Now that the White House has decided to begin pushing back against its critics – reporters, especially – much of the media appears ready to cut Bush the slack he demands. Bush has given several major speeches over the last several weeks, ostensibly explaining his position on Iraq – Slate’s John Dickerson terms it his “monthlong march toward candor” – and the coverage is creating an impression that the president now has something approaching a plan for “victory.” Alas, if this were the case, one would be awfully hard-pressed to explain just what it might be or how we might know it when we see it.
The president’s prime time Sunday night speech from the Oval Office provides a case in point. Other than pleading for patience, the president provided virtually no information and nothing like a new strategy for progress. But to read the coverage of say, The New York Times’ David Sanger, Bush accomplished much more. Sanger’s piece carried the headline “In Sunday Speech, Bush Is More Humble, but Still Firm.” It bought into the frightfully low bar Bush has managed to set for himself regarding progress in his catastrophic misadventure. Sanger reports that the president “was far more humble about the mistakes he had made over the past two and a half years,” and refrained from “dismissing critics with a wave of the hand and an acid retort, as he often has.” Any policy changes to back this up? Apologies for attacking those who were right in the first place? Recognition that contemporary plans have failed? Not on your life. Just “humility” of an unnamed sort. (And what irony that this description should appear in the same newspaper that broke the story of Bush’s willingness to flout the Constitution and order the illegal spying on Americans on the basis of nothing more than his own, expansive reading of presidential power.)
The Times’ White House columnist Elisabeth Bumiller also stuck pretty closely to the script, writing on the same day as Sanger that the president “acknowledged his critics more than he has in the past, and adopted a more humble tone.” Oddly, Bumiller called the president’s tone “positive,” highlighting his most nakedly partisan line of the night: "Defeatism may have its partisan uses, but it is not justified by the facts.”
Similarly, The Washington Post’s Michael A. Fletcher noted that the president “struck a more deferential tone” while making a “direct appeal to war opponents, conveying a more humble tone in saying he understands their arguments but asserting that there is no choice but to forge on.” In other words, he understands he has critics and perhaps not all of them hate America. Gee, thanks. Fletcher also quotes, without refutation, the president’s simplistic and misleading contention that “Much of the [pre-war WMD] intelligence turned out to be wrong. And as your president, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.”
It’s here where a little reporting might have served these reporters well. Ryan Lizza, writing on The New Republic’s web site, actually takes a look at the substance of what the president said, and delineates Bush’s “casual dishonesties packed into the section where Bush summed up the history of the war in Iraq.” He writes, correctly, that the president’s speech effectively “subordinate[s] his role in the WMD fiasco to that of a passive dupe rather than active exaggerator.” Next he points out that in the passage in which the president described those whom the United States is fighting in Iraq as consisting of just two groups, “Saddam loyalists and foreign terrorists,” he oversimplified to the point of untruth. As Time’s Michael Ware has pointed out, there are many different groups with different agendas attacking American troops and slaughtering Iraqi civilians, and the vast majority of them have no fond memories of life under Saddam. Yet as with so much else, the president gets a pass for not understanding – almost three years into it – the realities of the war he launched.
And while neither the Times nor the Post coverage made mention of Vice President Cheney’s secret trip to Iraq and Afghanistan that just happened to coincide with the president’s speeches, neither noted what the Associated Press reported Sunday (in a story that wasn’t widely picked up anywhere), that U.S. troops fighting in Iraq might not be as convinced as the president of the progress we’re making in Iraq. During a Q&A with troops during Cheney’s surprise visit to Iraq, Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren said, "From our perspective, we don’t see much as far as gains.… We’re looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains. I was wondering what it looks like from the big side of the mountain – how Iraq’s looking.”
Cheney, carrying the administration’s water and sticking closely to the script, told the soldiers not to believe their eyes, responding that in the future, “we’ll see that the year ’05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq.” “We’re getting the job done. It’s hard to tell that from watching the news. But I guess we don’t pay that much attention to the news.”
And in the case of the president and vice president’s public pronouncements, they probably don’t have to. No matter how many times they are deliberately misled by this mendacious administration, the Washington press corps continues to try to find some way to assure Americans that somehow everything’s going to be alright … this time.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.