Saturday, April 12, 2008


Vets on the Hill, Part 2

Earlier this week I attended the Vets for Freedom (VFF) Vets on the Hill event in Washington, DC, reported here, with some photos here.

VFF summarized the event in an email:

Dear Vets for Freedom members:

Yesterday was a great day for our country, and for Vets for Freedom. Not only did General Petraeus testify to incredible progress in Iraq, but Vets for Freedom was joined at a press conference on Capitol Hill by Senators McCain, Lieberman, and Graham; as well as Democrat Jim Marshall and two dozen other Senators and Representatives. Thirty media outlets covered the event, and a few of the sound bites are below:

"No one detests war more than a veteran ... you know better than any the consequences of defeat. My friends, we will never surrender to the extremists." - Senator John McCain

"Do not underestimate the contribution you have made on the political battlefield at home." - Senator Joe Lieberman

"You want to know who wants you to come home more than anybody? Al Qaeda because you're kicking their ass." - Senator Lindsay Graham

As the press conference concluded, over 400 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and members of Vets for Freedom descended on Capitol Hill, where over 300 meetings were held with their representatives in the Senate and the House. The message was simple: support the commanders on the ground and let the troops win!
Eleven of us self-identified as residents of New York, and made or attempted visits with NY Senators Clinton and Schumer, and 27 Congressmen and women. VFF’s legislative staffers had made heroic efforts to arrange and schedule Congressional visits, but had very limited success. Sen. Clinton agreed to a scheduled appointment, which 3 staffers attended with seven or eight of us. Nine of the Congresspeople agreed to a scheduled meeting, but to my knowledge, only Buffalo area Congresswoman Louise Slaughter attended in person, all others were staff visits.

Sen. Schumer’s office wins the dubious distinction of most disrespectful of the NY Congressional Delegation. Not only did his office refuse to respond (weeks or days in advance) to requests for a scheduled appointment, but then sent a very young female staffer when we appeared on Tuesday, to explain that the Senator’s office couldn’t possibly make same day appointments. Apparently he had pulled this same stunt in September, with the same (admittedly attractive) staffer.

This is contrast to a more politically-savvy Clinton, whose staffers sat patiently through about 30 minutes of all of us sharing our perspectives on why Congress should support General Petraeus, and continue to support our efforts in Iraq. The lead staffer did the only talking in the meeting, parroting the identical talking points that Clinton and other Democrats put out Tuesday and Wednesday in Congressional questioning of Gen. Petraeus. The was a Marine Officer serving as a Senate Fellow assigned to Clinton, which seemed impressive. She spoke to several of us after the meeting, and made a strong effort to communicate that she could be an important resource for Veterans, contributing insight and access to Sen. Clinton on Military and Veterans Affairs. She seemed a fine Officer and Marine, but color me doubtful.

Apropos of nothing in particular, one of the oddest visual contrasts I encountered was a small brochure for the Corcoran Gallery of Art displayed prominently in Sen. Clinton’s office, alongside other DC and NY area tourist brochures. The top half of the brochure was a picture of an Andy Warhol oil portrait, Mao (1973), of Chinese Communist Chairman Mao Tse Dung. I can’t decide if the placement was intentional or not, either a tweak for visitors by staffers, or a tweak of Clinton’s younger-year politics by a less admiring visitor.

We attended a morning appointment with Rep. Eliot Engel, a downstate Congressman with a solid record of supporting Israel, who voted to authorize Military action against Iraq in 2003, and who is considered “in play” on debates about the future of the Iraqi mission. His staff person, who dealt with Veterans issues rather than Iraq, was very polite and courteous. He declined to speak for the Congressman on Iraq specifically, but was very responsive and seemed genuinely interested in discussing (and questioning somewhat) our impressions and opinions about future US options.

Rep. Mike McNulty was just returning Tuesday from Albany, and his Chief of Staff was not available when we stopped by, but the office seemed genuinely responsive to a meeting later (that we didn’t squeeze in). Rep. McNulty is my Congressman, and was the only one of our Congressional Delegation to attend a welcome home for the 42nd “Rainbow” ID on our return from OIF III. McNulty has generally been very supportive of military, with a family member (his brother I believe) having served in Vietnam. McNulty is also retiring this year, and leading state Democrats are jockeying for his seat. No word – no sound – from any potential Republican contenders.

Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office committed to an appointment, which two of us attended. The staffer was one of several on Tuesday that was very aggressive in challenging our perspective with what would turn out to be Democratic talking points all week: What is victory? What would constitute victory? At what cost? How long should be continue? Iraqis need to do more, we’re in the middle of a Civil War, the Iraqi Security Forces can’t do the job, we need to use the “threat” of withdrawal or else the Iraqis won’t step up. We had an energetic debate, highlighted recent security gains, Iraqi political reconciliation, Iranian proxy war-making against US and Iraqi forces. He didn’t budge, but we had our say.

Overall, I developed some strong impressions about the whole political struggle in Washington, the role of VFF and other lobbying and special interest groups, the mechanics of how the influence, media, and public relations battles are waged.

First, the Veterans running and serving at the forefront of VFF – Hegseth and Zirkel, their staff members Arends and Grodin, writers and speakers Luttrell, Russell, Bellavia – are politically savvy and obviously well-connected politicos. I don’t fault them, I don’t feel used, but there’s no question we were carefully planned and orchestrated backdrop to General Petraeus’s testimony, and (largely) Republican-led efforts to leverage VFF as part of a larger effort to swing public support (and ultimately Congress) to continue to support the US mission in Iraq. They have some big time connections, getting face and media time in front of John McCain and Joe Lieberman, as well as President Bush in private session. Several VFF participants are running for Congress.

All over town, buses were spitting out numerous groups of lobbyists of one flavor or another, many very well healed and well dressed, organizations, trade groups, who knows what political organizations, or interest group non-profits like ours. They were all over Capital Hill. In meetings and conversations with the many staffers in Congressional offices, it is readily apparent that skilled politicians develop the ability to listen without hearing, to show concern and attention without expending any actual energy of thought, reflection or retention. Less skilled practitioners – like the lead Clinton Staffer – fidgeted or rolled their eyes, or went glassy-eyed. Well-trained and proven-for-success types made it look effortless. They must see a hundred people a day, or more. It’s a steady stream of patronage, advocacy, gawkers and tourists, with moments of backroom dealing thrown in. I even saw it in the faces of several of the Congressmen and women who spoke to us Tuesday morning, and they were in front of a friendly audience.

I don’t think I’d work that mission in a million years, but this is the reality of modern political life. All sides, all interests play this game. People talk past each other, knowing but not even caring that nobody is really listening, this is staged media event after another, all symbolic gesture and posture. We were part of it, in large part to confront and weigh against all the media circus and friendly media favoritism showered on war opponents, the Code Pinks and less deranged flavors.

It looks like we got good media, we did what we needed to do, we were “successful” at providing helpful backdrop to the fine efforts of Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. I’m glad I went, and it was an eye-opener, for sure.

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