YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Celebrities of War : 'Instant Experts' Fill Insatiable Need to Know With Incurable Impulse to Talk


WASHINGTON — Phebe Marr, author of a modern history of Iraq, is racing across town in a chauffeur-driven limousine, bouncing from an interview at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. to "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour." The car phone rings. It's for her. Yet another journalist wants Marr's views on what Saddam is up to next.

In another part of town, on another night of war, Edward Luttwack, a military analyst known for his irreverent--some say outrageous--comments, is tangling with ABC's Peter Jennings on air. The anchor asks a question implying that Israel will surely retaliate after an Iraqi attack. Luttwack volleys: "Not necessarily."

And in yet another scene, on another day, at CBS studios in New York, Gen. Michael J. Dugan, canned as Air Force chief of staff last September for talking too candidly to the press about U.S. military operations, is being paid to decipher videotape from Baghdad. He examines the picture of a downed U.S. fighter plane and speculates it's an F-16. "He knows by the color and the fuel tanks," producer Ann Reingold says proudly of her new colleague.

The Experts. They are everywhere.

On the air, behind the scenes, in newspaper stories, the think-tank gurus and former generals have become instant celebrities as Week 1 of the war in the Persian Gulf draws to a close.

Actually, in Washington--a city known for its know-it-alls--the experts have been omnipresent since August, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and knowledge of the U.S. military and the Middle East suddenly became paramount to owning a blue-chip stock.

But lately the experts have been feeding the seemingly insatiable media appetite for minute-by-minute analysis, epitomizing both the good and bad of their trade as they help fill television time and news columns.

In fact, these pundits have become the official interpreters of incremental pieces of news--every boom of a missile, every utterance from Iraq. They have also had enormous influence on public opinion and, as some of them would like, on decision-makers in Washington and perhaps even Baghdad.

"I view my interviews as a public service but also as a way to influence policy," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter Administration, adding, "Now that I'm not in a position to make decisions, this talking about policy issues on television is second-best."

And the requests for interviews come rolling in: Brzezinski says his office at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, is like "a command center. I have three aides round-the-clock taking requests from all over the world."

The pundits and the parade of retired military brass are out there analyzing, predicting and amplifying. They are also speculating, pontificating and sometimes even "boofing." (Boofing is an onomatopoeic term coined by Washington defense analyst Joshua Epstein for what it sounds like when a particularly pompous expert holds forth. "There are people who do nothing but boof, and they are called boofers," he says, noting that when food is served at a gathering of such people it is called "a beef and boof.")

Most experts are not paid for their time but are eager "guests" invited by the TV studios.

But some have signed contracts to appear exclusively on a particular network and are called "consultants."

Timothy Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, says his network put five experts on the payroll shortly after the invasion of Kuwait last Aug. 2, including a former Army general, a former Air Force colonel, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and a national newspaper reporter who has spent many years working in the region.

"That's our stable of people," Russert says, "and we're really using them, at all hours of the night and day."

The other networks also went after specialists, and the competition to have the best-known, highest-ranking former military man on staff began. One Washington observer called the derby for Pentagon pundits "the Retired Generals Full Employment Act."

But CBS' Reingold says the military men come in handy because they introduce a degree of realism into the reporting and often have an inside line on what might be happening behind the scenes.

Yet before anyone was put on retainer, the experts were run through a series of "pre-interviews" to ensure that they had a good command of English, didn't use jargon, weren't too verbose. Being pretty was not a prerequisite if they were "brilliant," according to one network executive.

The pay scale for the consultants varies wildly, according to another Washington institution, the rumor mill. Nobody will talk about it publicly because everybody negotiates his or her own deal behind closed doors. But one former general is said to be making $10,000 a month for the duration of the war; other experts are said to be getting $1,000 a week, while one specialist is apparently signed for a year for $30,000.

Los Angeles Times Articles