‘Fooling the People’
Editor's note: This text reflects minor editing changes of the speech as delivered.
For those who care about a government of laws, a democracy based on the
informed consent of the governed, these are times that should try our souls.
These are days in which basic tenets of this democratic republic are being
subjected to unrelenting, full-court assault.
In ways unseen for the last half-century — since the height of the Cold War —
government is systematically shutting down the taps, drying up the flow of
information to the American people, cutting back on the intent and spirit of the
Freedom of Information Act — and the Bill of Rights.
In a nation created on the basic proposition that the people are sovereign —
every man a king, no man wears a crown — government once again suggests by deed
and word that it is entitled to the privileges of unchecked royalty.
In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother maintained a state of constant war to
justify a state of constant oppression. Well, Americans beat Big Brother twice,
first in World War II, second in the Cold War, and it is bitter irony to see Big
Brother’s justifications mouthed by democracy’s leaders.
And we all know it.
We know it, regularly bemoan it and some of us have organized ourselves to
speak out against it, campaign-style, once a year.
But others are too sophisticated, too indifferent or too much the lone rangers
of journalism to lend themselves to a systematic, sustained campaign of
unrelenting resistance to home-grown Big Brotherism.
Some even seem to suggest by their silence that declarative sentences about
freedom of information, about openness, about the people's need to know — are
juvenile, irrelevant, unworthy of modern journalists and offensive to modern
sensibilities. Others dismiss them with cold cynicism as politically
What we offer, it is implied, are clichés, truisms and turn-offs.
Such is the oh-so-wise, or wise-guy, reaction to freedom-of-information
campaigns. What is worse, it is what too many in the news business fear from the
public when we try something like Sunshine
Week — or when we seek improvements in the Freedom of Information Act. And
when we demand rollbacks in the tidal flood of classification that has spread
across virtually every government agency, domestic no less than within the
national security cone.
“Inside baseball,” they intone. The people don’t care, they don’t agree, they
So let’s try a few other clichés, a few other slogans, a few other code
words, to put matters in perspective.
“Freedom” … “Liberty.”
People died for these words. Wars were fought because of these words.
History was made by these words.
And we are too sophisticated to invoke them, to demand them? If we are,
democracy is doomed — not today, not tomorrow, but not in some far-off future,
Americans are exhorted regularly to spend blood and money abroad to make the
world safe for democracy. But our even more pressing task, today as always, is
to keep America safe for democracy, for freedom itself.
Let’s try a categorical dictum: Representative government depends on the free
flow of news and information about what government is doing in the people's
Who here remembers the origin of that phrase — “the free flow of news and
It is the clause we forced the Soviet Union to accept in the Helsinki accords
back in the reign of good Jerry Ford, a phrase that hastened the fall of that
monstrous regime as surely as any missile system.
What was good enough to demand of Moscow is good enough to demand of
What has happened to our capacity for outrage?
Now try a little Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gently into that good night. Rage,
rage against the dying of the light.”
Are we in the vineyards of the press really too sophisticated to rage? Do we
think it unseemly for well-educated men and women in business suits to behave
like a revolutionary rabble?
Or are we simply too comfortable, too acclimated to bending with each new
wind that blows from Capitol Hill, from the White House and — most of all — the
transient polls? Is it simply that going along is the best way to get along in a
city in which the richest morsels are fed to those most ready to play docilely
by the new rules?
Ronald Reagan once famously overlooked the Berlin Wall and demanded, “Mr.
Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Where are our Reagans to demand on behalf of democracy, “Mr. Bush, tear down
these walls”? Where are our refuseniks to say no to a government determined to
shackle the people's right to the raw materials of freedom?
The urge to hide information is bipartisan. It is the bureaucratic
imperative. It is the power-hungry’s favored tactic. It is the hidey-hole of the
corrupt. It is the ultimate defense perimeter for the inefficient. It is the
brick wall sealing off public knowledge of the government’s mistakes and
The urge to secrecy is as old as human nature itself. Remember Adam and Eve —
the apple and God?
But the march toward openness is the inseparable partner of the march toward
freedom. Accountability is indispensable to the preservation of freedom.
Madison’s dictum, by now one of those denigrated clichés, has never been more
relevant than today:
“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring
it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy, or, perhaps, both.”
Alan Barth was one of the great men of journalistic conscience in the 20th
Century. As he put it in the Lucius Nieman lecture at Marquette in 1962:
“The men who established the American Republic sought censorship of
government by the press rather than censorship of the press by government.” (A
notion that preceded the founding of the nation).
“The first Continental Congress referred to liberty of the press as a means
'whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honorable or
more just modes of conducting affairs. …' [T]he founders of the republic …
desired a press which would operate as a tribune of the people.”
