FRIDAY, APRIL 16, 2004
SCHEDULE: Tomorrow, Rice Under Oath, part 4.
THE GOOD SHIPWRECK TIMES: We suggest you read Charles Pierces take on Kit Seelyes latest work for the Times. (Pierce is filling in for Eric Alterman at his semi-eponymous web site.) During Campaign 2000, Seelyes astonishing coverage of Candidate Gore helped define the shipwreck the Times has become, but through all the clowning she dumped on Gores head, we never could spot an ideology. Now, Seelye is bashing Candidate Kerry over a set of religious concerns. At long last, we may be starting to get a glimpse of the disordered shape of this journalists mind. But her kooky work keeps defining the Times. The New York Times is a vast shipwreck.
KINDERGARTEN PRESS CORPS: What a perfectly matched pair of players we saw at Tuesday s press conference! On the one hand, we saw a president prepared to move mountains to stop an attackif Osama will tell him where it will happen. On the other hand, we saw a press corps eager to report the presidents mistakeif hell just say what his big mistakes were. What were our reporters thinking when they posed endless questions like this one?
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. In the last campaign you were asked a question about the biggest mistake youd made in your life and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa.Times John Dickerson posed that groaner, the last in a string of invitations-to-confess. And so, let the word go forth from this web site: Reporters are supposed to identify a presidents mistakes on their own. A president doesnt have to stage an event where he stands up in public and lists them.
How inane were the press corps questions? On Thursday evenings Special Report, the all-stars discussed the topicand even their comments made lots of sense! Even Fred Barnes got it right:
BARNES: Its not difficult. Theres nothing difficult about it. Its very easy to ask an informational question, which is what reporters are supposed to ask, when theyre seeking information from the presidentYep! The press corps questions were so inept, even Barnes could see what was wrong! But what sort of questions should they have asked? Incomparably, were willing to tell you.
Lets look at one of the less awful questionsa question by ABCs Terry Moran. His query was better than Dickersons groaner. But keep two general rules in mind. Generally speaking, questions at events like this should involve specifics. And questions shouldnt have more than two parts. Morans question broke both rules. Result? Bushs answer was worthless.
Moran supplied the evenings third question. Where do these kids learn their skills?
MORAN: Mr. President, before the war you and members of your administration made several claims about Iraq: that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators with sweets and flowers; that Iraqi oil revenue would pay for most of the reconstruction; and that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction, but as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, we know where they are. How do you explain to Americans how you got that so wrong? And how do you answer your opponents, who say that you took this nation to war on the basis of what has turned out to be a series of false premises?Whats wrong with that question? Moran asked Bush about three different topics. He included few specific facts or quotations. Anyone could have guessed the result. Because Bush hadnt been asked to address specifics, he offered a rambling, generalized answeran answer wed heard many times in the past. In the process, none of Morans three concerns were addressed in a serious way, and Bush killed a big chunk of time.
