Exclusive: Mitt Romney thought he had President Obama set up for the fall, like TV lawyer Perry Mason boring in on a suspect. He called out Obama on his claim to have termed the Benghazi attack “an act of terror.” But the Republican presidential nominee again showed a reckless disregard of the facts, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
It was to be Mitt Romney’s “Perry Mason” moment, pouncing on President Barack Obama’s insistence that he had denounced the attack on the Benghazi consulate as a “terrorist” attack on the day after the lethal assault. Romney told the audience to take note of Obama’s supposedly false statement, proof that Obama was the real liar.
It was also the moment when the “reality-based community,” which a senior George W. Bush aide once famously mocked, collided with “right-wing world,” where every formulation denigrating Obama is accepted as true, no matter how baseless and loony.
In “right-wing world,” where Romney apparently has bought yet one more residence, Obama endlessly “apologizes for America,” including as Romney claimed on the night of the Benghazi attack last Sept. 11. According to Romney, it then took Obama 14 days to decry the assault in eastern Libya as a terrorist attack.
In Tuesday night’s debate, when Obama countered by saying he had gone to the Rose Garden the day after the attack to say “this was an act of terror,” Romney went in for the proverbial kill, highlighting to the national jury of voters that the President’s remark was a lie. It was as if the TV defense lawyer “Perry Mason” was about to unmask a murderous villain.
“You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror?” Romney asked incredulously, as Obama nodded in the background. “I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the President 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
“Get the transcript,” responded Obama.
At that point, moderator Candy Crowley of CNN interceded, telling Romney, under her breath, “He did in fact, sir.” Romney then began to blubber, as Obama added, “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”
Indeed, Obama had said in the Rose Garden, the next day referring to the consulate attack, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
Romney may have thought he was Perry Mason but he ended up looking more like Mason’s inept adversary, the haplessly wrong prosecutor Hamilton Burger.
And besides getting his big accusation wrong, Romney reminded people about his unseemly attempt to make political hay out of the deaths of the four American diplomatic personnel on the night of the tragedy.
On Sept. 11, as events were still unfolding, Romney rushed out a statement that got the chronology of events wrong. Romney chastised the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for issuing a statement that had sought to head off protests by condemning an American anti-Islamic video that was circulating on YouTube.
But Romney reversed the order of events. Romney’s statement transformed the embassy’s preemptive criticism of the video into an expression of sympathy by the Obama administration for the people who attacked U.S. diplomatic outposts in Egypt and, fatally, in Libya.
In Benghazi, the assault involved an extremist militia and led to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three of his aides. Shortly after 10 p.m. EDT on that night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi.”
However, Romney saw an opening to hammer home his beloved theme that President Obama “apologizes for America.” Disregarding the actual chronology, i.e. that the message by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo preceded the mob attacks, Romney put out a statement at 10:24 p.m., which declared: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Romney’s statement ignored Secretary Clinton’s stern words, which represented the first official response from a senior member of the Obama administration. However, rather than correct his mistake the next day, Romney expanded on his criticism of the embassy officials in Cairo. Romney said, “The Embassy of the United States issued what appeared to be an apology for American principles. That was a mistake.”
Romney’s impetuous rhetoric – both then and again in Tuesday night’s debate – reflects a politician who doesn’t care about truth or fairness. After all, this was a guy who framed his nominating convention in Tampa around an Obama quote wrenched out of context – “You didn’t built that” – with the “that” applied to the wrong antecedent, individual businesses when Obama was clearly referring to roads, bridges and infrastructure.
It didn’t seem to matter to Romney or his Republican supporters that they were railing against a misplaced antecedent. Similarly, it hasn’t mattered to the Right that Obama was born in Hawaii, not in Kenya, a fact established by Hawaii’s birth records.
Besides feeding the racist passions of neo-Confederates who can’t countenance an African-American as a legitimate President of the United States, the “birther” conspiracy theory guarantees you admittance into “right-wing world” through a defiant repudiation of the “reality-based community.”
