You can’t tell a political story without politics. Or, at least you can’t the way Sarah Koenig finds herself trying to do it this week, telling the story of the political uproar that grew around Bowe Bergdahl after he was released by the Taliban in exchange for five Taliban fighters held by the US.
I had a professor in grad school, a journalist who reported closely on groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, including a lot of face time in their home countries, and even the neighborhoods where they’re based. While he definitely saw the human face of those organizations, and the real good they did for those countries, he’d always caution those of us prone to see only the good in organizations that they also put out terrible anti-Semitic propaganda and pledge to destroy Israel. “Look,” he’d tell us, “either you believe what these guys say, or you don’t.” He chose to believe them. For me, it was always harder—it seemed like a lot of things they said were just politics, playing to the base.
This is the essential problem I had with this episode of Serial: Sarah Koenig believes what the assortment of Republican politicians and activists say about Bergdahl to be genuine. That they were shocked that Congress was not notified within 30 days of Bergdahl’s prisoner swap, as the letter of the law dictates. That perhaps the people the Taliban wanted released could do more harm to the US by returning to the battlefield. That something someone said on a Sunday morning talk show was so outrageous that it galvanized a political movement. That the sight of the President of the United States of America standing in the Rose Garden of the White House to announce the release of a captured American soldier alongside his parents was (in some way I genuinely do not understand) deeply offensive.
I don’t buy it; you shouldn’t either.
First, let’s look at the environment around Bergdahl’s release. The year it happened, 2014, was one of the absolute lowest points of the Obama presidency. A Yahoo News summary from the end of that year put it this way: “After a withering year, Obama looked set to become the lamest of lame duck presidents, unable to get his agenda through a Republican Congress and empowered only to veto its bills.” His every move was hammered on every front. To take just one example, the right wing media accused him of inventing a terrorist group to make himself look good. Even the New York Times was running stories that basically implied he was a sociopath for playing a round of golf after giving a statement about a terrorist attack earlier in the day. For much of the year, he could do basically nothing right.
2014 was also a midterm election year for Congress, a fact Koenig doesn’t mention.
At one point, we hear a recording of a testy exchange from an Armed Services Committee hearing that happened in June of that year. It was between Republican Representative Jeff Miller and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and it’s supposed to show us how Republican anger over the Obama administration’s handling of the Bergdahl release was spilling over onto Bergdahl himself.
“Did you or did you not notify Congress within the 30 day timeframe, yes or no,” Miller asks, sounding very stern.
“No, but what I –“ Hagel begins before being cut off.
“No sir, yes or no!” Miller counters, before the two really get off the races yelling at each other, with Miller wildly and without any kind of evidence insisting that the Obama administration is hiding Bergdahl in Germany for some nefarious reason.
Let’s also talk for a minute about Jeff Miller. He had represented Florida’s panhandle, a reliably conservative place, since winning a special election in 2001. During the Tea Party revolution of 2010, however, he faced a serious primary challenge from John Krause, a Tea Party-backed candidate who went on to win 8% of the primary vote—not much in the grand scheme of things, but a shock to a longtime congressional incumbent. At the time of that hearing, Miller was deeply embroiled in another primary fight, also against Krause, who still had the Tea Party’s support. As he sat there, he was less than six months away from an election he didn’t know if he could win.
Remember, the 2014 elections were every bit as shocking as 2010; leaders of the Republican Party like Eric Cantor lost primaries to virtual unknowns, who painted them as being too cozy in Washington, too willing to compromise with Obama and the Democrats. So one can imagine that Miller was looking for every opportunity to grandstand. As it was, he’d go on to lose 25% of the vote in the primary to Krause, a bigger percentage of votes than he lost in the general election. He was a man in a fight for his career, swinging frantically at any opening he could find. Perhaps that explains his comments, at least a little?
But honestly, perhaps the most shocking thing Koenig glosses over this week is how this story got going in the first place. What we hear is that some former members of Bergdahl’s platoon were angry that administration officials were so happy he’d been returned, and described him as having “served with honor and distinction.” They tweeted about it, and formed a Facebook group called, “He’s not a hero.” So how did this elevate from right-wing Internet—the home of chemtrail conspiracy theories and racist memes—to mainstream politics?
