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Daily Howler: Rice for Powell? Your 'press corps' knows to pander and fawn to Washington's two favorite icons
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TWIN TOWERS! Rice for Powell? Your “press corps” knows to pander and fawn to Washington’s two favorite icons: // link // print // previous // next //

TWIN TOWERS: Bush wants to put Condi Rice in for Powell. And what a perfect swap it is! How better to capture the way the press rolled over regarding Iraq?

Of course, Powell has long been the press corps’ prime icon—the man who can do and say anything. Major scribes all know their Hard Pundit Law—they must affirm what the genial man says. In July 2003, Margaret Carlson captured their Stepford-like approach to Powell when questioned by Charlie Rose (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/4/03):

ROSE (7/3/03): Where were you on the war?

CARLSON: I was, give diplomacy a chance. [Brightening] I was with Colin Powell the whole way along! Whatever Colin Powell—

ROSE: Oh, so whatever Colin—you know. OK.

CARLSON: Yeah. Whatever Colin does, I’ll go with.

ROSE: Is that right?

And yes, that was precisely right, as we had seen five months before. When Powell appeared before the UN on 2/5/03, he made a notably shaky presentation supporting the plan to wage war in Iraq. But all your major “liberal” pundits knew what they were required to do. Starting the day after Powell’s performance, pundits stampeded into print, swearing fealty to Colin’s appraisals. But uh-oh! One month later, it was already clear that Powell’s presentation had been rather shaky. Result? Here’s the late Mary McGrory in the Post, explaining why she had rushed into print swearing that Powell was perfect:
MCGRORY (3/6/03): What impressed me about Powell’s presentation, besides his magisterial presence and impeccable prose, were the poisons he showed and the malice behind them. I did not have the benefit of the informed criticism that followed.
How worthless is your mainstream “press corps?” One day after his shaky UN outing, McGrory rushed into print praising Powell—and now she said that she had done so because of his “presence” and his “impeccable prose.” “I did not have the benefit of the informed criticism that followed,” she haplessly added—explaining why she’d affirmed a presentation without knowing if it was boffo or bunkum. But at the Post, almost all “liberal” pundits had rushed to praise Powell—Richard Cohen and William Raspberry too (links below). And even today, every pundit knows to insist that Powell clearly believed his own twaddle—even though Bob Woodward’s Bush at War plainly showed that Powell included material in his UN pitch that he thought to be “iffy” and “murky” (links below). Nothing—nothing—changes the way this pandered-to poobah is reviewed.

But if Powell has been the corps’ Icon I, Rice has been its Icon II—Darling Condi, the wholly untouchable. Indeed, Rice’s testimony before the 9/11 Commission provided one of the most instructive recent cases of press corps pimping and fawning. Must icons like Condi play by the rules? Must Darling Condi honor her oath? The press corps answered—no, and no—as it kept the public from seeing the shape of this icon’s inexcusable conduct.

Rice appeared before the commission on April 8, 2004. Special rules had been crafted for her appearance—no one could question for more than ten minutes. Blessed by these special restrictions, Rice knew what she had to do when questioned by Richard Ben-Veniste. She stalled; she hemmed and hawed; she fudged and evaded; and yes, eventually, she told a flat lie. And how did the “press corps” react to all this? How else? They all pandered to Condi! Rice had baldly broken her oath—and your pundits all pandered to Condi.

