FRIDAY, APRIL 2, 2004
SCRIPT WITHOUT END, AMEN: For years, weve said that the press corps works from scripts. There has never been a better time to nail down this seminal concept.
We refer to this weeks most widely-typed talethe script about Condi Rice and al Qaeda. In his book, Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke makes a naughty suggestion. He describes the briefing given to Rice in January 2001. As I briefed Rice on al Qaeda, he writes, her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before. Result? A string of scribes have stood in line to insist that Clarkes impression was wrong. Their evidence? An October 2000 radio interview in which Rice mentioned Osama bin Laden, but didnt use the term al Qaeda. For the record, Clarke says it wasnt just Condi. Most senior officials in the administration did not know the term when we briefed them, he writes in his book.
Did Condi know the term al Qaeda? Here at THE HOWLER, we dont have a clue. But this utterly trivial topic has produced the press corps script-of-the-week. Eager scribes have stood in line to recite the refutation-of-Clarke. To see Lisa Myers recite the script, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/31/04.
But what exactly is a script? Rice-knew-al-Qaeda helps explain it. Lets nail three crucial points:
A script can be totally trivial: Clarkes book concerns matters of life and deaththe sorts of things your press corps avoids. Your press corps adores the Totally Trivial, and Rice-knew-al-Qaeda clearly qualifies. Clarke devotes one sentence to the matter. Absolutely nothing turns on it. Despite that, a long string of journalists have flogged the topic. Pointlessness cant stop a script.
A script can be totally wrong: Plainly, Rices interview doesnt show that she knew the term al Qaeda. A schoolchild could see that quite well. Despite this, a string of scribes have stood in line to pretend that the interview does show such knowledge. As far as we know, no one has yet turned up a case in which Rice did use the term al Qaeda. But so what? The Washington press corps greatest scripts are almost always factually bogus! The concept of accuracy is no longer part of your press corps dysfunctional culture.
Everybody has to say it: A script can be trivialand a script can be wrong. But everybody has to recite it! In the case of Rice-knew-al-Qaeda, the script began with hapless Sean Hannity, a pundit for whom no claim is too stupid. But Hannity was only the first of many to voice this inaccurate script. Comically, Myers included the script in a Truth Squad segment. Evan Thomas put the script right at the top of his Newsweek report. Michiko Kakutani repeated the tale in a New York Times book review. Whats the sign that everyone said it? Bill Kristol even voiced the script, on last weekends Fox News Sunday. Kristol always thinks for himself. Just how vital was this script? Even Kristol was willing to mouth it.
The topic was trivial. The claim was wrong. Despite that, everyone lined up to say it! The script expressed Conventional WisdomDarling Condi cant be wrong. The press reached this judgment a long time ago, and they have no current plan to rethink it. So this week, they insulted your intelligence, again and again, reciting a tale that is patently bogus. Weve tried to tell you, for many years, about your press corps blatant dysfunction. This week, they had a better idea. They decided to show you themselves.
File under:SCRIPTS EVERLASTING, AMEN: Everybody had to recite it! Indeed, how ubiquitous was the al Qaeda script? On Tuesday night, Chris Matthews featured Myers on Hardball. And, as we noted in Wednesdays HOWLER, he seemed to mock her recitation of this fatuous script. Flawlessly, Myers played the pointless-but-mandated tape. Then Matthews offered this comment:
MATTHEWS (3/30/04): Well, its clear [Rice] knew what the basic substance was. I guess the only question, Lisa, is, Was she familiar with the term, al Qaedathe base in Arabic?To all appearances, Matthews knew that the tape didnt speak to the actual question at hand. But so what? The next night, Clarke played a bit of Hardball himself. And Matthews pimped the very script he seemed to mock one night earlier:
MATTHEWS (3/31/04): Lets talk about something very critical. You said in your book that as I briefed Condoleezza Rice on al Qaedathis is in January of 2001, a month, almost a year before 9/11her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before.Seeing is almost believing. On Tuesday, Matthews seemed to mock Myers for her clowning. But by Wednesday, her script was very critical, involving a troubling contradiction. Remember this very crucial point: When the press corps settles on a script, everybody has to recite it! Even scribes who know its false will line up to vote with the guild.
WIDOW-BREAKER: The Washington Postand op-ed chief Fred Hiattshould be ashamed of Charles Krauthammers column this morning. The sliming of Richard Clarke continues, with Krauthammer reciting a Standard ScriptClarke made a phony apology. Remember the key idea in this: We must never respond to Clarkes claims on the merits. We must always misdirect the publicto his motives, his profiteering, his alleged sordid character, and of course, to his weird private life.
