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Daily Howler: Neal Gabler offers a spot-on critique of Wallace's question to Clinton
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GABLER GETS IT RIGHT: Neal Gabler offers a spot-on critique of Wallace’s question to Clinton: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, OCTOBER 2, 2006

THE DOCTOR IS CONSTANTLY IN: At this point, we don’t have an especially high regard for Bob Woodward or for his brilliant work. (Details to follow in future posts.) For that reason, we’re going to challenge Digby a tad about a passage from Woodward’s new book. (You know? The book which reports that Woodward was wrong in his previous books?) In this post, the Digster says this: “We've all discussed the Shakespearean dimensions of this bizarre presidency, but I had no idea about this particular plot-line.” Digby then presents a passage from Woodward’s book about the way Bush picked brilliant Rumsfeld:
WOODWARD: Cheney had suggested Rumsfeld to Bush in late December 2000. Rumsfeld was so impressive, Bush told Card at the time. He had had the job in the Ford administration a quarter-century before, and it was as if he were now saying, "I think I've got some things I'd like to finish."

But there was another dynamic that Bush and Card discussed. Rumsfeld and Bush's father, the former president, couldn't stand each other. Bush senior didn't trust Rumsfeld and thought he was arrogant, self-important, too sure of himself and Machiavellian. Rumsfeld had also made nasty private remarks that the elder Bush was a lightweight.

Card could see that overcoming the former president's skepticism about Rumsfeld added to the president-elect's excitement. It was a chance to prove his father wrong. And Rumsfeld fit Cheney's model of a defense secretary who could not only battle things out with the generals but who also had as much gravitas as the rest of the new national security team.

Bush would nominate Rumsfeld, he told Card. Cheney had been selected for his national security credentials. He was the expert, and this was the sort of decision that required expertise. Still, Bush wondered privately to Card about pitfalls, if there was something he didn't see here. After all, his father had strong feelings.

Is this a trapdoor? he asked.
According to Digby, this part of Woodward’s book shows “Junior’s adolescent need to reject his father.” But does this passage really show that? If we come to that conclusion, we are making two assumptions: 1) Card knew how to read Bush’s mind, and 2) Woodward recorded Card’s statements correctly. We have little confidence in either proposition. By the way, many Bush insiders are now saying the things the mainstream press wants to hear, hoping to curry favor with the press for their future career interests. If Card said this, was he being sincere? We can’t imagine why a critic of this Admin would automatically think so.

In our view, we liberals become like kooky-cons (or worse, like Maureen Dowd) when we accept mind-reading, psychiatrizing work like this just because we find it pleasing—just because the psychiatrization of the moment happens to cut in our favor. This kind of journalistic “reasoning” has been relentlessly used, in the past fifteen years, to do massive damage to major Dem candidates. In the long run, we’d guess that we would be better off in we rejected all such piffle from intellectual midgets like Woodward and Dowd.

In many ways, Woodward has become a Dowdian clown. We’d guess that libs would be better off if we rejected all such work—if we skipped the picking-and-choosing about the corps’ mind-reading sessions. In this press corps, the doctor is constantly IN. The bad news? This doctor’s a quack.

GABLER GETS IT RIGHT: With the possible exception of Jeff Cohen before him, no one has offered more Fox-on-Fox criticism than Neal Gabler, weekly panelist on Fox Newswatch (by light-years, the network’s best program.) In recent months, we’ve even become a bit concerned that Gabler was becoming a bit too “scripted” in some of his media critiques. That would have been a shame, because Gabler’s work has always been so fresh, so sharp, so original. Because of his outstanding track record, we weren’t surprised this weekend when Gabler gave the best critique to date of Bill Clinton’s session with Chris Wallace. We agree with almost every word. He spoke with the host of Fox Newswatch, Eric Burns:
GABLER (9/30/06): Well, I mean, look, let's be honest: this network's reputation precedes it, which is why Bill Clinton hasn't appeared on this network previously, and why he set very strict ground rules to make this appearance, where he—they wanted at least half the questions talking about his global initiative.

