Face to Face

Maybe it’s just because I’m a blogger, but I’m a little bit surprised by the premium that’s placed in some quarters on the idea of face to face meetings between the President of the United States and General Stanley McChrystal as the President evaluates McChrystal’s proposals for Afghanistan. And even more puzzled by the premium placed ont he idea of telephone conversations between the two men.

Personally, I feel very well-informed about McChrystal’s views of the situation based on having read his 66 page report. That’s a healthy number of pages. What would make me feel better informed would be not so much a chat with General McChrystal as access to the classified version of the written document. But this, presumably, Obama has seen.

My experience — and this is definitely why I never would have made it as a real reporter — is that actually talking to people about things is an extremely misleading way of acquiring information. You wind up getting unduly swayed by the fact that some people are more charismatic than others. What would worry me would not be the prospect of a president who doesn’t spend lots of time talking to military commanders a couple of rungs below him in the chain of command, but the prospect of a president who lacked the patience to read written reports from people in which they set out their views in the most considered way possible. President Bush, reportedly, would barely read anything. And I think it’s no coincidence that he was a terrible president!

What I’d be interesting in knowing about Obama’s decision-making isn’t who he’s talking to but what, if anything, he’s reading. There’s a lot of reluctance in our society to admit it (written words are plentiful but face time is scarce, so pretending face time is more valuable than reading time enhances the prestige of those with access to it) but human beings can process information more quickly and efficiently by reading than by listening to people talk.