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Bush-Style Politics, Again

By Sam Parry
August 19, 2004

This year’s general election campaign is taking on the trademark stamp of every Bush national campaign since 1988: attack politics that tear down the Bush opponent while a compliant Washington press corps can’t believe the Bush family would play dirty.

In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis faced Republican attacks suggesting he had undergone psychiatric care, favored dangerous criminals and lacked patriotism. In 1992, the Republicans went on a search for a “silver bullet” against Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, which included searching his passport file and leaking false rumors that he had tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship.

In 2000, Sen. John McCain confronted whispers about his sanity after five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp and mysterious phone calls about his “black” baby (a child he had adopted from Bangladesh). Vice President Al Gore saw his words so twisted that they were used to justify Republican claims that he was “delusional” and thus unfit to serve as President. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Protecting Bush-Cheney” and “Al Gore vs. the Media.”]

Now, it’s Sen. John Kerry’s turn. On one level, the Bush campaign presents Kerry as confused and inconsistent about his ability to make decisions on war and other issues. In a parallel operation, a conservative group of Vietnam veterans accuses Kerry of lying about his war record as the Bush campaign neither condemns nor discourages the smears.

This two-pronged strategy again echoes back to 1988 when another “arms-length” group produced the infamous Willie Horton ad that blamed Dukakis for a furloughed black inmate who had raped a white woman. At the same time, George H.W. Bush’s campaign stressed similar themes but kept its fingerprints off the more racially provocative ad.

Though this historical pattern is both obvious and well-documented, the Washington press corps acts as if every day is a new day for the Bush family. At best, the voters are confused by the charges and counter-charges, which leave a residue of doubt and disdain for whatever politician got in the way of the Bush family political machine.

Bamboozled on Iraq

This pattern also goes beyond political campaigns explaining, in part, why the national news media found itself so thoroughly bamboozled on the Iraq War. If there’s one overriding principle in today’s American politics, it appears to be that the Bushes always get the benefit of the doubt.

A growing number of major news organizations – now including the Washington Post – have admitted to an overly credulous acceptance of George W. Bush’s case for war. Their recurring explanations often boil down to the fact that challenging the Bushes is just too career threatening for mainstream journalists to risk.

What would have happened, for instance, if the Post or some other major newspaper had prominently contested Bush’s pre-war assertions and Iraqi WMD was found? The reporter, editor and news organization would have been demonized by the Bush administration and its allies. There would have been angry recriminations about the news outlet’s lack of patriotism. Heads would have rolled. Careers would have ended.

By contrast, letting Bush and his administration off the hook before the Iraq War was a win-win for the Washington press corps. First, the journalists avoided the hard work of digging deeply into the administration’s dubious claims. Second, there was no downside risk. Even the journalists who actively promoted the administration’s false assertions escaped any serious harm to their careers.

Except for some finger-waving by professional media critics, there have been few repercussions for those in the Washington press corps who engaged in the pro-war “groupthink.” So far, no one has lost a job in a major news organization for accepting Bush’s claims. No careers have ended in humiliation.

Post Self-Criticism

In comments to Post media critic Howard Kurtz for his internal review of the newspaper’s WMD coverage, senior Post editors expressed only mild self-criticism for their lack of pre-war skepticism. Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. even used the occasion to take another slap at the war critics for presumably lacking in realism.

"People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media's coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war," Downie said. "They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media's coverage had been different, there wouldn't have been a war."

Downie’s derisive tone against the Iraq War skeptics also represents another odd phenomenon existing at the highest levels of the U.S. news media these days, the continued contempt heaped on those who were right in questioning the administration’s case for war. Rather than give these people their due – whether American citizens or European allies – many U.S. journalists simply dismiss the skeptics as “ideologues” who approached the war with a closed mind. In this warped view, those who followed the herd were the free-thinkers and those that broke away were close-minded.

Also, contrary to Downie’s comment, very few Iraq War skeptics probably were naïve enough to expect today’s news media to “have crusaded against the war,” nor did many war opponents think that Bush could be dissuaded from war. But the skeptics did have a right to expect that the national news media would perform in a professional manner, taking a hard look at the administration’s evidence before thousands of American and Iraqi lives were put at risk.

Other comments by senior Post journalists also were revealing. "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power," said Karen DeYoung, a former assistant managing editor who covered the prewar diplomacy. "If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said."