Bush began with Morans third topicthose missing WMD. Why was Bush wrong on those WMD? This question has already been asked many times! Result? Bush offered an endless, rambling discussion, stringing together a series of points we have heard many times in the past. (Opening remark: Well, let me step back and review my thinking ) And alas! This sleep-inducing, first part of Bushs answer took two minutes and 35 seconds. Get a cup of good strong coffee, then read what the president said:
BUSH: Well, let me step back and review my thinking prior to going into Iraq.As noted, two and a half minutes had come off the clockand Bush had said almost nothing we hadnt heard many times in the past. But then, why didnt Bush give a real answer? Because Terry Moran hadnt asked a real question! Well show you what he might have askedbut first, Part 2 of Bushs response. By this time, neither Bush nor anyone else on earth could even recall what Moran had asked. Those present were fighting for consciousness:
BUSH (continuing directly): And what else part of the questionoh, oil revenues! Well, the oil revenues, theyre bigger than we thought they would be at this point in time. I mean, one year after the liberation of Iraq, the revenues, or the oil stream, is pretty darn significant.Needless to say, this answer evaded the premise of Morans question. After all, if oil revenues are higher than expected, why arent they covering the cost of the war? But by this time, very few people could even recall what Moran had specifically asked. Did Moran really want an answer on this? If so, he should have asked a more detailed question. But now, Part 3 of Bushs response, the part about bouquets and sweets. Again, because Morans question had been so vague, Bush did what many pols would have donehe answered by reciting old scripts:
BUSH (continuing directly): Finally, the attitude of the Iraqis toward the American people. Its an interesting question. Theyre really pleased we got rid of Saddam Hussein, and you can understand why. Because the guys a torturer, a killer, a maimer. Theres mass graves! I mean, he was a horrible individual that really shocked the country in many ways, shocked it into a kind of a fear of making decisions toward liberty. Thats what weve seen recently. Some citizens are fearful of stepping up. And they were happy thattheyre not happy theyre occupied. I wouldnt be happy if I were occupied either. They do want us there to help with security, and thats why this transfer of sovereignty is an important signal to send, and its why its also important for them to hear we will stand with them until they become a free country.Bush said occupied instead of liberated. But four full minutes had now gone by since Moran proffered his vague, three-part question. And all we had heard was familiar old cant. Morans question insured that result.
What should Moran have asked? And what should other scribes have asked if they wanted to hear about Bushs mistakes? Questions should have been specific and focussed. Here are a few ideas:
Why were you wrong about WMD: Why was Bush wrong about WMD? Moran asked a vague, general questiona question weve heard ten million timesand he got the answer his question deserved. Suggestion: He could have worked from the 3000-word, front-page report which appeared in the March 28 Los Angeles Times. In their detailed piece, Bob Drogin and Greg Miller reported on one of the Chalabi-connected Iraqi defectors who fed the U.S. fake information about WMD. The public needs to hear this discussed. Here is a possible question:
SAMPLE QUESTION: Mr. President, as the Los Angeles Times reported on March 28, Colin Powells pre-war presentation to the UN included information about alleged mobile labs supplied by an Iraqi informant code-named Curveball. As Secretary Powell has now acknowledged, it seems that this information was false. Indeed, David Kay has said that this Iraqi informant turned out to be, and I quote, an out-and-out fabricator, and he has even said that Powells presentation before the UN was, and I quote, disingenuous. With so much at stake, how is it possible that your administration accepted information of this kind? And since this discredited informant was allied with Ahmed Chalabi, why are we still engaged with Chalabi as we work toward Iraqs independence?We spent two minutes assembling that question; Moran could have crafted a much tighter version. But that is an actual question about an actual failurea failure Bush should be asked to explain. And because this question is built on specifics, it would have been hard to answer the question by saying, Saddam was a maimer. There were mass graves! No question can force a politician to respond. But if President Bush had evaded this question, his evasion would have been rather clear. If fifteen scribes had asked questions like this, you would have seen a real press conference.
Why did you make so many mistakes: The Kindergarten Press Corps was very eager to catch Bush in a troubling mistake. Sadly, they were too inept to identify such mistakesthey wanted Bush to do their work for them! But as Barnes said, questions at news conferences should try to elicit actual informationinformation that moves public knowledge forward. Current topic: As Bush himself said on Tuesday night, we are now increasing troop levels in Iraq. Instead of asking Bush for a list of blunders, why couldnt one of our gun-totin scribes have asked about this apparent mistake? A question could have sounded like this:
SAMPLE QUESTION: Mr. President, in March 2003, General Eric Shinseki told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that something on the order of several hundred thousand troops would be required to occupy postwar Iraq. Soon after, Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, disputed Shinsekis estimate, rather aggressively. At one point, Rumsfeld predicted that our troop levels would be down to NUMBER OF TROOPS by DATE. (Note to reporters: This is where you do something called research.) With troop deployments now being raised, isnt it clear that Shinseki was right, and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were wrong? And are you concerned by the way Secretary Rumsfeld misjudged such a basic matter?We dont know much about this topic; a journalist could make that question much stronger. But this is an actual, specific mistakeone the public deserves to hear discussed. But your press corps is too pampered and lazy to identify Bushs mistakes. They want Bush to do the job for them. (Another apparent mistake? Those oil revenues. Moran could have assembled a specific question about that specific mistake.)
