“We’re looking at embedding reporters, we’re looking at new and interesting camera angles,” Jim Wilkinson said recently in the quick, confidential drawl reporters got used to at the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar. But while the Republican operative spent much of the year in desert camouflage as General Tommy Franks’ director of strategic communications, he’s now in Brooks Brothers mufti in foreign territory, New York.
Mr. Wilkinson started last month as the director of communications for the Republican National Convention, which will take place from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 next year. His office, on the 18th floor over Madison Square Garden, is furnished with the essentials: leather-bound Bible, Yankee cap, Fox News on the flat-screen TV.
His task: establish a communications center in the core of the media capital of the Western world. Slight, blond, sports-minded, Mr. Wilkinson will be on the front line of Bush-Cheney 2004, responsible for staving off a media army more than 16,000 strong. It’s Operation Garden Storm.
Mr. Wilkinson, 33, declined to answer personal questions, telling The Observer : “Staff should be seen and not heard. And biographical pieces amount to nothing more than climbing out on the seat of a dunking booth and handing out baseballs all over town.”
But he is assembling his new war room on territory far more alien to the Bush administration than Qatar: West 33rd Street over Madison Square Garden in New York City, where no Republican convention has gone before. Mr. Wilkinson is bringing the lessons about access and message that the Bush administration learned in Gulf War II-where he helped to manage the program of embedding reporters in combat units-to the home front.
As for talent, he had General Tommy Franks; now he’s got Governor George Pataki.
And the R.N.C. convention planners are, like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, willing to break the rules. They’re contemplating setting the stage in the center of the Garden rather than against a backdrop, which could offer 360-degree camera angles. They’re also considering staging events at Yankee Stadium, Mr. Wilkinson said.
“What’s clear is, it won’t look like any other convention we’ve ever seen. We’re looking to provide as much access to reporters as possible,” Mr. Wilkinson said, taking the war’s key lesson to the convention.
But that, as many reporters would remind him, is what he said in Qatar. The Army took down its Doha war room when General Franks moved into Iraq. But now, Mr. Wilkinson is re-assembling many of the media concepts used during the war for re-use at the Garden, home of the Knicks, the Rangers and the Westminster Dog Show. Many reporters will get a first look at the convention planning at a Republican press party on Oct. 23 at Bowling Green. And next year, Mr. Wilkinson will once more be managing embeds-this time not war correspondents but political reporters-setting up shots, feeding and practicing projecting the story right above the heads of the print press, on the model of President Bush’s axiom from earlier this month: “Sometimes you have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people.”
Both as director of strategic communications for Central Command and as communications director of a Republican convention in a town suffused with Democrats and reporters, Mr. Wilkinson already has taken on a pair of the toughest media tasks in the world.
Plenty of reporters seethed at him during the war, and not covertly. Reporters there barked and protested-many are still brutally angry-at the “No comment” after “No comment” they received in Doha as their embedded colleagues broke news in the field and Mr. Rumsfeld gave press conferences at the Pentagon. Doha was, to them, a kind of biosphere of non-news.
“We were basically a studio audience to make it look like a real press conference,” said Kevin Diaz of the Minneapolis Star Tribune . “They were talking-literally-directly over our heads to the television cameras.”
Several hundred reporters-more than 1,000 were accredited there-spent weeks commuting to a 17,000-foot warehouse at Camp As Saliyah. They passed through exceptional security (including scanners that let the technicians see them naked) to wait for news in front of a $200,000 stage assembled by Good Morning, America ‘s art director, George Allison. The backdrop was a powder-blue-and-white world map and seven plasma video screens so high-quality that networks could film the action onscreen and broadcast it directly. Army Times called it “glitzy.” It looked damned good on TV.
Formerly a political operative, Mr. Wilkinson was put in the position of feeding, informing and calming the most motivated media army in the world in Qatar. There, inside the massive telecommunications studio assembled by the U.S. Army and the Bush administration, he earned both the enmity and admiration of various parts of the worldwide press during war in a technologically superb and informationally sparse desert press center.
