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ASD PA Clarke Interview with CBS Early Show

Presenters: Victoria Clarke, ASD PA
December 03, 2001

Thursday, November 29, 2001

(Interview with Wyatt Andrews for the CBS Early Show.)

Q: With the context of our story being where did all this personality come from, where did the jocularity, the lightheartedness, the ease that all that seems to represent, here comes the question. Did you see this coming? When you signed onto this job did you see this coming?

Clarke: Did we see the war coming? Absolutely not.

Q: No, no, no. His performance.

Clarke: I think the American people, and incredible numbers of them are tuning into his briefings, are paying attention for obvious reasons. This war is very important in life. I think the overwhelming majority of the American people are seeing what a lot of us have seen for a long time. This is a man who is extremely dedicated, who is extremely responsible, who is really, really smart. He's also completely comfortable in his own skin. There aren't that many people who can stand up in front of a Pentagon press corps or any press corps and be perfectly comfortable saying I don't know, which he does.

Q: But is that also -- I'm sorry.

Clarke: That's all right. We've always seen that he's always been very straight forward, he's always been very honest, he has always had a sense of humor which he really believes, and I agree, is important to get you through the tough times, and it's just that given the nature of the war and the interest in the war and his role in it, a lot more people are seeing it.

Q: The comfortability in his own skin and the sense of humor that he has I guess innately, is that what you're saying?

Clarke: Absolutely.

Q: That's what I meant. Did you see this coming?

Clarke: Yes.

Q: By that I mean a serious secretary of state [sic] who would get up, given the audience that he had, and crack jokes and be sarcastic and be funny?

Clarke: Well, I'll push back on you a little bit. Yes, and I knew before September 11th, a lot of us did, that he has this sense of humor that is very valuable. But I think what is really making the difference, and I just base this on the response we get, on the calls, on the e-mails, from the faxes we get from people. What they're really responding to, what we hear from them is not about his sense of humor. What they are responding to is saying he's completely straight with us. He's telling us the absolute truth about this. And that comes through again and again and again. He is brutally honest with people and that comes through in an incredible way. That's very unusual in this day and age, it is very unusual in Washington. That's what we hear people responding to.

Q: So where does the lightheartedness fit into that? Is it him?

Clarke: It's just him. I've only known him for six months, sometimes it seems like six years, but everyone who knows him, everyone who's known him throughout all his many different careers, has said that is one of the things that keeps him going, and I think he believes that.

Q: The humor.

Clarke: Yes.

Q: Take on Tuesday. Wouldn't you, as Washington briefings, even though this was in Tampa. Let's say official. As official briefings go, wouldn't you allow that that was a bit unusual? Joking around with a four-star general the way he did?

Clarke: Oh, I think his briefings in general are very different. Most of them are. One, they're informative. He tends to use the briefings for a purpose. A lot of people, myself included, they are very difficult to do. You stand up here and try to take the questions and you try to get out without causing too much trouble. He knows this is one of the best ways to communicate with the American people so he really uses them in the best sense. He usually has a purpose. Usually it's something he wants to communicate. So he takes them very seriously. Turning your question on its head. His briefings in general are unusual.

And then just go back, where does it come from? He's so comfortable in his own skin. And a sense of humor is part of him that comes through.

Q: So you're saying this is just him. This isn't a show. The way he is behind closed doors is the way he is in front of the camera.

Clarke: Very much so. I know it's interesting because often I have correspondents, the ones who cover us on a regular basis don't do this as often as some of the newcomers, but very often I will have reporters come to me and say help me understand something, or can you interpret something the secretary has said. I just laugh when they do it now because what you see is what you get.

Q: I don't want to forget the question about Tampa, but what is this feedback? Are you getting feedback from the public?

Clarke: Oh, sure.

Q: What is it?

Clarke: The feedback is incredible. And it is really, the overwhelming majority of it is how straight he is, how direct he is, the unvarnished truth about this war from the very beginning. President Bush is the same way, but the secretary on a day-to-day basis is talking about the war more. He has said from the very beginning this is very difficult, it's very unconventional. He constantly returns to the fundamentals, as I call it, go back to the basics. What are we trying to accomplish? How are we going about doing this? Managing expectations. Reminding people this is going to be hard. There will be bad days along with the good days. They appreciate that. The thing that is really keeping them with us, I believe, is that we're being so straight with them.

