit with bow tie): Great … by the way, you’re looking remarkably fit. Do you work out?

Editor #3 (younger, female, described as hip and fashionable): Of course he works out Perkins … and he runs and he plays basketball. And he’s very health conscious about his diet. Duh.

Obama: I try. You had some questions?

Editor #1: Right. First, you’ve submitted an op-ed titled “My Plan for Iraq” a week ahead of a planned trip to the Middle East, including Iraq. Do you think it would make more sense to hold off on the op-ed until you’ve finished your trip and had a chance to get on the ground there and talk with military commanders, Iraqi leaders and others? Just wondering … not a problem if you don’t think so.

Obama: I understand what you’re saying, and I will of course be talking to many people during this upcoming visit. But talking and listening are two different things. I intend to do a fair amount of talking, frankly a lot of talking … listening, eh, not so much. I think the American people have shown they really like it when I talk. I suspect that foreign folks will react in pretty much the same manner. At some point, I might go on a listening tour. It depends on the polls.

Editor #2: Yeah, I can see that. I’m not sure where Hank was going with his question. Seems like the timing for your op-ed is your decision, I don’t think it’s an editorial problem for us.

Editor #3: You’re such a dweeb, Hank … if the Senator wants to announce his plan for Iraq before he goes there then that’s his business. You’re lucky he doesn’t thump you … he’s really in shape.

Editor #1: Sorry. Didn’t mean to imply there was a timing problem. So you’ll be meeting with General Petraeus as part of the Iraq visit …

Obama: That is correct … I’m looking forward to talking to him and explaining my strategy. I know he’s not in favor of a timetable for withdrawal, something I obviously am pushing for given what we’ve gleaned from recent polls, but it’s OK for him to disagree with me. At the end of the day, I’ll factor in his thoughts and then do whatever I think it is the American people want me to do at that particular moment.

Editor #1: So if the General says conditions on the ground don’t warrant a timetable or that setting a timetable isn’t a sound operational strategy …

Obama: Look, the General has his experience, I’ve got mine. Is his experience more applicable to the war than mine? I think that’s up to the American voters to decide. By the time this trip is over, I do think the voters will see lots of photos where I look pretty darn rugged and commander in chief like.

Editor #3: That is so true.

Editor #2: Senator, in your plan you mention a stay behind force … leaving troops to hunt down terrorists, protect our forces and do other stuff. I think it’s a cool idea, but I’m just wondering how many troops you’re talking about and how that would actually work? I mean, where would they be based … how would a small stay behind force function safely and effectively … are we talking about 30,000, 40,000 or more troops? Sorry to be a pest.

Editor #3: What are you, some kind of military wonk, Perkins? Why do you need to know that sort of detail? That’s information the Senator shouldn’t have to reveal until after the election. Senator, I am so sorry about Perkins … I could just die of embarrassment.

Obama: Thank you. Perkins, I understand your question and am very keen to get into those sort of details once I’m president. But right now, I think we’ve seen that the American public doesn’t want the details … asking for that sort of information is a distraction from the task at hand.

Editor #1: Which is?

Editor #3: Getting him elected, duh. OMG, you two are so old-school media. I swear I should be blogging instead of hanging out with these dinosaurs.

Obama: Any more questions, or are we good?

Editor #1: We’re good. If we hurry, we can get this in tomorrow’s edition.

Obama: By the way, if Senator McCain submits a response …

Editor #1: Nuff’ said.

Editor #2: We’re on it.

Editor #3: Can you sign my Frisbee?

Until next week, stay safe.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.