Referencing Obama’s purported Kenyan birth is like a passport that lets through the gates of “right-wing world.” That is perhaps the best way to understand Romney’s allusion to the crypto-racist smear when, in Michigan on Aug. 24, he pointed out the hospital where he was born, declaring “no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.”
Romney’s insistence that Obama lied about the terror attack in Benghazi is another part of Romney establishing his bona fides with “right-wing world” where the assumption is that Obama must be a liar and a fraud, how else to explain the fact that he is in the White House. In the first debate, the Right loved Romney’s demeaning comparison of Obama to his five sons who repeat the same lie until they think it passes as true.
And perhaps the best way to understand the freak-out among Obama’s supporters that followed the President’s lackluster performance in the first debate is to realize that the “reality-based community” still suffers from flashbacks to the years of George W. Bush.
These folks have post-traumatic-stress nightmares about that era when right-wing propaganda trumped all and those who protested Bush’s actions, such as his invasion of Iraq, were marginalized and demeaned as unpatriotic or as enemies of the state.
For better or worse, Obama with his rhetorical skills is seen as the champion of the “reality-based community” against the return of “right-wing world” to dominance. Obama’s reelection is the last barrier against the restoration of the arrogant neocons to control of U.S. foreign policy and the victory of the Tea Party’s anti-government extremists.
In the first debate, Obama’s supporters bewailed his tepid reaction to Romney’s lies, such as Romney’s claim that his $5 trillion tax cut wasn’t a tax cut at all, that it magically would be revenue-neutral, and Romney’s bald-faced assertion that his health-care plan covered pre-existing conditions when even his advisers acknowledged that the plan only applied to those already with insurance.
Though Obama did point out Romney’s inconsistencies, the President didn’t do it with the verve that his supporters wanted. They wanted Obama to rub Romney’s face in his lies. When that didn’t happen, the fragile psyches of liberals and progressives almost visibly cracked. Their panic may have done more to guarantee Romney’s post-debate bounce than Obama’s weak debate showing.
Seeing the “reality-based community” in frantic disarray, “right-wing world” realized it had found a new hero in the unlikely person of Mitt Romney. Indeed, much of the Republican primary scramble had centered on who could best humiliate the biracial President so intensely hated by “right-wing world.” Romney earned plenty of credit for having done so in the first debate.
Stunned by the out-sized reaction to his politeness in the first debate, Obama – and Vice President Joe Biden – were not about to make that miscalculation again. Biden and then Obama took the fight to Paul Ryan and Romney, respectively.
Even on relatively minor points, such as Romney’s claim that he wanted to expand the Pell Grant program for needy students, Obama challenged Romney’s honesty and noted how the Obama administration had cut out the banks’ middleman role, freeing up billions of dollars for students.
The New York Times’ fact-checkers concurred with Obama regarding Romney’s claimed support for more Pell Grants, though they politely referred to it as “a new position for him.” The Times noted that Romney had earlier vowed to “refocus Pell Grants dollars on the students who need them most,” which was interpreted as a plan to cut back and narrow the program. Romney also has favored restoring the banks’ middleman role.
Romney led with his chin again during closing remarks when he rhapsodized about how he cared about 100 percent of the American people. That gave Obama the opening in the last minute of the debate to contrast that claim with Romney’s videotaped comments from last May when Romney disparaged “the 47 percent” of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes as moochers who won’t take personal responsibility.
Obama noted that the group includes retirees who worked all their lives, hard-working people who simply don’t earn a lot of money, and soldiers fighting America’s wars. Because Romney had sought to preempt Obama’s attack by mentioning “the 100 percent,” he unwittingly let down his guard for a devastating final punch on “the 47 percent.”
While it’s unclear if the second debate will slow or reverse Romney’s surge in many polls, Obama’s performance at least steadied his supporters and left them little to complain about. For at least one night, the most prominent defender of the “reality-based community” stood at the gates and fought back against the incursion of “right-wing world.”
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.