10 years on: the press reconsiders
If he’s a cowboy, he’s the reluctant warrior, the Shane in the movie, strapping on the guns as the last resort because he has to, to protect his family, drawing on the emotions of 9/11, tying them to Saddam Hussein, using the possible or likely rejection vote from the U.N. as a badge of honor. --- Howard Fineman 3/6/03
That's probably his most famous quote. But it wasn't the only one extolling the virtues of our manly president. One of the most notorious pieces of the Iraq run-up for me was this one in TIME, which epitomized the press's fawning crush on George W. Bush:
FINEMAN (11/27/01): So who are the Bushes, really? Well, they’re the people who produced the fellow who sat with me and my Newsweek colleague, Martha Brant, for his first interview since 9/11. We saw, among other things, a leader who is utterly comfortable in his role. Bush envelops himself in the trappings of office. Maybe that’s because he’s seen it from the inside since his dad served as Reagan’s vice president in the ‘80s. The presidency is a family business.
Today Fineman writes about that interview and the media's failure after 9/11:
Dubyah loves to wear the uniform—whatever the correct one happens to be for a particular moment. I counted no fewer than four changes of attire during the day trip we took to Fort Campbell in Kentucky and back. He arrived for our interview in a dark blue Air Force One flight jacket. When he greeted the members of Congress on board, he wore an open-necked shirt. When he had lunch with the troops, he wore a blue blazer. And when he addressed the troops, it was in the flight jacket of the 101st Airborne. He’s a boomer product of the ‘60s—but doesn’t mind ermine robes.
The conference room on Air Force One looks like any other conference room, except that the chairs at the big oak table slide on tracks and have seat belts.
He certainly wasn't one of them. Indeed, he was a very reliable, enthusiastic mouthpiece for the administration:
On Thanksgiving 2001, I was sitting in one of those chairs across from President George W. Bush. Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S.-led assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan, was going well, and the president was on his way to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to share a Thanksgiving meal with the members of the 101st Airborne.
It was his first major interview after 9/11. He had talked about "evil" and "evildoers," so in my role then as a Newsweek reporter, I asked him if Saddam Hussein, longtime ruler of Iraq, was "evil." He glanced at his aides around the table and said nothing.
But after a minute, after we'd moved on to another topic, he decided to blurt out an answer. "Saddam Hussein is evil," he said, with the air of a student talking out of turn. "He's evil."[...]
In his latest effort to defend the war, Cheney declared to filmmaker R.J. Cutler that the Iraq War was justified because the U.S. eliminated a regime that might have at some future time posed a threat.
How did we allow that warped vision to drive us into war?
When I say "we," I mean the decision-making machinery of Washington, including elected lawmakers, appointed officials and the national media. Too few questions were asked, too many assumptions were allowed to go unchallenged, too many voices of doubt were muffled or rejected in a toxic atmosphere of patriotism, ignorance and political fear.
I can speak from my own experience of what was not so much a "rush" but a steady, inexorable march.
It began with fear and, for some journalists including me, misguided patriotism. Washington and New York, the centers of the American media, had been attacked on 9/11. We all knew, or knew of, people who had been killed. We had only one president, and as incurious and unprepared as he was, there was a natural desire to see him somehow grow in office to meet the moment.
Of course for journalists, the most patriotic thing we can do is our jobs -- which meant that we all should have doubled down on skepticism and tough questions. Some did. I wish I could say that I was one of them.
The Bush White House, as reporters Michael Isikoff and David Corn so ably documented in their book Hubris, relentlessly and cynically sold the phony details of Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction." Even Gen. Colin Powell, then secretary of state and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was taken in.[even Colin Powell was "taken in!"]
Indeed. And some reporters happily did the administration's dirty work for them. Here's a little quote from Fineman from 2003:
Yes, it is true that when a government decides to lie and does it systematically, it isn't easy to pull back the curtain. And yet too many people in and out of government believed what they wanted to believe or felt it convenient to believe.
Many of the naysayers moved within the orbit of the CIA, which was denounced by the Bush-Cheney neoconservatives as an agency full of incompetent weaklings. Members of the press with vast experience and deep CIA contacts became some of the loudest critics of the idea of attacking Iraq, yet many were ignored precisely because of their sources.
I am told by what I regard as a very reliable source inside the White House that aides there did, in fact, try to peddle the identity of Joe Wilson’s wife to several reporters. But the motive wasn’t revenge or intimidation so much as a desire to explain why, in their view, Wilson wasn’t a neutral investigator, but, a member of the CIA’s leave-Saddam-in-place team.
It actually makes you yearn for he said/she said, doesn't it? At least the other side would be represented. The good news is that he's learned something from all this:
As for me, I could say that I was covering politics, not war, and that it wasn't my job to try to pierce the veil of lies and "precog" justifications of the Bush-Cheney-neocon axis.
Well, I don't travel in the corridors of power like Fineman, so I suppose I had the advantage of not needing to flatter the men and women who will feed me information to uncritically regurgitate. But, to me, it didn't take a professional journalist to see that George W. Bush and the Cheney cabal were warmongering liars. After all, they'd signaled their intentions for years. It was even on the internet.
But the war was politics. It was a new battle for the president to be seen fighting as he headed toward a reelection run. I should have known more, studied more, asked more questions and been more skeptical.
I hope I am wiser now. I hope we all are.
I hope he's wiser too, but I'm not getting my hopes up:
Among his other attributes, Jay Carney is a cool dancer. I know that because I saw him and his wife, Claire Shipman, getting down on the tented dance floor of a fancy Georgetown wedding years ago. Jay Carney, who went to Yale and was a foreign correspondent in Moscow, is -- besides being smart, savvy, loyal and well-connected with the right sort -- suave.
At least he doesn't have him wearing epauletts and ermine. Baby steps.
Why bring this up? Because by choosing him as his new press secretary, President Barack Obama has completed his swift and thorough transition from crusading outsider to shrewd insider as he prepares to deal with the wild folk of the Tea Party, Karl Rove and the Republican kneecappers, and an electorate still fearful that the world is spinning out of control.
Say this about Obama: He is adaptable, he is a survivor and he has a supreme desire to win.
He is setting up his reelection campaign back in Chicago, but that is an expensive piece of window dressing unlikely to convince people that he is somehow still, if he ever was, a guy from the heartland. David Axelrod and the gang will be back in the Windy City, but the operation will be run by a Chicagoan-cum-Washingtonian with national and even global ties -- Bill Daley -- and a cadre of the best and the brightest of the Clinton administration who came to the city to do good and stayed to do well.
Obama came to the White House in the manner of Jimmy Carter, with whom he was, early on, mistakenly compared. But while Carter never expanded his circle beyond the "Georgians," Obama has, with stunning swiftness, retooled his administration to play hardball in the D.C. League.
And lest you think that's just a harmless little beat sweetener, fear no more. He's right there, once again, with the party line:
FINEMAN: "And if we're going to be cutting Medicare at some point, which I think most voters understand, I think right now looking at these alternatives they'd rather have a Democrat they know than a Republican who never supported the program to begin with."
Those are White House talking points. The one thing you can say for Fineman is that he's no partisan. He faithfully transcribes whatever the powerful people in Washington tell him and presents it as his own view. That's useful, actually. As long as you don't confuse it with journalism.