January 17, 2005

Mattress mice

Seymour Hersh's New Yorker article entitled "The Coming Wars" (posted 1/17/2005) ends like this:

“Rumsfeld will no longer have to refer anything through the government’s intelligence wringer,” the former official went on. ... Rumsfeld no longer has to tell people what he’s doing so they can ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ or ‘What are your priorities?’ Now he can keep all of the mattress mice out of it.” [emphasis added]

"Mattress mice" is a phrase I hadn't heard before, so I did a bit of poking around. Google shows 16 hits at the moment, of which only 5 are independent real instances of the phrase -- and one of them is in Russian!

(link) "Mattress mice." Cheney doesn't care about polls or media criticism, confidants say. In private, he makes fun of the anonymous sources who criticize him in the media as "mattress mice" and tells friends that it isn't his job to curry favor with anyone except Bush, even if his public reputation suffers.
(link) Ambassador Martin, who died in 1990, was a strange combination of Pollyanna and paranoid. He often seemed to regard the Washington bureaucracy rather than the Vietnamese communists as his main enemy. In a just-declassified and previously unpublished cable, he ranted that State Department foes were calumniating him in the U.S. press: ''The sly, anonymous insertions of the perfumed ice pick into the kidneys in the form of the quotes from my colleagues in the Department are only a peculiar form of acupuncture indigenous to Foggy Bottom against which I was immunized long ago.'' If the ''mattress mice'' in Washington were pressing him to prepare an evacuation -- well, he knew the situation better: ''I have been right so far, which is unforgivably infuriating to the bureaucracy.'' [from Time Magazine, Apr. 24, 1995]
(link) The people you are dealing with are "mattress mice"---people buried in an organization who have little power except when they can say "no" to you.
(link) For the Wechsler proposal to have a chance, the President would need to take on the mattress mice and announce a team even before securing the reforms. [From a letter to The National Interest, summer 2002]
(link) Аттрибутированы только позитивные. Вот уж и правда mattress mice.
(Emphasis added throughout...)

I didn't find the phrase "mattress mice" in the OED, the AHD, Encarta, Merriam-Webster online, or Merriam-Webster's Unabridged. However, the four English-language instances that Google finds are enough to make the meaning clear.

The earliest Google-indexed citation is from Time Magazine in 1995. LexisNexis finds a George Will op-ed from Sept. 18, 1986:

George Carver, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that the United States has, in effect, agreed to play by Soviet rules regarding espionage and has placed a mantle of protection over Soviet spies: ''The next time the FBI catches a Soviet, the mattress mice in the State Department and the White House will be out wringing their hands and saying, 'Oh, no, we can't arrest him! We don't want another Daniloff thing; there's too much going on.'''

There is also a transcript from of testimony by Lawrence Eagleburger (then Deputy Secretary of State) at a hearing of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, March 20, 1990, in the course of which which Mr. Eagleburger says:

Let me say now [that] I don't know where the reports are coming from that we would be happy with less than the $500 million for Panama and we would like $200 million or whatever it may be put into Eastern Europe. I -- if it is mattress mice in the State Department who are saying that, I emphasize they are mattress mice. The fact of the matter is that the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury and everybody else, including those of us who are here right now, believe the $500 million is necessary for Panama.

And Eagleburger uses the phrase again in an interview with Brian Williams on April 10, 2001:

WILLIAMS: And you know, of course, that's another argument that some people who long for the tense days of the Cold War, especially in the West Wing of this White House, are somehow looking for a fight.
EAGLEBERGER: Well, I hope that's not true. I don't see it as the case at this point, at least not the senior leadership. I am sure there are some people down a level or two who came in with the administration that are slightly above the level of mattress mice who probably do want a confrontation.

So mattress mice has apparently been a common inside-the-beltway idiom for at least 20 years, and probably longer. It's curious that despite its assonance, relevance and vividness, it hasn't made more headway in the wider world.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 17, 2005 04:10 PM