That the Washington Post, which still boasts about its Watergate scandal coverage three decades later, now considers itself an administration “mouthpiece” may be shocking enough, but the admission doesn’t tell the whole story. It was certainly not true during the Clinton administration when the Post aggressively promoted virtually every Clinton “scandal” story, including the Whitewater real estate deal and the Travel Office firings that ended up being much ado about almost nothing.

The truth is that the Post, like much of the national news media, has been trending neo-conservative for the past couple of decades. Bush’s case for war was not seriously vetted in large part because many of the senior editors and news executives agreed with his neo-conservative policies. Others may have simply feared the career consequences of challenging Bush, especially if some of his claims proved true.

“Administration assertions were on the front page,” said the Post’s Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. “Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?”

Post editors also understood that the newspaper’s publisher Donald Graham was one of the senior executives in step with the administration’s march to war, as reflected in the Post’s editorial page. As Kurtz noted, after Secretary of State Colin Powell presented supposed evidence of Iraq’s WMD stockpiles to the United Nations in February 2003, a Post editorial declared "it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction."

Interestingly, even the U.S. intelligence community, which historically has been hostile to the news media’s revelations about CIA wrongdoing, expected the Post and other news outlets to be far more skeptical, according to Kurtz’s article. A group of intelligence officers peppered Post national security reporter Dana Priest with tough questions after a speech. She said they wanted to know, "Why didn't the Post do a more aggressive job? Why didn't the Post ask more questions? Why didn't the Post dig harder?" [Washington Post, August 12, 2004]

Lessons Unlearned

The pressing question now, however, is whether the major news media is already falling back into those pre-invasion patterns, acting as Bush’s “mouthpiece” much as it did in the run-up to war. In that sense, the media’s handling of the recent flap over Kerry’s “consistency” on the Iraq War policy wasn’t encouraging.

Through August, the news media has let the Bush campaign set the agenda for this strange debate. Following the Bush campaign’s lead, the press corps demanded to know if Kerry would reaffirm that he still would have voted to give Bush the authority to go to war even knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Kerry’s answer was that he stood by his decision of October 2002 to grant Bush the war authority with the caveat that Bush would first exhaust all peaceful means.

The press had a field day. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times treated Kerry’s response as a kind of campaign gaffe, in which Bush had succeeded in putting Kerry on the defensive.

The New York Times article, entitled “Bush’s Mocking Drowns Out Kerry on Iraq Vote,” gave the Bush campaign nearly a free shot to pound Kerry, including several paragraphs of criticism from Vice President Dick Cheney. The Times article by David Sanger reported that Cheney said “Kerry ‘voted for the war’ but turned against it ‘when it was politically expedient’ and now has his aides ‘saying that his vote to authorize force wasn’t really a vote to go to war.’”

The ugliness of Cheney’s attack went largely unchallenged. Only deep in the story did Sanger acknowledge briefly that “in fact, in interviews since the start of the year, Mr. Kerry has been relatively consistent in explaining his position.”

Twisted Logic

But even more remarkable about the handling of Kerry’s response to Bush’s Iraq War challenge was the news media’s failure to grasp the more significant admission that was intrinsic to Bush’s baiting of Kerry.

The Washington press corps acted as if it were entirely normal that the President of the United States would say that even if he had known that his primary rationale for going to war – Iraq’s supposed WMD stockpiles – was false, he still would have ordered the invasion on the same timetable anyway.

Perhaps the admission was so breathtaking – in a brain-warping sort of way – that the press corps couldn’t find a framework for dealing with it as a story. How does one write a lead that says, “The President says the reason he gave for sending the nation to war – and causing nearly 1,000 U.S. soldiers to lose their lives – really didn’t matter to him”?

Using the “what-if” structure that was applied to Kerry, creative journalists might have asked Bush to explain what rationale he would have given the American people in March 2003 if he knew that his WMD claims were bogus then. Or he could be asked if he would have allowed Colin Powell to make the same false WMD presentation to the U.N. if Bush knew at the time the evidence was all wrong.

The whole debate was reminiscent of the genre of “what-if” historical novels, such as what would have happened if the South had won the battle of Gettysburg. But the U.S. news media only made John Kerry play the game, not George W. Bush. Indeed, Bush was allowed to use his own admission that he went to war under a false rationale to be somehow flipped against Kerry. A press corps that had truly learned some lessons from its failure to be more critical of Bush’s rhetorical tricks before the war might have blown the whistle this time.

An Obvious Lie

The news media also has bought into Bush’s excuse that he never lied about Iraq, only that he was following erroneous intelligence. But the truth is that Bush repeatedly has lied about Iraq, such as when he asserted after the war that he had no choice but to invade because Saddam Hussein had refused to let U.N. inspectors in.