How nasty is Krauthammers column? Today, the snarling scribe extends his pique to the wives of those who died on 9/11. Lets face it: There is nothing so nasty that this fellow wont say it. Go ahead and read this piece to see where his small mind has been.
So yes, Charles Krauthammers column is nasty, but readers can easily see that. Unfortunately, readers cant see the way the scribe misleads them about basic facts. After saying how fake Richard Clarke really isand just before stooping to trash those fake widowsKrauthammer baldly spins the facts. The most telling remark Clarke made in the entire [9/11] hearing was one that did not make the cover of Newsweek, he whines. Then he quotes from Clarkes appearance. Try to believe this got printed:
KRAUTHAMMER: Former senator Slade Gorton: Assuming that the recommendations that you made on January 25th of 2001 had all been adopted say on January 26th, year 2001, is there the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9/11?What was Bush supposed to do? Obviously, Krauthammer and Hiatt know what Clarke has said; they know that Clarke has repeatedly said that something might have stopped 9/11. Consider his session on 60 Minutes, a program the pair surely watched. By July 2001, George Tenet was telling George Bush that a major al-Qaeda attack is going to happen against the United States somewhere in the world in the weeks and months ahead, Clarke said. But Bush never thought it was important enough for him to hold a meeting on the subject, he continued, or for him to order his national security advisor to hold a cabinet-level meeting. (In 1999, Clinton conducted such meetings for weeks when a similar threat-level existed, Clarke said.) Might such meetings have made a difference? In a voice-over, Lesley Stahl noted that the FBI and the CIA knew that two al-Qaeda operatives, both among the 9/11 hijackers, had been living in the United States since 2000, yet neither agency [had] passed that information up the chain of command. According to Clarke, if Bush had convened daily meetings of his principals, they might have shaken this information loose from the bureaucracys lower levels. Could that have stopped 9/11? We dont have the slightest idea. But here was Clarkes assessment:
CLARKE: Lesley, if we had put their picture on the CBS Evening News, if we had put their picture on Dan Rather, on USA Today, we could have caught those guys, and then we might have been able to pull that thread andand get more of the conspiracy. Im not saying we could have stopped 9/11, but we could have at least had a chance.What was Bush supposed to do? Clarke has answered that again and again. But Krauthammer pretends he doesnt know, and Hiatt lets him fool the Posts readers. Do we ever get tired of men like this making such a joke of our lives?
According to Clarke, his plan could not have stopped 9/11but tree-shaking meetings that summer just might have. But Charles didnt want you to know about that. So Fred Hiatt said, Trash the wives.
WHEN PUNDITS APOLOGIZE: Of course, if Krauthammer wanted to take on phony apologies, we know of two real ones he could have selected. How bizarre has CNNs conduct been? Read Paul Krugmans column to see. On Tuesday, Wolf Blitzer offered a puzzling apology in which he plainly slimed Krugman himself (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/1/04). And then there was Daryn Kagans apology, served up yesterday morning. Kagan tried to explain why CNN accused David Letterman of doctoring videotapetape which poked some fun at Bush. For a summary of this strange case, see the aforementioned Krugman column. But to get a good look at a phony apology, read what Kagan said:
KAGAN: We need to clear up something from a couple days ago. You might recall that we had some fun with some tape that we took from the Letterman show. Its of a kid who had trouble staying alert during a presidential speech in Orlando last month.Now thats a phony apology! Lets state the obvious; like everyone else on the face of the earth, Kagan knows the tape wasnt fake. Despite that, she suggests that CNN still isnt sure; weve been looking through the tape, she says, and apparently the network sees no evidence that Lettermans actually lying. Wellthey see no evidence now. Gee, thanks for that gracious concession! Beyond that, Kagan plays dumb about this whole bizarre incident. She guesses the White House wasnt involved, and says that someone referred to as they told her she should say otherwise. Readers, why in the world is this goof on the air? Oh, we forgotshes good looking.
Phony apologies? CNN has em! They also have a growing track record in which they seem to spread White House smears. Richard Clarke has a strange private life! David Letterman is faking tapes! And the apologies never make sense. What on earth is going on at this floundering network?
P.S. For the record, its always possible that the White House didnt make that call.
But in fact, many of Clarkes controversial claims have been supported elsewhere. Kakutani noted this obvious fact in yesterdays Times review:
KAKUTANI: Given the howling political firestorm over Richard A. Clarkes new book, Against All Enemies, it is surprising how familiar many of his assertions sound, his recitation of pre-9/11 antiterrorism missteps by the Bush and Clinton administrations echoing earlier books and old newspaper and magazine articles Many of its most debated charges about the Bush administrations handling of the war on terrorism have been leveled before. Some have been corroborated or openly acknowledged by other members of the administration.Truer words were never spoken. Pundits who staged this howling storm were dumb-or-playing-dumb again. Indeed, many of Clarkes controversial claims were supported by a book pundits lovedWoodwards majestic Bush at War. But because they were dumb-or-playing-dumb, your pundits refused to take notice.