You know, Chris Wallace did not frame the question properly. He asked, Why didn't you do more, which is like asking, When did you stop beating your wife? Which is exactly what Clinton said to him: You didn't frame the question—it's a legitimate question—it wasn't framed properly. He could have said, Could you have done more? Which is not what he asked.

BURNS: Well, he said—keep in mind, he's ad-libbing here, too. So maybe, you know.

(CROSSTALK)

GABLER: He also—he also relied very heavily on this, on—on facts about Somalia which were not facts, were utterly ridiculous.

On the other hand, let me say in Chris Wallace's behalf, that Clinton is wrong, and you are right. If you watch this program, Chris Wallace does ask hard questions. He is not a Hannity. He is not an O'Reilly. He is not a Brit Hume. He is not a Cavuto. He is not a John Gibson. He's not a shill.

BURNS: Could you—could you—could you one person on that list from another network?

GABLER: Well, I'm talking about this network.

BURNS: Please?

GABLER: He is not a shill for the Bush administration. And Clinton is wrong in acting as if he were.
For the record, Burns was jesting when he begged for a name from some other network. But we agree with all of Gabler’s points. To wit:
  1. Wallace framed a generally legitimate question in a somewhat confrontational manner.

  2. The part of the question which dealt with Somalia was fairly shaky on the facts. (Wallace seems to have relied on a very short, somewhat slapdash passage from Lawrence Wright’s new book, The Looming Tower.)

  3. Clinton was wrong in his suggestion that Wallace had somehow singled him out. (Wallace has asked similar question of major Republican/Bush Admin guests.)

  4. As a general matter, Wallace has not performed as a “conservative shill” in his tenure as host of Fox News Sunday. Wallace isn’t a great or heroic TV host. But, on the other hand, he hasn’t been a Hume/Gibson/Cavuto/Hannity type during his tenure at Fox.
Just to form a fuller record, we’ll offer one more criticism of Wallace’s question. Here’s the full-blown text:
WALLACE (9/24/06): When we announced that you were going to be on Fox News Sunday, I got a lot of e-mail from viewers. And I have to say I was surprised, most of them wanted me to ask you this question. Why didn't you do more to put bin Laden and al-Qaeda out of business when you were president? There's a new book out, I suspect you may have already read, called The Looming Tower. And it talks about the fact that when you pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993, bin Laden said "I have seen the frailty and the weakness and the cowardice of U.S. troops." Then there was the bombing of the embassies in Africa and the attack on the Cole.

CLINTON: OK let's just—

WALLACE: May I just finish the question sir? And after the attack, the book says that bin Laden separated his leaders, spread them around because he expected an attack and there was no response. I understand that hindsight is always 20/20—

CLINTON: No, let's talk about it.

WALLACE: But the question is, why didn't you connect the dots and put him out of business?
Wallace told Clinton that he was asking the question because of e-mails he’d gotten from viewers. That isn’t necessarily an awful thing. But private citizens are relentlessly mis- and disinformed—especially those who watch Fox News and listen to Rush and Sean. It’s up to a newsman like Wallace to fact-check the things he hears from his viewers. In certain ways (especially concerning Somalia), Wallace doesn’t seem to have done that in preparing this high-profile question.

So yes, there were some problems with Wallace’s question—but we think there were also some problems with Clinton’s response. As we said last Friday, the Democratic Party has to construct a systematic approach to the news environment which has done so much damage to its interests over the course of the past fifteen years. Tomorrow, we’ll suggest some of the ways Dems should respond to questions like the one Wallace posed.

As he almost always does, Gabler got it right this weekend. Yes, there were problems with Wallace’s question—but there also were problems with Clinton’s answer. What approach might serve Dems better? Tomorrow, some helpful suggestions.