For ourselves, if we had a chance to ask one question, we would have asked about Condi Rice. Here at the HOWLER, were tired of Rices carnival showher bizarre public statements about major matters, and, of course, her endless dissembling. We might have asked about a recent example:
SAMPLE QUESTION: Mr. President, your National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said in May 2002 that no one could have imagined the use of airplanes as weapons. Last week, speaking under oath, she said that she could not have imagined such an attack, although others in the administration might have been able to do so. But in July 2001, you and Rice attended the G-8 summit in Genoa, and the Italian prime minister later said that just such an air attack had been threatened at that event. Meanwhile, the intelligence community had recorded a long string of warnings about airplanes-as-weapons, starting in the mid-1990s. Can you tell us if there was such a threat at the G-8 summit in Genoa? And how is it possible that your National Security Adviser didnt know the history of this topic even by 2002, when it had been widely discussed on the front pages of American newspapers?Questions like this would be hard to answer by saying Saddam was a very bad man.
Bushs performance Tuesday night was disturbing. But the presidents stale, disjointed, rambling answers were perfectly matched by the corps inane questions. Was that a press corps we sawor a kindergarten class? Final question: How is it possible that such inept and disengaged people serve as stewards of Americas discourse?
MUSTARD GAS ON A TURKEY FARM: Yes, we knowBushs answer about those oil revenues was factually bogus. So was his statement, made two times, about mustard gas on that turkey farm. (The president seems to have this matter confused with his favorite sandwich.) But dont worry! No one in the Washington press will ask about these misstatements. Nor will anyone ask about Bushs oddest claimhis statement that the August 6 PDB was comforting because it said that the FBI was conducting 70 full-field domestic investigations of al Qaeda. (To Bush, that came as a comfort!) No, one will ask about these things. After all, Bush and Rice lied in the press corps face last weeksaying the August 6 PDB had nothing to do with domestic warningsand no one dared to ask about that! Readers, weve told you this again and again. You no longer have a Washington press corps. In its place, you have a kindergarten, and it showed you its skills Tuesday night.
LIS AND BILL SPEAK: We should probably look at Elisabeth Bumillers question because we previewed her work this week. Fortified by a belt of good scotch, the timorous scribe managed this:
BUMILLER: Thank you, Mr. President. To move to the 9/11 Commission, you yourself have acknowledged that Osama bin Laden was not a central focus of the administration in the months before September 11th.To move to the 9/11 Commission, she saidthen asked about Woodwards book instead. But these are truly minor complaints. At least she didnt ask the prez to explain how he stays so punctual.
A less minor complaint might concern that quote from Woodwards book. As we have noted, the White House has spent the past two weeks saying this quote was taken out of context. Karen Hughes has said it all over cable, and Rice said the same thing at the 9/11 hearings, seeming to read from a transcript of Bushs interview with Woodward. A real reporter might have tried to get a look at that transcript, to increase our understanding of what Bush really said. But Bumiller is a tired incompetent. Result? She asked a pointless question, already knowing the answer:
BUSH: Let me put that quote to Woodward in context. Hed asked me if I wassomething about killing bin Laden. Thats what the question was.Bush rambled on from there, semi-coherently. And oh yesBush feels grief, not responsibility. But then, we all knew that part too.
One last truly horrendous question. Yes, Bill Sammon really asked this. Try to believe that he did it:
SAMMON: You have been accused of letting the 9/11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature far enough. First, could you respond to that general criticism? And secondly, in the wake of these two conflicts, what is the appropriate threat level to justify action in perhaps other situations going forward?Good God! Sammon stated a general criticism that is really an incoherent, Hannity-level, pseudo-conservative spin-point. Lets play softball, Sammon said. And he got the moment he sought. Bush agreed that this general criticism had been just a trifle unfair.