As we hear it this week, Cody Full, who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan, was one of the people tweeting anger at Bergdahl. “His tweets got the attention of a media guy named Brad Chase, and of a guy named Rick Grenell, a public relations strategist who’s worked for some big name Republicans—Chase and Grenell worked together,” Koenig tells us. “And they said to Cody, do you want to go on TV? Get a wider audience for what you want to say?”
Grenell is certainly a big name. He served in the Bush administration, was the foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and was a regular Fox News commentator. His firm works with many prominent Republicans. And just that little snippet is interesting, as it directly contradicts a contemporaneous report from the BBC in which Chase said, “Obviously [Grenell] is a well-known Republican and these guys found him on Twitter and reached out asking for help in getting their story out.”
So, a prominent, connected, and long-standing Republican media strategist finds some guys on Twitter pushing an agenda that directly attacks the president, and who further have the benefit of being US military veterans (the one group in society whose motives and credentials can never be questioned) and gets them a bunch of TV bookings to bash the president.
Is this not the whole story, basically? Republican strategists surface allegations meant to discredit a president and his party in an election year. Politicians desperate to appear conservative perpetuate those allegations and give them further life, protecting their jobs.
Koenig doesn’t see it that way. She has a deep belief in objective reality—that there’s a story under the story that’s the real story, and if we just figure it out, we’ll understand events. But people make events, and people act on limited information and behave irrationally based on their own biases or completely wrong ideas. Or, sometimes, they do and say things they don’t really believe for reasons they want to keep hidden. So, if you show up with a microphone and a serious look on your face and say, hey, why’d you do that? You might not get the real story.
Before we go, I will say the one thing from this week I really enjoyed was the backstory of how Obama came to announce Bergdahl’s rescue in a ceremony at the Rose Garden. It turns out to have been made up of a series of quick, relatively shortsighted decisions that further support the idea that Veep is basically a documentary. It was originally supposed to be just a written statement. But then, coincidentally Bergdahl’s parents were in DC when they got the call that he’d been freed. Double coincidentally, the president was about to announce details about the troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Also, a few reporters knew this announcement was coming, and there was a feeling among the White House media team that the reporters would be mad if it did happen, and they didn’t even get a photo. So, they decided to set up a photo—but then, you know, it’s so sunny, and everyone was so happy about the news, so they thought, why not just do it in the Rose Garden? And before you know it, we’ve got a national spectacle that so outraged a few conservatives on Twitter.
Koenig treats this as a big insight. If only these decisions hadn’t been made, or if the administration had been a bit more cautious, none of this might have happened. She says as much while questioning one of those ex-soldiers.
“I mean, is this all about the optics, in other words, you know what I mean?” she asks. “Are you saying I wouldn’t have gotten my feathers ruffled about this if there hadn’t been a picture?”
“I don’t want to speak for anyone else,” the soldier, speaking about why he tweeted something two years ago, says. “I don’t believe I would have been as vocal. It was just an incredibly tone-deaf move on the part of the White House.”
But then, it’s easy to imagine this going the other way, too. What if it had been just a written statement? An alternate-universe version of this story might go:
RIGHT WING REPUBLIC VETERAN: You know, it really set off alarms for me. Here’s a American POW, getting rescued from the Taliban, you know, real bad guys, and all the White House does is put out a little thing online sayin, ‘we got this guy.’ Seems weird.
SARAH KOENIG VO: It’s true, right? Rescuing a terrorist hostage is the kind of thing they give parades for, or make Chuck Norris movies about. But with Bergdahl, there’s just none of that. All we have are a few paragraphs on the White House’s official press page. Kinda makes you wonder. Like, what’s up here?
Brace yourselves for next week. She’s launching into a wrongheaded investigation of whether anyone died looking for Bergdahl. Did anyone die on a military mission involving the mobilization of most of the troops in a country where we were fighting a guerilla army? Obviously the answer is yes, and I’m not sure what it’s supposed to prove. Stay tuned to find out!