Circular filing squad

Notes from the political sidelines.
Dec. 7 2006 1:53 PM

Circular Filing Squad

Why Cabinet memos are bad, and Rumsfeld's was worse.


Thursday, Dec. 7, 2006

Snowflakes on Falling Leaders: Donald Rumsfeld's last memo enjoyed quite a run, from lead story in Sunday's New York Times and Washington Post to Slate Hot Document to welcome harbinger of a leaky new era. Amid all that attention, one aspect went overlooked: After half a century in the nation's service, Donald Rumsfeld still can't write a memo to save his political life.

Rumsfeld is not alone—for a variety of reasons, most Cabinet memos aren't very good. Cabinet secretaries are busy people, so their memos are often written by committee. A Cabinet member's world revolves around his or her agency; a memo is an attempt to make the president feel the same way. As a result, Cabinet memos are almost always too long. No president could read 20-page memos from two dozen Cabinet members, but the Cabinet churns them out anyway—and the White House staff secretary dutifully boils each down to a one-graph summary.


Two other flaws plague the Cabinet memo genre. First, White House advisers usually have a better idea what the president needs to learn from a memo, because they spend more time with him—and hear back from him whenever their efforts don't measure up. Cabinet members often have to guess what the president knows or thinks and, unless they really screw up, rarely hear an honest appraisal of what he thinks of their work.

Second, White House advisers can afford to be candid. Their advice is privileged, they can't be hauled before Congress to testify about it, and internal presidential memos rarely leak unless the White House does so on purpose. A presidential memo from a Cabinet member is privileged, but an agency's internal memos are less protected. At a more basic level, the White House hates Cabinet memos because they are usually unsolicited and always a risk to leak. That's a deadly combination, and not unrelated: the less the White House wants a memo in the first place, the greater the chance they'll see it on the front page.

Aside from the leak, Rumsfeld avoided some of these problems. His memo is short, and written in his own pull-up-your-socks tone of voice. But it's still a lousy memo, and a telling one. If, as the Duke of Wellington once said, the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the war in Iraq may have been lost on the memo pads of the Pentagon.

Consider another famous "leaked" Rumsfeld memo, which made headlines in October 2003. That memo didn't exactly sneak out the secretary's door; as USA Today reported, Rumsfeld sent it to top defense officials and handed it to congressmen. In the span of 13 paragraphs, the memo asked 16 often-unrelated questions, including this impenetrable gem: "Have we fashioned the right mix of rewards, amnesty, protection and confidence in the US?" I don't begin to understand the question, but I'm pretty sure the answer is "no."

"Memos have one purpose in life," according to the award-winning Online Writing Lab at Purdue University, "Memos solve problems."

As a former White House chief of staff, Rumsfeld should know that most basic of rules. Presidents don't read memos for pleasure; for that, they have Albert Camus. A memo reaches the president only when the stakes are high, the choices are difficult, and all other means of resolution have failed.

That makes Iraq a good topic for writing the president. But the Rumsfeld memo doesn't do the one thing a presidential memo is supposed to do—help the Decider decide. Instead, Rumsfeld's "recommendations" are more confusing than the Iraq debate itself.


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