“It was an unprofessional operation,” said Peter Boyer of The New Yorker , who said he landed an interview with General Franks only by going around Mr. Wilkinson to the Pentagon. “Why he handled it that way-which is overpromising, underdelivering, open hostility-I do not understand to this day. I don’t think that their purpose to get that story told was well served, as I think was evident by the sort of coverage they got at every opportunity. The story was always, ‘This war is a cock-up.'”
Mr. Wilkinson declined to compare Doha to the coming convention. “There is no comparison,” he said. And it’s worth noting that he won’t be operating under military secrecy-though the Bush White House is no slouch in the secrecy department either.The spokesman for the Republican National Committee, Jim Dyke, said Mr. Wilkinson has “an extremely important position. The fact that Jim’s there means that he collectively has the confidence of the campaign, the R.N.C. and the White House.”
The Observer has learned that the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs has commissioned a “Joint Public Affairs Lessons Learned Assessment” on the war in Iraq. Parts of it may be released later this year. Lew Lambert, a consultant working on the study, said that “a positive was the embed program,” but that Qatar was another story.
“The expectations of the media that were physically in Qatar were very high that they would be getting information faster, and that’s something we have to look at: Why were their expectations so high?” he said.
Mr. Lambert said there was little Mr. Wilkinson could have done to speed up the information coming to Doha-the military couldn’t check reports as quickly as they could be broadcast live. Many reporters who spent their spring in Doha, however, continue to believe that they were deliberately kept in the dark by a military press operation that felt no obligation to answer questions, instead aiming past them and directly at television viewers.
It drew their ire as soon as the war began on March 19. Early in the morning of March 20, hundreds of reporters, producers and cameramen stood around the warehouse drinking coffee and watching the war on CNN, the BBC, Al-Jazeera and Fox. They then turned to Mr. Wilkinson and his team of public-affairs officers for background.
“They’re showing the war starting, and we turned to our minders and we said, ‘The war is starting, right?'” said Harvey Rice, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle . “They said, ‘Sorry, we can’t tell you-we don’t want to endanger the lives of our troops.’ But we’re watching the war!”
Reporters slept on the floor, then chased Mr. Wilkinson to the bathroom. The news blackout lasted 48 hours. “This has been the longest 48 hours of my press-relations career,” he said at the time.
When General Franks finally emerged on March 22 for a briefing-the first of 28 daily sessions in Doha-few reporters saw much of an improvement or felt sated. During the course of the war, the generals in Qatar made little news, though they supplied some dramatic images, including the black-and-green Jessica Lynch rescue film. But as Michael Massing, writing in The Nation , recalled: “When a short clip was aired showing US soldiers being greeted by waving children, a journalist from Chinese state television sitting next to me snorted, ‘What propaganda!’ (And he should know.)”
On March 27, New York magazine’s Michael Wolff turned himself into a Doha celebrity with a question to the telegenic brigadier general, Vincent Brooks, who did most of the briefing. “Why should we stay?” he asked. “What’s the value to us for what we learn at this million-dollar press center?” He was applauded.
Mr. Wilkinson, Mr. Wolff said, was furious.
“He was very pugnacious about the whole thing: ‘Why don’t you go home? You’re nothing. You’re finished,'” Mr. Wolff recalled being told. “He was a professional little shit.” Mr. Wilkinson declined to discuss his time in Doha.
Mr. Wilkinson did have his allies among the reporters. Donna Leinwand of USA Today calls him “a friend,” and he gave her his own assessment of the reporters’ resentment in an interview. “There are two types of reporters in the world today: those who are embedded and those who wish they were embedded,” he said. The reporters in Doha had been stuck with a bad assignment; their anger was really “jealousy.”
There are three theories on why Mr. Wilkinson’s Doha operation was so tense.
The first is Mr. Wilkinson’s and Mr. Lambert’s: the inevitable jealously of the embeds.
The second one belongs to Mr. Wolff, Mr. Massing and a number of other reporters that The Observer contacted.
“It was a very well-designed, well-executed effort to control the information. They did a great job for them, a terrible job for us,” Mr. Wolff said. “Wilkinson was, I think, instrumental. He certainly represented himself as the brains of the operation.”
The third is Mr. Boyer’s: that Mr. Wilkinson was just not up to the task.