How did the sequence of questioning go? As he began, Ben-Veniste asked a bone-simple, yes-or-no question about a briefing Bush received in the summer before 9/11. Eventually, he was forced to ask his question three times. But here was its first iteration:

BEN-VENISTE (4/8/04): Isn’t it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6th PDB [Presidential Daily Briefing] warned against possible attacks in this country?
After Rice gave an odd reply, Ben-Veniste asked his question again. This time he used more specific language—language he had taken straight from the PDB itself:
BEN-VENISTE (second iteration): As of the August 6th briefing, you learned that al Qaeda members have resided or traveled to the United States for years and maintained a support system in the United States. And you learned that FBI information since the 1998 Blind Sheik—warning of hijackings to free the Blind Sheik indicated a pattern of suspicious activity in the country, up until August 6th, consistent with preparation for hijackings. Isn’t that so?
The answer to that question was simple—yes. In fact, the highlighted language came straight from the PDB in question (text of PDB below). But Ben-Veniste was at a disadvantage; the August 6 PDB was still classified, so while he and Rice knew what it said, the press and the public had no way to know. And Darling Condi knew what this meant; it meant that she could dissemble as much as she pleased, and her fake answers couldn’t be checked. So the Icon hemmed and hawed again—forcing Ben-Veniste to ask his question a third, final time:
BEN-VENISTE (third iteration): You have indicated here that this [PDB] was some historical document. And I am asking you whether it is not the case that you learned in the PDB memo of August 6th that the FBI was saying that it had information suggesting that preparations—not historically, but ongoing, along with these numerous full-field investigations against al Qaeda cells—that preparations were being made consistent with hijackings within the United States.
Again, the highlighted language came straight from the PDB (text below). The answer to this question was bone-simple —yes. But Condi knew the PDB was still under wraps—so she refused “to tell the whole truth.” In fact, Rice’s third answer was so far from the truth that it can best be described as a lie.

But Condi Rice is the press corps’ darling, an icon who plays by The Condi Rules. Indeed, the aftermath of this rank exchange tells you all you need to know about the soul of your modern “press.” Surprise! Two days after Rice’s exchange with Ben-Veniste, the August 6 PDB was made public. Result? It became clear that Ben-Veniste had been quoting straight from its text—and that Rice had refused, three separate times, to answer his bone-simple question.

Rice had refused to honor her oath, about a major life-or-death matter. Given three separate chances to answer, she had refused to do so each time; the third time, she’d basically lied to the nation. But remember—this was Darling Condi, Icon II, the princess who plays by The Condi Rules. So how did the pandering press corps react when they discovered what had happened? Easy! Pundits savaged Ben-Veniste for rudely asking his question three times! And pundits all knew that they must never say that Darling Condi had broken her oath. Ben-Veniste was slammed in the press—and the press refused to report Rice’s conduct. In this episode, we see the basic shape of the way your “press corps” handled 9/11 and Iraq—and we see the way they’re going to act as Rice comes up for her new station.

Powell and Condi? Icons both. It’s like the old joke from the Soviet Union: They pretend to tell you the truth, and the “press corps” pretends to report on them.

FOR THE RECORD: For the record, here are paragraphs 6-10 of the 11-paragraph PDB. The reader can see that Ben-Veniste’s question came straight from paragraph 10:

PRESIDENTIAL DAILY BRIEFING, 8/6/01: (pgh 7) Al Qaeda members—including some who are U.S. citizens—have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks….

(8) A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.

(9) We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [REDACTED] service in 1998 saying that bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of “Blind Sheik” Omar Abdel Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.

(10) Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

The answer to Ben-Veniste’s question was bone-simple: Yes! But to see Darling Condi lie in your face, review our four-part series, “Rice Under Oath.” For links to all four reports, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/17/04.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Again: To see Darling Condi lie in your face, review our four-part series, “Rice Under Oath.” For links to all four reports, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/17/04.

To see McGrory take it back about Powell, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/6/03, with links to prior reporting.

In Woodward’s book, Powell pimps some iffy scuds. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/24/04.

To see Gwen Ifill give Rice home cookin’, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/11/03, with links to prior reporting.

How does Koppel handle Colin? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/19/04, for a study in private press culture.

Finally, why didn’t the “press corps” ask questions before the war? Jim Lehrer said they were just too stupid. To revisit this utterly foolish excuse, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/17/04. The actual reason was perfectly clear when the “press corps” trashed Ben-Veniste and pimped for its darling, Icon Condi.