Here are four of Clarkes controversial charges, along with the supporting material from Woodwards much-loved book:
Rummys targets: Pundits found it hard to believe that Rummy really said it! On September 12, Clarke alleged, the wise old owl was prowling the White House, looking for someone to bomb:
CLARKE (page 31): Later in the day, Secretary Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan and that we should consider bombing Iraq, which, he said, had better targets. At first I thought Rumsfeld was joking. But he was serious and the President did not reject out of hand the idea of attacking Iraq.Pundits wondered if this could be true. They should have studied their Woodwardfor example, his account of Camp David on 9/15:
WOODWARD (page 84): When the group reconvened, Rumsfeld asked, Is this the time to attack Iraq? He noted that there would be a big build-up of forces in the region, and he was still deeply worried about the availability of good targets in Afghanistan.In Bush at War, a string of advisers note that Iraq would provide better targets. (Hence the word still in the passage above.) Last weekend, Rumsfeld was asked about Clarkes troubling claim by Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday. Rummy gave two rambling replies; in the course of his non-answer answers, he never denied making the statement which Clarke records in his book.
Rummy and Wolfies designs on Iraq: Say what? One of Clarkes controversial claims concerned alleged designs on Iraq. Scribes were shocked by Clarkes account of life on September 12:
CLARKE (page 30): I expected to go back to a round of meetings examining what the next attacks [against America] could be, what our vulnerabilities were, what we could do about them in the short term. Instead, I walked into a series of discussions about Iraq. At first I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting al Qaeda. Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq.What a controversial statement! Unless you read Woodwardsame day:
WOODWARD (page 49): Rumsfeld raised the question of Iraq. Why shouldnt we go against Iraq, not just al Qaeda? he asked. Rumsfeld was speaking not only for himself when he raised the question. His deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, was committed to a policy that would make Iraq a principal target in the first round of the war on terrorism.Not that there was anything wrong with it, but thats what Woodward records! Indeed, Woodward shows Cheney voicing a similar view:
WOODWARD (page 43): To the extent we define our task broadly, Cheney said [at a 9/12 NSC meeting], including those who support terrorism, then we get at states. And its easier to find them than it is to find bin Laden.Again, rumination on easier targets.
Bushs testes: Did Bush have a jones for linking Saddam to 9/11? That was Clarkes controversial impression on September 12. Everyone knew how shocking it was when the profiteer dared to say this:
CLARKE (page 32): Look into Iraq, Saddam, the President said testily and left us. Lisa Gordon-Hagerty stared after him with her mouth hanging open.Everyone knew it was controversial when Clarke recorded this troubling notionthe notion that Bush was eager to link Saddam to 9/11. Maybe they should have read their Woodward. He records Bushs view on September 17:
WOODWARD (page 98): Bush said he wanted a plan to stabilize Pakistan and protect it against the consequences of supporting the U.S.In fact, he didnt have the evidence, but according to Woodward, he asserted belief. For the record, its odd that Bush would have reached this judgment. Earlier, Woodward records the views of Wolfowitz, the most anti-Saddam Bush adviser:
WOODWARD (page 83): [Wolfowitz] worried about 100,000 American troops bogged down in mountain fighting in Afghanistan six months from then. In contrast, Iraq was a brittle, oppressive regime that might break easily. It was doable. He estimated that there was a 10 to 50 percent chance Saddam was involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks.Even Wolfie was only at 10 to 50 percent. By the way, this passage provides another bit of easier target thinking.
Not that urgent: According to Clarke, the threat of terror wasnt urgent for the Bush Admin before 9/11. In this case, Clarke himself told scribes where to go. Yep! He sent them straight to this passage in Woodward:
WOODWARD (page 39): [Bush] acknowledged that bin Laden was not his focus or that of his national security team. There was a significant difference in my attitude after September 11. I was not on point I didnt have that sense of urgency, and my blood was not nearly as boiling.Oof! The White House would love to get that one back! Of course, the pundits would have missed it too. But Clarke just keeps bringing it up.
Why is Krauthammer sliming Clarkes motives? Because, as Kakutani notes, his basic claims are widely supported. Indeed, theyre widely supported in Bush at War, a book your pundits simply loved. By the wayWoodward said, when his book appeared, that it was full of solid reporting. Pundits hailed its Bush-loving tone. But now, the reporting has come home to roost, and pundits have tried not to notice.