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Anatomy of a Myth

Here's a classic example of an inaccurate story instantly gaining mythological status.

As Mark Silva blogs for Tribune, Washington yesterday was "abuzz with word that Vice President Joe Biden reportedly had disclosed the location of the undisclosed location that his predecessor, Dick Cheney, made mysteriously famous."

Consider the Fox News headline: Biden Reveals Location of Secret VP Bunker.

What set it all off was a blog post by Newsweek's Eleanor Clift: "Ever wonder about that secure, undisclosed location where Dick Cheney secreted himself after the 9/11 attacks? Joe Biden reveals the bunker-like room is at the Naval Observatory in Washington, where Cheney lived for eight years and which is now home to Biden. The veep related the story to his head-table dinner mates when he filled in for President Obama at the Gridiron Club earlier this year. He said the young naval officer giving him a tour of the residence showed him the hideaway, which is behind a massive steel door secured by an elaborate lock with a narrow connecting hallway lined with shelves filled with communications equipment. The officer explained that when Cheney was in lock down, this was where his most trusted aides were stationed, an image that Biden conveyed in a way that suggested we shouldn’t be surprised that the policies that emerged were off the wall."

Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger write in The Washington Post that Clift's "source" was the club's newsletter, in which club President Dick Cooper of the Tribune Co. recounted what Biden had said to him at the dinner -- fully two months ago.

But Clift apparently put two and two together and got five. The room in question was not Cheney's secret bunker.

As Silva writes: "Elizabeth Alexander, Biden's spokeswoman, offered this explanation this afternoon: 'What the vice president described in his comments was not - as some press reports have suggested - an underground facility, but rather, an upstairs workspace in the residence, which he understood was frequently used by Vice President Cheney and his aides.

"'That workspace was converted into an upstairs guestroom when the Bidens moved into the residence,' Alexander said. 'There was no disclosure of classified information.'"

But too late -- Biden's latest "gaffe" has now entered the pop-culture bloodstream.

Via U.S. News, here was Jay Leno last night: "Well, another gaffe by Vice President Joe Biden. God bless Joe Biden....He's been our savior here. 'Newsweek' is reporting that at the Gridiron Dinner, Joe Biden started talking and accidentally revealed Dick Cheney's secret hiding place. See, there's more proof you don't need waterboarding to get secret information. Just give Joe Biden a couple of drinks."

And David Letterman: "Here's something that I am very excited about. Joe Biden, the current vice president, was yakking away over the weekend. And he -- remember when Dick Cheney...was in an undisclosed location and everybody thought where?...So supposedly top secret information, classified information. And Joe Biden just says, 'No, I know where he was. He was hiding under his house.'... Joe Biden is living proof that people can give up sensitive information without being tortured."

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 19, 2009; 11:50 AM ET
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I found this whole story non-sensical. The idea that the Vice President might be found at his *house* is supposed to be a revelation?

I've always assumed that Dick Cheney's location was not being disclosed, not that he was always at the same "undisclosed location". In other words, his travel was being kept private, but that doesn't mean he was hunkered down in one specific spot all the time.

Posted by: fletc3her | May 19, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

I agree with fletc3her... It's not like Cheney spent all 8 years at NORAD or something... they just didn't make his travel itinerary public.

As usual, much ado about nothing that resembles the truth.

But far be it from me to quash a perfectly good right wing talking point.

Posted by: jenzinoh | May 19, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Dan. In the "Anatomy of a Myth" category, my favorite is the Clinton-staffers-removing-the-"W"-keys-from-White-House-keyboards canard. This has gone through the status of myth and deep into the accepted fabric of political conversation. I have even seen it repeated by left-leaning, Clinton-praising columnists.

If you have some spare column-inches, would you do us the favor of rehashing this tale? It would be another instructive case study, as well as an attempt to inject a little historical accuracy into the popular culture.

Posted by: savethecountry | May 19, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

I prefer a myth of the anatomy at the time of Monicagate: that 42 was a straight shooter.

Posted by: bdunn1 | May 19, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

The real news is that they found a coffin in the room, empty but for a vial of Wyoming dirt!

Posted by: pablo1 | May 19, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

There is a bunker at the Naval Observatory, as evidenced by this December 2002 story:

Posted by: rmwarnick | May 19, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Oh Puhlease dan.....

You mean you are going to take the word of Joe's press secretary without any kind of cross examination?? If you can recall in the last 4 months, Joe has been a highlight reel of gaffes, and to think that he wouldn't disclose classified info with his record of shooting his mouth off... give me a break.

How about you do some real investigative work, and ask for a dinner date at the Naval Observatory. Then ask permission to explore every room in the estate and have a look at the latest blue-prints and the non-redacted Emergency handbook for the building. Then and only then can you say the bunker is a myth. Until you know for sure, you will never really know the truth.

I thought this was the lesson you were trying to convey during Bush's last 4 years.... never trust a politician's press secretary.

Posted by: alutz08 | May 19, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Will the right wing douthbags come out soon and claim that this is more lefty spin from the liberal media?

Posted by: sparkplug1 | May 19, 2009 7:36 PM | Report abuse

LOL, you know what they say about "loose lips" LOL!


Posted by: clermontpc | May 19, 2009 11:34 PM | Report abuse

@alutz08: "Then and only then can you say the bunker is a myth. Until you know for sure, you will never really know the truth."

If only you could muster the courage and coherence of opinion to say the same about torture investigations. But I understand, that's a lot less important than this.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | May 20, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

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