Within months of the invasion, Bush had began rewriting the war’s history to make his actions seem more defensible, all in full view of the Washington press corps which turned a blind eye. On July 14, 2003, speaking to the press from the White House, Bush said about Hussein, “we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”

Bush reiterated that war-justifying claim on Jan. 27, 2004, when he said, “We went to the United Nations, of course, and got an overwhelming resolution -- 1441 -- unanimous resolution, that said to Saddam, you must disclose and destroy your weapons programs, which obviously meant the world felt he had such programs. He chose defiance. It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in.”

These were obvious lies, but Bush wasn’t challenged on them in any serious way by the mainstream press.

What should be obvious by now is that Bush was determined to invade Iraq from his first days in office – much as former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and former counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke have said. All Bush and his top aides were looking for was an argument that would frighten the American people out of their senses, which – after the 9/11 attacks – was the notion that Iraq would give WMD to al-Qaeda.

The key question may not be whether Bush knew that his WMD claims were wrong, but whether he cared whether they were right. Perhaps a newly skeptical press corps might ask Bush this question: If you knew the WMD intelligence was bogus in March 2003, would you still have used it to justify the invasion?

Wolfowitz’s Claim

Bush’s admission this month that he still would have invaded Iraq, just as he did, even knowing there was no WMD begs another question: Was Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz right when he told Vanity Fair in May 2003 that the WMD issue was highlighted as the principal casus belli “for bureaucratic reasons ... because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”

A newly skeptical press also might want to ask Bush what “bureaucratic” reason for invading Iraq would have replaced weapons of mass destruction if he knew then that no WMD existed.

Another now-obvious point should be that the U.S. press corps has neither a clue how nor the courage to describe to the American people the level of deception that has surrounded the Iraq War.

So the press would rather slip back into the safer, more manageable games that it knows how to play, like the “campaign tactic” game, which usually goes something like “Bush succeeded in putting Kerry on the defensive today” or “Kerry failed to prevent the Bush campaign from ‘defining’ him through a flurry of negative ads this week.”

Kerry on Iraq

It also should be pointed out that whatever one thinks about Kerry’s vote in October 2002 to grant Bush authority to use force in Iraq, Kerry has been consistent about his reasoning.

Kerry’s point all along has been that Saddam Hussein was a threat if he did have WMD and that therefore an international threat of force might be needed to compel him to accept meaningful inspections. That position turned out to be accurate. A stern warning by the U.N. Security Council convinced Iraq to accept the return of inspectors.

Nevertheless, harboring doubts about Bush’s reliability, Kerry said his yes vote amounted only to conditional permission to use force. “Let me be clear,” Kerry said in his Senate floor speech, “the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies.”

Kerry also said, “If we do wind up going to war with Iraq, it is imperative that we do so with others in the international community, unless there is a showing of a grave, imminent – and I emphasize ‘imminent’ – threat to this country which requires the President to respond in a way that protects our immediate national security needs.” [To read extended excerpts from his speech, go to http://www.independentsforkerry.org/uploads/media/kerry-iraq.html or for the full text, search for Kerry’s October 9, 2002, statement on http://thomas.loc.gov]

The irony is that Kerry has continued to say the same thing, almost word for word, today – holding Saddam Hussein accountable and preventing him from possessing and/or distributing weapons of mass destruction to terrorist entities was an important national security goal. But Kerry set up a series of benchmarks before he felt war would be justified, including exhausting international efforts at inspections.

Bush, after giving lip service to a tough regimen of inspections, then forced the inspectors to leave so the invasion could proceed. Now, Bush is rewriting that history to say that Saddam Hussein never let the inspectors in to do their work.

But it is Kerry who is called on the carpet for deception. Vice President Cheney accused Kerry of being “caught in a tangled web of all his shifts and changes,” a charge that also has been reflected in the treatment of the Iraq War issue by some of the most prestigious newspapers in the United States.

A legitimate complaint against Kerry could be that he was foolish to think that Bush was ever sincere about reaching a peaceful solution with Iraq over its alleged WMD. Perhaps Kerry should have recognized that Bush had made up his mind to invade Iraq and was just throwing excuses against the wall hoping that one of them would stick. It’s also possible that Kerry did conclude that Bush was lying and still voted to give Bush war authority because of the political risk in opposing Bush.

But whatever one makes of Kerry’s calculations, there can be no doubt that the bigger problem – and the bigger story – is the President of the United States can’t be trusted by members of the U.S. Congress, the American people or the world community.

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