THURSDAY, MARCH 25, 2004
TOMORROW: Trained Seelye, part IV.
LATEST FROM THE SPOTLESS MIND: Kafka could never have dreamed this crew up! In recent weeks, the New York Times Elisabeth Bumiller has published a string of bizarre White House letters, praising the presidents fine bedtime habits and rhapsodizing about his warm, comfy bed. Snoopy should have gotten a by-line. The scribe also made a fool of herself at a Democratic presidential debate.
Now, the Spotless Mind takes us behind the scenes at that famous pre-Iraq White House press conference. The conference was held on March 6, 2003; assembled reporters lobbed softballs at Bush, bringing themselves widespread ridicule (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/11/03). Finally, Bumiller explains the corps behavior. Kafka couldnt have dreamed up a White House correspondent who was willing to say this in public:
BUMILLER: I think we were very deferential because its live, its very intense, its frightening to stand up there. Think about it, youre standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the countrys about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.Its frightening to stand up there, Bumiller says. Its frightening to ask the president a question! At the time, Bush hadnt met with the press in four months; dozens of questions were begging for answers. But according to Bumiller, it was too scary. Why did the press lob softballs that day? No one wanted to get in an argument, the spotless Times journalist says.
Its amazing that Bumiller felt this way. Its much more amazing that shed say this in public. You sometimes think were being hyperbolic when we say that our press corps cant be from this planet. But remember: The words we quote were recently spoken by the New York Times White House correspondent! Weve told you for years: You dont have a press corps! First by her letters, then by this statement, Bumiller makes our point clear.
RAINES ON THEIR PARADE: How ironicthat Bumillers other-worldly confession coincides with Howell Raines Atlantic piece. (Howard Kurtz describes the piece in this mornings Post.) What did Raines think when he became the Times editor? I thought the paper was becoming duller, slower and more uneven in quality with every passing day, he says. The Times badly need[ed] to raise the quality of its journalism. But you just dont talk that kind of smack to the Spotless Minds who work at the Times. Many of my colleagues became enraged when I talked about the lethargy, Raines writes. It was a violation of the newsroom omerta.
Was Raines the right man for the job at the Times? On that, we have no opinion. But we couldnt help chuckling at one part of todays piece. Kurtz continues quoting Raines as he rips the Times performance. The Times could have sold more papers in Gotham, Raines says, but we were ignoring the economic and social realities of many of our local readers lives.
Say what? The Times was ignoring the real lives of its readers? Is there any chance that that could be true? Kurtz attempted to ask Raines replacement. But wouldnt you know it? The current executive editor, Bill Keller, was on vacation in the Caribbean and his office said he could not be reached!
We got a good laugh from Kurtzs whimsy. But while Keller lounges about in the tropics, Bumiller says that she was too scared to ask about the war with Iraq. Shed rather write about comfy beds. Tell us that Kafka could ever have put such a Kafkaesque world into print.
CLARKE IN THE ZONE: So lets see. In 2002, Richard Clarkethen a high Bush Admin officialgave an anonymous background briefing. In it, he expressed the viewpoint of that administration. According to Clarke, he did this although he disagreed with some of the Bush Admins views.
As almost every human knows, this sort of thing goes on every day, in every type of organization. For example, lawyers speak on behalf of their clients, expressing views they may not personally hold. And yes, administration spokesmen voice administration views, although they may not agree with each point. On last nights Hardball, for example, Chris Matthews mocked Bush spokesman Terry Holt on this very point.
MATTHEWS: When youre on the payroll, youre under White House discipline.Throughout the session, Matthews challenged Holts criticism of Clarke. Arent you mouthing the Official Line? he kept asking. And Holt kept displaying his considerable skill with that old tool, the non-answer answer.
Are Clarkes critiques of Bush on target? That is a matter of judgment. But its hardly surprising to learn that he once gave a briefing in which he presented the Bush Admin Line. But Fox News has an Official Line, tooRichard Clarke is a two-faced liar. Result? Last night, Bill OReilly played viewers for fools as he pushed this Fox Line on The Factor.
Yep! Mr. O was spinning hardright in the No Spin Zone, no less! Note the things he forgot to say when he worried about Clarkes vast duplicity:
OREILLY: Former terror czar and book writer Richard Clarke testified today, but the more I learn about this guy, the more Im skeptical that he is now using his knowledge for political reasons We have two sound bites for you from Clarke, vis-a-vis Clinton and Bush. First, what he said today.But wouldnt you know it? Mr. O forgot to mention Clarkes explanation for the statement from 2002. Then he trashed a 9/11 commissionerand was careful to omit more key facts:
OREILLY: By the way, former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey, a member of the commission, criticized Fox News for using that last sound bite of Clarke. So, Mr. Kerrey, are you looking out for the truth here, sir, or what?But why did Kerrey criticize Fox? Because that last sound bite was from an anonymous background briefinga briefing which is supposed to remain anonymous. Was Mr. O looking out for his viewers? Sorry. Instead, he picked and chose his facts, letting viewers hear those facts which would win them to the Official Fox Line.
Spokesmen give briefings every day in which they present the views of their orgs. They may not personally agree with those views; surely, every human knows it. But Fox was pushing hard last night, eager to cut into Clarkes credibility. Is Clarke on target about the Admin? As weve said, thats a matter of judgment. But Mr. Os viewers wont have to judge. Hell give them only the facts they needthe facts that help push his own line.
SEAN SPINS THE RUBES: Low, mordant chuckles filled our vast halls as we watched Sean spin the rubes Tuesday night. In his new book, Clarke suggests that Condoleezza Rice was less-than-current about al Qaeda when the Bush Admin took office. In early 2001, Clarke briefed Rice. He writes, Her facial expression gave the impression shed never heard of al Qaeda before.
Had Condi ever heard of al Qaeda? Here at THE HOWLER, we dont have a clue. But almost anythings possible with Rice. Remember, this is the National Security Adviser who had never heard about airplanes as weapons and who didnt read the whole National Intelligence Estimate before the war with Iraq. But Hannity was eager to make Clarke a liar. So he subjected Newt Gingrich to this:
HANNITY: Mr. Speaker, I want to ask you this. This new book by Mr. Clarke that is out there, he accused Condoleezza Rice, I think he was particularly vicious towards her, of having never heard of al Qaeda until he mentioned it to her in early 2001. Quote, he said, Her facial expression gave the impression shed never heard of al Qaeda before.Wow! Hannity really had the goods! He was going to refute Clarkes mean-spirited lie! Rubes leaned forward in their chairs. And the rube-runner played this tape:
RICE: Osama bin Laden do two things [sic]. The first is you really have to get the intelligence agencies better organized to deal with the terrorist threat to the United States itself. One of the problems that we have is a kind of split responsibility, of course, between the CIA and foreign intelligence and the FBI and domestic intelligence.Sean was thrilled. Pretty amazing, isnt it, Mr. Speaker? he asked. Diplomatically, Newt changed the subject.
Why did Speaker Newt move on? Duh. Clarke didnt say that Rice had never heard of bin Laden; he said she may have been stumped by the term al Qaeda. But readers, Rice didnt use that term in this tape! And trust us: If Rice ever said al Qaeda in public before she met Clarke, the tape would be there in Seans hands.
No, this doesnt really make any difference. But our hearts went out to Speaker Gingrich, forced to listen to Seans silly clowning. Nobody found the tape that I just played, Hannity bragged, that shows that he was dead wrong in his observation and knowledge of what Condoleezza Rice knew. Gee, Sean, we wonder where you found the tape? Any chance that you found the tape in the hands of Terry Holt and associates?