"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Thursday, July 14, 2005


As I have mentioned in the past, I was extraordinarily fortunate to have taken classes on evidence and trial tactics in law school from James McElhaney, one of the real masters of trial practice. If I may be so bold as to reduce Prof. McElhaney's teachings to their essence, it goes something like this: Evidence and legal analysis are the building blocks of a case, but a successful trial lawyer must weave them into a narrative, a coherent story, that can be presented to a judge or jury. Command of the evidence and applicable authority are what make an advocate credible, of course, but credibility is only half the battle - successful advocacy is the result of presenting the evidence in a way that resonates emotionally, and the way to do that is to tell a good story. Evidence may be confusing or even contradictory, but a compelling narrative is relatively simple and internally consistent. Lawyers - twisted as we are by our training and experience - may be pursuaded solely by disembodied evidence and doctrine, but most people are not. Most people rely more on their emotions and impressions than on a dispassionate view of fragmentary facts, and the way to get through to them is by pegging the facts to broad themes and archetypes. There's a reason why Aesop's Fables have been told and retold to this day - it's because they're effective.

This is why people like Michael Moore or Ronald Reagan are generally more pursuasive than people like John Kerry or Bob Dole (the distinguished gentlemen from Massachusetts and Kansas are very smart men, with oodles of facts readily at their fingertips and sharp minds accustomed to incisive analysis, but they lack that Hollywood touch - and, you will notice, neither one of them ever got himself elected President). It's also why I wish that someone like James McElhaney (or maybe even Aesop himself) was in the business of opposing the Mayberry Machiavellis that have hijacked our country. The facts are in place, but so far, no one has done a very good job of putting them together in the form of a cohesive narrative.

Allow me to offer an example.

Two weeks ago, the ether was abuzz with discussions of the Downing Street Minutes. Today, of course, Downing Street has been almost completely replaced by discussions of Karl Rove and Valerie Plame. Both of these are important stories, of course, but when each is treated in isolation, without context, they have much less emotional impact than when they are combined. The most salient aspect of the Downing Street Minutes is the jaw-dropping assertion that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" - that is, that the Bush administration was distorting the truth as necessary to facilitate a rush to war. Now, look at L'Affaire Plame. Here's a clear example of the Boy King and his flying monkeys fixing facts around policy! Joseph Wilson presented plain facts which, if widely known, would undercut the desired policy. This was something that the administration could not allow, so they threw Wilson's wife to the wolves in an effort to "fix" the facts. The lesson here, I think, is obvious. Henceforth, no one should ever mention Valerie Plame without mentioning Downing Street, and vice versa. Try it; it's easy:
We have yet to hear a convincing explanation for the horrifying allegation in the Downing Street Minutes that the administration was guilty of fixing intelligence and facts around policy - something which we saw, by the way, when Ambassador Wilson had the temerity to reveal facts that contradicted the policy, and the administration responded by blowing his wife's CIA cover - and I doubt we ever will hear such an explanation.

When the traitor Karl Rove attempted to silence Joseph Wilson by revealing Valerie Plame's identity to Robert Novak - which, by the way, is an excellent example of what the Downing Street Minutes called "fixing the facts and intelligence around policy" - he endangered the lives of an unknown number of foreign intelligence assets and weakened this country's ability to prevent nuclear terrorism.

This is a simple example, involving only two elements of the whole big picture. Telling the complete story requires tying together as many threads as possible. There are people who are working right now on discrete bits and pieces - Josh Marshall is working to bring John Bolton into the broader story, and this tantalizing diary at DKos suggests how Judith Miller and Ahmad Chalabi fit in, as well - but the hard work comes in stitching all of these plot lines together and then boiling down the resulting mess until it resembles something like a John Grisham novel.

If someone, somewhere, could do all that, the story might yet have a happy ending.




YES! Good advice and so very necessary. How easily we are all begiled, benumbed, and distracted by the clever, devious push-the buttons folk. I appreciate your clarity and re-direction.
YES! Good advice and so very necessary. How easily we are all begiled, benumbed, and distracted by the clever, devious push-the buttons folk. I appreciate your clarity and re-direction.
Oops, sorry about that double stuff...I was a bit over-zealous. Yikes.
You are fortunate to have taken a class with McElhaney. He has since retired, denying a new generation of students the opportunity to study with one of the masters of persuasion.

Your comments on Dole and Kerry are right on point. I'm curious: Where do you think Hillary falls on the continuum?
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