Tribune of the people.
How trite. How corny. How vital.
Another great Washington newsman of the time, Russ Wiggins of The
Washington Post, wrote in Freedom or Secrecy: “To diminish the
people’s information about government is to diminish the people’s participation
in government. The consequences of secrecy are not less because the reasons for
secrecy are more. The ill effects are the same whether the reasons for secrecy
are good or bad. The arguments for more secrecy … are … arguments for less
Lord Acton, that hard-headed observer of the effects of unchecked power,
“Everything secret degenerates. Nothing is safe that does not show it can
bear discussion and publicity.”
The God of history knows well the contempt and fear in which Lyndon Johnson
and Richard Nixon held the press. And yet it was in the presidencies of Johnson
and Nixon that the first Freedom of Information Act was enacted and its
indispensable toughening and tightening occurred.
Johnson and Nixon. If those examples don’t suffice, try these:
In Principles of Information, his interpretation of the government’s
responsibilities to freedom of information, then-Secretary of Defense Richard
Cheney officially proclaimed the following for the military under his leadership
some 16 years ago:
“The provisions of the Freedom of Information Act will be supported in both
letter and spirit. … It is the policy of the Department of Defense to make
available timely and accurate information so that the public, Congress and the
news media may assess and understand the facts about national security and
(As an aside, let me note that the same doctrinal paper declared that “the
sole purpose” of military public-affairs activity “is to expedite the flow of
information to the public; propaganda has no place in Department of Defense
public affairs programs.”)
To repeat: “letter and spirit” adherence to the provisions of the FOIA.
“Timely and accurate” information to the public. “Propaganda has no place.”
He sounded like Paul McMasters.
Such a fine document 15 years ago. What a great policy it would be in 2006.
Too bad someone is masquerading as Dick Cheney these days.
Let us be clear. As John Podesta, late of the Clinton White House, has put
it, “Secrecy is government regulation.”
It is big government gone amuck (my phrase, not his). It is Big Brother in
Big Brother’s clothing.
It is also a profound repudiation of a central conservative tenet about
government and the nature of power. Conservatives have long maintained,
accurately, that when government is free of meaningful checks, it will
inevitably abuse power.
In a free society, information is the most vital of checks. To curb the flow
of information to the people is reactionary. [“I am the state” — “L’état, c’est
moi.” Louis XIV, the Sun King.
It is not just reactionary. It is un-American.
The great words were long ago said and written, though they are too rarely
taught these days. Nothing we say here can illuminate our task and our
obligation any better than those of our predecessors, the Founders.
The necessity of giving life to their words and precepts is as recent as
right now, right here — and all the right nows and right heres to come.
About which more in a moment.
Let me pause for the obligatory bow. In times of peril, government’s first
obligation is to the nation’s security. Period.
But let me say something else. As a Marine lieutenant breaking top-secret
material in the 2nd Marine Division in Camp LeJeune 48 years ago, as a State
Department spokesman who read more classified material than was good for anyone
about 30 years ago, I can say categorically that the vast majority of all the
information squirreled away behind the classification stamp has nothing to do
with national security. Nothing. You could throw 90 percent of it out the
windows up and down Pennsylvania Avenue and nothing of value to national
security would be lost.
Most people who have had to deal with classified material agree. Even a
ranking Rumsfeld assistant recently set the unnecessary classification figure at
50 percent — and he works for this administration.
Ronald Reagan said something else that resonates in this context: “Trust but
On this one, on verification, the people have to depend on the press, on the
media. Their rights are at stake. We — you — of the press have the means to
But the occasional speech won’t hack it, or the once-every-so-often
editorial, or the ever-so-civilized murmuring over brandy at a bureau meeting
with a headliner.
More is required. Much more. Recollect Alan Barth’s phrase: “tribune of the
people.” That is the high calling of the media, in all its wondrous guises.
Kick back, take names. Be relentless. Be consistent.
That is our duty, our obligation. It is not easy, it is often uncomfortable
and it doesn’t win plaudits from those who hold power.
But that kind of courage and consistency is what we routinely demand of all
the other players in the ongoing historical drama that is America. And it is
what we routinely do not offer enough in the face of government’s implacable
drive to avoid public scrutiny.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a man who knew something of closed societies and
courage, admonished the slave-state lapdogs of the Writers Union of the Russian
Republic as follows:
“Publicity and openness, honest and complete … that is the prime condition
for the health of every society. The man who does not want publicity and
openness (glasnost) for his fatherland does not want to cleanse it of its
diseases but to drive them inside, so they may rot there.”
Tribunes of the people, folks. Tribunes of the people.
Tags: freedom of information