Q: And you're telling me that this lightheartedness that he displays, that's just part of what he is.

Clarke: That's just part of what he is.

Q: Not a show.

Clarke: No. He's a very unique person in many, many ways. He has a wonderful sense of humor that does come through.

Q: You've been in this town a long time.

Clarke: Too long.

Q: Too long?

Clarke: You and me.

Q: But wouldn't you admit that these are unusual briefings?

Clarke: Oh, absolutely.

Q: For the lightheartedness, for the sarcasm?

Clarke: I think they're unusual in many ways. I think the most important aspect about how unusual they are is that he tries to convey real information. He tries to make a difference with these briefings.

I've talked about this with people before. He has an incredible inner gyroscope that seems to tell him what to do and what to focus on at any given time. He seems to really be able to prioritize and focus his energies in the right place.

Prior to September 11th the kind of things we were working on, the public exchange, discussion, dialogues, wasn't quite as important as the actual work that was going on. Post September 11th, think about his career, and in many different things he's been through in times of crisis. He understands the importance of the leaders being out front, taking responsibility, communicating directly with the American people what we're trying to accomplish. So understanding how important that is he focuses a lot of time and energy on it. He puts a lot of thought into the briefings. He always thinks a day or two ahead, what is it we're going to be trying to do in this particular briefing. The morning before he always focuses on it, talks about it with several people, what are we going to try to accomplish here. Tries to anticipate the issues that will come up. He spends a lot of time and energy on it.

Q: Back to the 27th. What is your take on the mood that was going on between he and General Franks?

Clarke: One, they have a great relationship. Two, any time you get out of this building, any time you get out of Washington and you're around the men and women in uniform you get pumped up, it's awe-inspiring. Just the week before, the Friday before, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I'm sorry, we had been down at Fort Bragg with the Special Forces and you see these incredibly dedicated young, mostly young, men and women in uniform who are disciplined, who are committed, who are proud to be serving, and you cannot help but get pumped up and excited about being around something like that.

Q: Is that what we were seeing?

Clarke: I think you were seeing some of that.

Q: He was in Tampa, he was at headquarters --

Clarke: He went to Tampa, he went to the Central Command headquarters with General Franks and with Chairman Myers to meet with the people who have been working there 24x7, have been working incredibly long, hard hours, to thank them and show our appreciation for what they're doing. And I think that's part of it. You just get -- he's an incredibly patriotic person to start with, but when you're around these people you cannot help but get pumped up about it.

Q: But this lightheartedness, you're saying, was camaraderie he had established with the general.

Clarke: Oh, he's got a very good rapport with the general. You've seen some of the briefings. They're wonderful together. They really understand who should take which part of which issue. There's a lot of chemistry there.

Q: What about the back and forth with the press? What's going on with that?

Clarke: Two things. One, again to go back to what I said before, he knows how important this is. The primary means we have of --

Q: Television time out. I messed up that.

Tell me what's going on, what is going on between Rumsfeld and the press, the back and forth.

Clarke: Two things. One, he understands how important it is. They are the primary means we have to communicate with the American people and they have important jobs. So as I said before, he puts time and energy to those things he thinks are important.

Two, the nature of the business of journalists. They push back, they engage, they challenge, and he likes that. They are clear he is a very intelligent person, I'll fully grant you, I think a fair number of people are intimidated by him. Journalists tend not to be intimidated. Our gang in particular understand him, understand the issues, and they're willing to push and they're willing to engage. And that's a good environment for him. He enjoys it.

Q: He likes the push back?

Clarke: Absolutely.

Q: Other people in Washington say let's not mix it up with the press.

Clarke: Absolutely enjoys the push back.

Q: He seeks it out.

Clarke: Absolutely. And I think he learns something sometimes. Very often after a briefing he'll be making notes as we walk back up to his office, or he'll call down and say we really should follow up on one of those things that somebody raised. So I think he always learns something as well, which he also enjoys.

Q: So is that a way, when he teases Charlie Aldinger the way he did that day, what category would you put that in? General ribbing, affection, respect?

