Burson-Marsteller, Alan Gross, and the light at the end of the tunnel
PR as Valium
Saltpêtrière is a legendary Parisian hospital. Built in the 17th century, it was known as the cradle of neurosciences for having hosted great teaching doctors such as Charcot, Babinski and Freud. In the image above, a famous painting by Pierre-André Brouillet, the French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot is portrayed explaining how to diagnose hysteria in a female patient whose name has gone down in the annals of medical history: Blanche Wittman.
The scene is unmistakably sexist: a roomful of men deciding how to treat a woman for a condition whose very etymology reveals its sexism. Simply by virtue of the fact that she is a woman, she is at the mercy of their decisions. A victim. The two nuns waiting to catch Blanche as she collapses are mere voiceless spectators. The men in this image know everything, the women, nothing.
A century and a quarter later, the story behind this painting suggests nothing so much as the case of Judy Gross, the wife of the USAID contractor imprisoned in Cuba. Paternalism remains very much alive, and both The New York Times and Washington Post confirm this through their participation in the inane media campaign to pressure Pope Benedict XVI to counsel Cuba to exchange Rene González for Alan Gross. Counseling Cuba, as though it were an unruly child, not a sovereign country, is offensive enough. But it’s nothing new. The counsel that Judy Gross is receiving on the other hand, is another matter. Instead of being treated as an active subject, capable of taking her future into her own hands, Judy’s campaign to bring her husband home is being managed and reported by people who have their own, very different priorities.
Paul Berger’s revelation in The Jewish Daily Forward, that the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm is behind this silly PR campaign, was an unexpected development. For one thing, I wonder, if Berger had not broken the story, would The Washington Post ever have admitted it?
A New York Times editorial followed by a Washington Post feature story promoting a papal solution are not things that appear by accident. At first, I’d imagined it was the State Department’s doing, but naturally that kind of lobbying would have been unseemly. So this is how it really went: Hillary Clinton handed the talking points to her good friend Don Baer, who is not only the Vice-Chair of Burson-Marsteller, but was also Bill Clinton’s speechwriter. Baer got the sign-off from Mark Penn (Burson-Marsteller’s CEO and chief strategist on Hillary’s blundering 2008 campaign) and voilà, the machinery at both newspapers (and a few others) sprang to life, encouraging a González-Gross trade facilitated by the pope.
González is the first of the Cuban Five to have been released from prison after serving the maximum sentence for failure to register as a foreign agent – not, as the Post erroneously reported, for “spying.” There’s a difference. But we can dissect the Post piece another day.
González is currently on probation in Florida, while ten Russians who were caught two years ago as unregistered foreign agents are already home again in Russia, having been swiftly deported without facing trial. The same thing cost González more than thirteen years of his life. Obviously being caught as an unregistered foreign agent in Miami means something totally different from being caught for the same thing in New Jersey. Especially if you’re Cuban.
Alan Gross, on the other hand, is the US citizen who is barely two years into his fifteen-year sentence in Cuban prison, for working to set up a clandestine internet network there, in violation of Cuban law. It wasn’t a “humanitarian” project, no matter how hard Burson-Marsteller insists. That was the cover. Cuban Jews already had internet access.
Offering a virtually free man in exchange for an imprisoned one works pretty well as a stalling tactic, evidently, but it’s not a negotiating strategy. As the long-time Cuba observer Walter Lippmann correctly points out, “Israel traded a thousand Palestinians for one Israeli soldier. Washington traded ten Russians caught here for four Russians caught there spying for the United States. Why can’t Washington trade five Cubans for one US citizen?” No reason, I imagine, except for the fact that Hillary Clinton has been calling the shots.
Berger reported that Judy Gross’s criticism of Obama and US policy toward Cuba was part of a new approach that “coincides” with Burson-Marsteller’s involvement. Perhaps in timing only. I’m quite sure that the talking points Don Baer handed her did not include that. Even if it were part of some bizarre contrarian strategy, how far could such criticism go when Baer is channeling Clinton, who still works for Obama, until she quits to run against Jeb in 2016?
I have no inside information but I’m willing to bet that Judy’s well-founded criticism of Obama was a case of the client escaping the Burson-Marsteller corral and speaking her mind. Well, it happens.
Oddly enough, I think it reveals a tiny point of light at the end of the tunnel. Clinton, Penn, Baer, and Burson-Marsteller are producing a miserable script for the Gross family: as tragic victims and wrongly persecuted Jewish do-gooders dependent on a miracle from a Catholic pope. This campaign is nothing more than a way of stalling for time, blowing smoke up the Gross’s backside until Obama’s election is out of the way. To the extent that Judy Gross becomes impatient with the official script, and lets her real frustration show, she’s one step nearer the exit. The pope as her last hope? Really? I certainly hope not. There are other options.
Playing nice and waiting for Obama and Clinton to run out the clock for their own electoral desires should not be one of them, however. Media pressure on the US Government combined with some adept social media work and clever alliances, on the other hand, could actually accomplish something, but it almost goes without saying that any PR firm taking dictation from Hillary Clinton has no incentive to provide this.
In fact, as long as Burson-Marsteller is running the show, the two sides will continue to talk past one another. Closing the gap that separates Alan Gross’s friends and family from the friends and family, indeed, the millions in the international community, who want to see the same for the Cuban Five is one way – possibly the only way – to move closer to a solution. And as it happens, an opportunity is approaching.
With miraculous timing, the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5 has scheduled several days of activities in Washington in a few weeks (April 17-21), complete with an all-star list of guests. It would be tragic if at least a few people from the Gross camp didn’t escape their Burson-Marsteller minders to see what that’s all about.
Stephen Kimber is one of the stars on the agenda. Kimber kindly provided me with an advance copy of his soon-to-be published book, “What Lies Across the Water” and it’s magnificent – meticulously researched, honest and impartial. For anyone who wants to understand exactly what the Cuban Five were doing in Miami, and the subsequent tragedy of their unjust convictions and incarceration, it is the definitive source. Not to mention, a compelling read. I wish it had been published ten years ago. If there’s one book the Grosses and those who truly care about finding a solution for their dilemma need to read, it’s this one.
And…Cindy Sheehan is coming! What a gift! Honestly, if Judy Gross doesn’t go just to talk to Cindy, who wrote the book on how to pressure a president, I’ll have to conclude that Burson-Marsteller is holding her hostage to prevent it.
Finally, there’ll be a picket/rally in front of the White House. Let me just suggest that if the Gross camp were to take the opportunity to join with the Cuban Five camp at this rally, it would be a normal PR executive’s dream come true. The press would find it irresistible. It would be a sign of real movement, and it sells itself. Naturally, for all those reasons, the Clinton-Baer-Penn-Burson-Marsteller crew will say no.
All the more reason for Judy Gross to toss the Blanche Wittman role on the rubbish heap, and do it.
Machetera and Manuel Talens are members of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity. This article and translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.