Said Mr. Boyer: “If they run that convention the way they ran the CentCom press operation, you might wish to acquaint yourself with the term ‘President Dean.'”
Jim Wilkinson has gone from politics to war and back since he worked for George W. Bush in Florida during the 2000 election, and his journey is a mark of the administration’s utilitarian approach to marketing war, politics and the Presidency. “He’s a man who prefers to work behind the scenes,” said the spokesman for the Republican National Committee, Jim Dyke. He’s also got as pure a Republican pedigree as you can wish, and an edge honed in the bitter partisan wars between Bill Clinton and the Republican House leadership.
Mr. Wilkinson grew up in East Texas and attended high school in Tenaha, population 1,046, then gave up plans to become an undertaker to go to work for Republican Congressman Dick Armey in 1992. Mr. Armey soon became House majority leader; his communications director, Mr. Wilkinson’s mentor, was Ed Gillespie, now chairman of the R.N.C.
Mr. Wilkinson first left his mark on the 2000 Presidential race in March 1999, when he helped package and promote the notion that Al Gore claimed to have “invented the Internet.” Then the Texan popped up in Miami to defend Republican protesters shutting down a recount: “We find it interesting that when Jesse Jackson has thousands of protesters in the streets, it’s O.K., but when a small number of Republicans exercise their First Amendment rights, the Democrats don’t seem to like it,” he told the Associated Press.
For his troubles, Mr. Wilkinson was made deputy director of communications for planning in the Bush White House, and was among the aides who set up the Sept. 14, 2001, visit to Ground Zero that redefined George W. Bush’s Presidency. During the Afghan war, he managed “Coalition Information Centers” in Washington, D.C., and London, as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Qatar, he became the point man on the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch and delivered the most memorable and sellable quote of Gulf War II: “America doesn’t leave its heroes behind,” he told reporters at a late-night briefing.
That was a rare moment of drama for the reporters in Doha. And, like them, the reporters covering next year’s Republican convention will be more or less trapped.
“We seek to have reporters pass through a secure perimeter and then be in the complex and have the freedom to move the maximum amount possible,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “Once they’re in, they’re in.”
It’s not Mr. Wilkinson’s fault: Like Doha, both of next year’s conventions have been federally designated National Security Events. At earlier conventions, reporters had to pass security checks between the convention and the media center. Not this time. The city’s Host Committee lease for the building lays out plans to build a bridge over Eighth Avenue to connect the Garden with the vast Farley Post Office Building, which stretches from 32nd Street to 34th Street, featuring the city’s largest loading dock and offering at least 250,000 square feet of media workspace.
It will be convenient and hermetic-and it means that reporters, once inside, would be ill-advised to leave the confines to slip out and meet the protesters.
The embryonic war room in midtown is already up and running almost a year ahead of time. The big plasma screen in the reception area plays Fox News, like all the other televisions. A deputy to White House political director Ken Mehlman, Alicia Davis, is there full-time with Mr. Wilkinson, and there are rows of empty desks ready for next August. President Bush’s words last week about avoiding the elite media “filter” suggest that the convention will witness “technology transfer” at its most developed, as wartime methods find civilian use. The spirit of the Doha war room, like Mr. Wilkinson himself, is portability in the service of Mr. Bush’s popularity. It will likely be on display at the Garden in August 2004, with interesting camera angles and reports from embeds in the Texas delegation and at jolly parties around town, with closeups of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as the Republican Party strives to regain the public-relations triumphs it knew with the slick television commercials of Roger Ailes under Richard Nixon, Michael Deaver under Ronald Reagan, and Mr. Ailes once more under George H. W. Bush.
The 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City could be a tough few days for the national press corps, despite the fact that it will be on what is generally considered its home turf. On one hand, the press will have this advantage: It will be the second time reporters will be meeting the Bush approach to keeping them at bay, the second time they will have met Jim Wilkinson and his embed philosophy, his briefings, his allotments of new and interesting camera angles, and his approach toward a war room. Forewarned, they might believe, is forearmed.
On the other hand, neither Jim Wilkinson nor his boss, the President, has lost a battle yet. And if things do go wrong at the war room at Madison Square Garden, there are a lot more Port-o-Potties to hide in than in Doha.