Two weeks ago, the presidential commission appointed by President Obama to investigate the causes of the Gulf Oil spill released its final report. Have you read it yet? Neither have I. How different from the days and weeks following the release of the 9/11 Report. Debates about how well this newest presidential report assigns or distributes blame for the disaster in the Gulf appeared briefly in the press, then disappeared. Have we already lost interest in this catastrophic oil spill, or is it possible that the report itself is to blame for our fading interest?
When a tragedy on this scale strikes, a familiar pattern follows. A time of confusing and conflicting news stories is followed by a call for an independent investigation, followed by an inquiry, and then, many months later, a report. A great deal of hope—for explanation, reform, redemption—is placed in this inquiry and report-writing process.
But what exactly is the role of a government report? It attempts to be the truth, but is not always complete. It presents a story, but not always the one the most people believe. Most fail to reassure because the public considers them either politically motivated or the product of bureaucratic compromise.
A review of presidential reports (the first dates back to the George Washington administration and its investigation of the Whiskey Rebellion) suggests that the right balance between a punitive, backward-looking function—“How did this happen? Who is to blame?”—and a forward-looking hope for prevention—“How can we make sure this never happens again?” is important but difficult to achieve. If a commission lays blame too heavily, the report is easily dismissed as a political maneuver. When the Roberts Commission blamed Adm. E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short for leaving Pearl Harbor vulnerable to air attack from Japan, the two were demoted. But many thought they were being scapegoated by President Roosevelt to cover up military mistakes, and Kimmel and Short were later exonerated.
On the other hand, if a report appears not to find enough blame, it is easy to disbelieve. The Warren Commission’s conclusion that the Kennedy assassination was the work of a lone gunman resulted in decades of conspiracy theories.
We live in a report-saturated age, the news often filled with the findings of the latest commission assembled to examine every tragedy, accident, or misdeed. In this national library of government documents, the 9/11 Report stands out, exceptional in its aim for and achievement of narrative excellence. With a novelistic opening chapter titled “We Have Some Planes” and a first sentence that doesn’t sound much like a government report—“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States”—it felt like a hybrid. This led some to worry about the role art can or should play in such a work. Writing in the Threepenny Review in the spring of 2005, Dan Chiasson asked, “What is the connection between style and policy, style and cultural memory—style and truth?” He wondered if the narrative panache of the 9/11 Report would foreclose further discussion. I think time and the release of other, lesser reports shows that we discussed the 9/11 Report more than any other.
The 9/11 Report’s emphasis on style was not completely without precedent, though the report it reminded me of is not well-known. When the UK investigated the largest civilian tragedy of WWII—a massive crush that occurred in an air raid shelter in East London in 1943—a lone magistrate was asked to investigate and in three weeks produced a report noted for its style and admired for its objectivity. The report stopped short of ascribing individual blame, yet like the 9/11 Report and now the report into the Gulf Oil spill, suggested the disaster could have and should have been avoided. The Bethnal Green report was suppressed until after the war, but when it was released, the writer was knighted and promoted to Chief Metropolitan magistrate.
Our report writers aren’t eligible for such rewards, but why not? Handling the question of blame deftly requires art. Concrete finger-pointing in all but the clearest of cases leads to the charge of scapegoating, political influence, and a morass of misdirected blame. To tell a complex story well requires the tools of art and literature. Perhaps the wisest, most powerful reports contain some version of an idea expressed in the preface of the 9/11 Report, a line I admired: “We want to note,” the Commission wrote, “what we have done, and not done.” A compelling admission of incomplete work or an acknowledgment that our perception of blame will change over time? It might just be the room our thoughts need when all the fact-finding in the world still doesn’t make sense of a tragedy.
So why don’t we reward our report writers in a literary fashion? I think someone should fund a prize for “best government report issued in the previous calendar year.” If we gave an annual report prize, perhaps we would receive more artful reports, and they would, in turn, be read by more than a handful of journalists. This September will see the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and as we begin to ponder what an appropriate commemoration will look like, I hope we won’t forget this legacy of the well-written 9/11 Report. It did not answer all our questions, but it got an enormous number of people reading and thinking. By contrast, the report into the Gulf Oil spill seems to be disappearing without a trace.
Future report writers, take note.