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Byline: Michael Wolff
Around the corner from the trial of Scooter Libby, during a late-afternoon break, Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, was telling me that the Republican Party is kaput. "The brand isn't just sick-it's dead. The G.O.P. is cracking up." (Luntz is a marketer marketing his new book, Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, about political marketing, and knows he needs a compelling message. We have a brief discussion about whether his thesis about the end of the Republicans might get him some publicity.) The Bush administration, in other words, could well have brought one of the greatest marketing and P.R. success stories of the modern era-the rise of conservatism and the Republican Party-to an end.
It may be smart to analyze the Libby trial and the Republican Party in marketing rather than political terms. Effective marketing is the Republican lifeblood-developing and crafting and delivering the message. The Democrats surely would never have been organized enough or clear enough on their talking points to have convinced the media and nation of the rightness of war. "The Democratic message comes out of academia, which is chaotic. The Republican message process comes out of corporate America, where the first rule is discipline," noted Luntz proudly, swilling Diet Coke.
The one constant I've observed, in 27 years as an on-again, off-again political reporter, is that Republicans return reporters' calls and Democrats don't. To a great extent, this is what got Scooter Libby into trouble, calling back The New York Times's Judy Miller and Time's Matt Cooper. Libby is a superb example of the much-vaunted Republican Party message discipline-he's got tenacious follow-through. He's one of the people who helped give the Bush administration its reputation-intact as recently as 24 months ago-as the most masterful iteration of Republican media management, a leviathan of political marketing.
But good marketing depends on maintaining an illusion-we admire an efficient and top-notch communications operation but are shocked, shocked at the idea of cynical manipulation-and the Libby trial turned into a remarkable, practically voyeuristic peeling back of the layers of the Bush administration's public-relations tradecraft. The dubious byways of this White House were found not by that hoary Watergate-era investigative technique of following the money but by the more media-savvy method of following the talking points. In their composition and editing (and in the chicken-scratch notes in the margins) and ultimate distribution in press releases and distillation in speeches and the prepared responses of various administration spokespeople, we were able to see the particulars of the big lie, which got us into Iraq, as well as the much smaller ones.
That the trial was so fruitful and revelatory was quite a surprise. It rather looked like all the big enchiladas had gotten away with the outing of C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame, wife of former ambassador Joe Wilson, who, after being sent on a fact-finding mission to Niger, climbed on a soapbox and announced that a central element of the case for war was fraudulent. In the end, all the prosecutor had gotten-and only for the Martha Stewart breach of legal etiquette of trying not to get caught for a crime that seems not to have been committed-was the vice president's factotum. Only Scooter.
And yet-and this became the fulcrum of …