Clarke: It's a fair amount of respect. They've got very important jobs. And to generalize a little bit, the Pentagon press corps tends to be a pretty unique press corps, and I've dealt with a lot of them in this town over 20 years. Most of the people who cover us on a regular basis cover this because they like the business. They like the military, they like the issues, they understand how important it is, they tend to take their jobs very seriously. So we don't get too many flip or sarcastic or overly cynical questions that you might get from another press corps. You tend to get people who have put some thought into their questions. So he's got a healthy respect for them and I think it shows.

Q: The professional question. Do you ever worry that this lightheartedness at a serious time, a time of war, might sometimes be inappropriate?

Clarke: I just haven't seen it. I haven't seen it. I think what comes across overwhelmingly is how much respect he has for the people in uniform who are risking their lives. He addresses it from this podium very frequently. He says let's just remind people what we're about here and remind people of the kinds of risks these men and women are taking every single day so we can live the kind of life. That I think comes through loud and clear.

I think the sense of humor you see helps carry people through.

Q: Say that again.

Clarke: I think the sense of humor that you see helps carry people through. They are very, very challenging times and I think that helps carry people through sometimes.

Q: Do you ever leave this podium and say to yourself, or to him, that was too much. That was too lighthearted. We're at war.

Clarke: I haven't yet. I haven't yet. And I'm very sensitive to those sorts of things. He's very sensitive to those sorts of things. He is usually the one saying to some of us dial it down a little bit, be a little bit more careful about your characterizations. I haven't seen it yet.

And also, the ultimate failsafe, if you will, and again, he's demonstrated this. If he makes a mistake, he either corrects it on the spot or he comes right back and corrects it. He has no problem saying I don't know. He has no problem cleaning something up, and he wants to do it and he wants to do it quickly.

Q: Last question then I'll ask you if you want to say something I haven't gotten to.

Is he aware of his popularity?

Clarke: I don't think so. And not that we spend that much time on it but every once in awhile someone will mention it to him or if he's out with Mrs. Rumsfeld, friends and former colleagues will say this is unbelievable.

For instance the Saturday Night Live skit. He knows what Saturday Night Live is. We showed him the clip from the program. But I don't think he has a real sense of what a status this has reached, the briefings have reached out there.

Q: He doesn't know?

Clarke: He's aware of it, but it's --

Q: It doesn't compute.

Clarke: As I said, his inner gyroscope, what's important, what's not important. What he cares about is, and he always is his toughest critic. When we walk out of here after he's done a briefing, he's done an interview, okay, did we get done what we needed to get done? Is there anything we need to clean up? What do we do the next time we address those issues? He really looks at things in terms of did it help move our agenda in terms of the war on terrorism say. It's just not about him.

Q: So when you showed him the Saturday Night Live clip and it didn't register what, culturally? The impact of it didn't register?

Clarke: The broad impact of it.

He knows everybody is, a lot of people are focused on the war of terrorism. He understands that people care deeply about the kinds of issues he discusses and others discuss here in this briefing room. I don't think he quite realizes in terms of the more general population, I don't think he quite realizes quite yet that this has gone far beyond -- people who cover this as a business, or the usual suspects, as I call them. People who have always covered defense matters or individuals who have followed defense matters, it's gone well beyond that, and I don't think that's really sunk in quite yet.

Q: I think you know the gist of our story. Is there something you want to add that I didn't bring out in the questions?

Clarke: I don't think so.

Q: Pause --

Clarke: Kevin, anything we should have said?

Kevin Kellems: I think you wanted to say something about, you mentioned earlier something about the effort to have more access and more broadly to make for the American people, make the secretary more accessible.

Q: I have one more. You have to trust me on this question, too. This is not going to paint this man as an unserious player, but it is hard to look at some of these briefings, in particular the one with General Franks, it's hard to look at this and his face and his body language and not read that he, seriousness aside, is having a wonderful time with this job. I don't mean to demean the seriousness of the game here, but is he, is this the job of his life?

Clarke: The seriousness of the game, and I wouldn't call it a game. The seriousness of the issue and the topic is what motivates him. He is a person who has --

Q: We should back up and take game out of it. That's a very good point. I really don't mean to cast a non-serious vein to it.

I hate to ask is he having fun because we're at war, but do you have a sense he's enjoying this job? War aside. He's enjoying what he's doing.

Clarke: What he enjoys is being involved in something that's important, which this clearly is. This is one of the biggest challenges this country has faced in the last 50 years and probably for the next 50 years so he likes being engaged in issues and topics that he thinks are important.

