Remember the war in Iraq? Bizarre, isn't it, how we media folks suddenly shove The Big Story aside when another crisis bursts on our collective consciousness. My edition of today's Washington Post didn't even mention Iraq until page A-10 -- and they put out the paper before we'd even heard about the alleged U.K. terrorist plot.
Maybe the media and the public are unable to multitask. Or maybe we get numbed and bored after hearing the same troubling kind of news day after day, month after month. And sadly, year after year. True, Geneva Overholser says the media are going great places these days, but that doesn't mean we're always perfect.
Obviously, the war in Iraq hasn't gone away. Here's an AP report today:
NAJAF, Iraq -- A suicide bomber killed at least 35 people and wounded more than 120 on Thursday near one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, the Imam Ali shrine in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf.
And the showdown with Iran hasn't gone away, either. Some media have just put it on a back burner. Although Tom Bowman hasn't -- he's roaming around the Pentagon as I write this, examining, what do U.S. leaders really plan to do to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power?
Before Tom joined us earlier this year to cover the Pentagon, he had already spent nine years roaming its hallways for The Baltimore Sun. We mean literally roaming around its hallways. So he'd already stumbled on one of the strangest secrets of covering America's mightiest and deadliest institution: reporters who use their feet can get amazing access to people in power.
"With a press pass," Tom tells us, "you can go almost anywhere in the building. You can wander the miles of hallways and pop in and see people. 'The Building,' as it's known, is really like a village or a small town. Or City Hall." Read about Tom's unexpected encounters with big-wigs -– including Rummy -- in rather unlikely spots. He writes:
One of the great secrets of covering the Pentagon is the amazing access. With a press pass you can go almost anywhere in the building, with few exceptions -- one being the "The Tank," where the top generals hold their secret sessions, and another being The National Military Command Center, where officers maintain a 24-hour watch on what's going in the world. There are big screens in there for secret video teleconferences (but I got a tour there once with a Navy captain who had my father-in-law as a professor).
One of my favorite spots is the Pentagon courtyard, several acres of grass and trees with a cafe in the middle. It is nicknamed Ground Zero Cafe. Apparently, during the Cold War, Russian satellites which were trained on the Pentagon noticed lots of people going in and out of this site. It must be some sort of underground command post, they reasoned -- and decided it must be targeted.
You can wander the miles of hallways and pop in and see people. "The Building," as it's known, is really like a village or a small town. Or City Hall. You see the same people day in and day out.
For instance, one week after the Iraq War began, I ran into an Army officer -– almost literally. He told me there was real concern they didn't have enough troops. The supply lines were stretched thin and they were getting attacked by insurgents. It turned into one of the major stories of the war -– all by a chance meeting.
I've run into senior officials in the men's room -- like Assistant Defense Secretary for Homeland Security Paul McHale. And we had a long conversation (after washing our hands) about the National Guard's need for better radios to communicate with state emergency officials.
Another good story. One day recently, after I interviewed a "senior defense official," I started walking down the famed E Ring, where the top officials have their offices. As I walked past an open door, I noticed the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker; he had just testified on Capitol Hill that the Army needs billions of dollars to replace the equipment damaged or destroyed in Iraq.
"Hey general, are you going to get that money?" I asked.
"You got your credit card?" he asked in reply.
And of course there's Donald "Rummy" Rumsfeld, the mayor of this City Hall. Rumsfeld doesn't hold as many press conferences as he used to. And when he does, he is skilled at not answering questions and moving on to another reporter. If the questions get more pointed (let's say troop levels in Iraq, equipment shortages), he will often call on a foreign reporter, whose questions are often, shall we say, locally oriented. "Will you meet with the Indian Defense Minister?" was the question from one foreign scribe. A question that Rumsfeld was pleased to get.
Rumsfeld is fond of needling reporters. Once at a Senate hearing I was standing by the Press Table with a Washington Post reporter. Rumsfeld strode into the room with his aides and stopped before us. I was wearing a tie and a shirt which had a small polo player and pony stitched over the breast. Rumsfeld jabbed a finger at the polo player on my chest.
"You know why a yuppie can't say the Pledge of Allegiance?" he asked.
"Uh … no," I said.
Rumsfeld: "It's because when he puts his hand over his heart, his polo pony dies!"
He then turned and walked away. My colleague and I looked at each other -– with raised eyebrows.