He likes working with people for whom he has a lot of respect and appreciation. He has enormous respect and appreciation for the president, for the vice president, for Colin Powell, these people he's known and worked with over the years.

So yes, he enjoys that. This is a fellow who gets up before the crack of dawn in the morning and works until the wee hours at night because he knows it's important and he enjoys the fact that he is playing his part. My words, not his. An important part in that effort.

Q: Anything you want to add?

Clarke: No.

Clarke: You find yourself hesitating with words like fun. It's not the right word.

Q: We will fail if we come across after the run-on litany of all these light moments of these briefings not to include the serious moments of what he's trying to get across.

At the same time it is very much the theme of the piece, a recognition that you and the public, you know and you're now recognizing that we haven't seen anybody like this before.

Clarke: I take it back. There may be something. Let me just tell you what it is. I said in the general sense the impact of what we hear from the American people, their responses to these things. Their responses aren't to the lighthearted moments. In a general sense they respond. What seems to prompt calls and e-mails is this incredible straightforward and direct nature that he has.

But for instance, if you want to talk about individual lines that seem to provoke the most response. A few times there will be a question, which most people in this town I'll give you would try to answer very diplomatically. What are you trying to do to the Taliban and the al Qaeda, for instance. A lot of people would try to parse that and would try to answer very diplomatically. Oh well, our overarching mission is this, that and the other.

He will say let me make it very clear. We want to disable and dismantle the Taliban regime, we are trying to hunt down and kill the government and al Qaeda leadership and those who are wreaking havoc in the country, and those who are fostering this kind of terrorism. Those are the kinds of things that the American people listen to and go, he's right. Those are the words that he has that has the most impact.

Q: There's a larger point you're making there. They perceive -- you're saying the public perceives a real person.

Clarke: A real person who has given them the unvarnished truth about what this war is about and what it's going to take to execute it. That's what gets the biggest response out of people.

Q: So is the humor and the lightheartedness, is that part of the real man that people see?

Clarke: It is definitely part of him, but it's interesting. I think you get more of a response to that in this town than you do from the American people.

My focus, to be perfectly honest, my focus is are we keeping the American people engaged, are we honestly getting and deserving and maintaining their support. I'll listen to what they respond to, what they listen to and respond to is just the incredible direct nature that he has and his honesty and his straight forwardness and his willingness to say, look, we're using cluster bombs because we want to kill the Taliban and al Qaeda. That's why we're using them. That's what gets the biggest response from them.

The bit about the humor, I think that may be Washington because they're just so unused to somebody who's so comfortable in his own skin.

Q: Let me ask you about that, last question, I promise.

In this town, is this unusual in this town? That amount of lightheartedness, that amount of comfortability?

Clarke: Oh, absolutely. Most people in this town, myself included, you're doing a briefing or a news conference you're just thinking to yourself I want to get out of this without a big disaster and without screwing something up, so most people play it extraordinarily safe. He just calls the shots like he sees them.

Q: And you respond to that.

Clarke: Absolutely.

Q: I feel like joking here, and therefore I will.

Clarke: If it's appropriate he uses it. If it's not appropriate, he doesn't.

Q: Great.

Q: -- has he turned it around in this building?

Clarke: To a certain extent, yes.

Q: Do you think he's turned it around on the Hill?

Clarke: To a large extent.

Q: In terms of -- you have to talk now. In terms of his entre, in terms of his --

Clarke: It gets in the process, which isn't interesting, I know, but prior to September 11th there had already been a shift. There had already been a shift. There were three stars and four stars publicly saying they had never spent so much time with the secretary of Defense on the important issues like the Quadrennial Defense Review which I call the blueprint for the 21st Century military. You had members of Congress state openly okay, you may not like what he says but he's telling the truth and we've got to make some changes here.

So the wheels had started to turn in the right direction even before September 11th.

Now, instead of talking about things in the abstract, this is why we need to prepare for asymmetrical threats, this is why we need to organize ourselves in a different fashion, we have the real life, living manifestation of that. So in some ways it makes the case easier.

We met with a room full of members of Congress this morning and the kind of bipartisan, non-partisan support we're getting is phenomenal and it really does help make your job easier.

But again I go back to what we said at the start of this. I think a lot of people now, because of the spotlight on the war, are seeing what a startling number of people saw well before September 11th.

Q: We're all done. Thanks, Torie.

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