The pundit pack moved to reclaim old territory last week, arguing that “Bush is back.” The evidence? Well, that’s a little complicated�???.
New polls find the president’s approval ratings continuing to stagnate below 40, roughly thirty points below those of Bill Clinton on the day he was impeached by the Senate. What’s more, USA Today reported that, “A majority of Americans say Congress should pass a resolution that outlines a plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Half of those surveyed would like all U.S. forces out within 12 months….” If that sounds to you like good news for the president, then you can probably get a job in the punditocracy. As Peter Daou noted on his blog, sunny headlines are all the fashion in Bushville: Knight Ridder proclaimed that “Bush is on a bit of a roll,” the Washington Post declared that “Spate of Good News Gives White House a Chance to Regroup,” and Time magazine wondered, "Will Zarqawi’s Death Mark a Turnaround for Bush?”
As Eric Boehlert wrote on Altercation this week, in writing these stories, the only conclusion one can draw is that, “Journalists purposefully ignored clear polling data which obliterated the narrative that the Republicans had the winning had in the Iraq troop debate.” Case in point: A Newsweek profile this week of Markos Moulitsas Zuniga —“Kos” of DailyKos.com fame — managed to tip its hat to the conventional wisdom of a recent string of so-called Republican victories, noting that “the GOP was clearly on the rebound.” Democrats, the magazine argued, are trying to “downplay the significance of the GOP’s momentum.”
In another piece in the same magazine, reporters alleged that “lawmakers were struck by the change in atmosphere when they joined Bush for a Texas-themed picnic at the White House. ‘It was like they’d gotten a second wind, the president especially,’ said one congressional aide, who declined to be named when talking about a private event” — as if this bit of top secret information deserved anonymity — “‘I haven’t seen them that relaxed in a long, long time.’” Well, at least national security was not harmed by the revelation of this source. A second major theme of last week was the good fortune Americans have in being represented abroad by a secretary of state as competent and realistic as Condoleezza Rice. On last Sunday’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” Matthews and Time columnists Andrew Sullivan and Joe Klein repeatedly praised Rice for her work in making the White House appear "less confrontational abroad, [and] more realistic in public, more confident, certainly, in its politics,” labeling her as one of the “heroes” of the administration.
Yet again, evidence was hard to come by. As the Center for American Progress noted back in March 2004 (an analysis that is free to the public and pundits), Ms. Rice is hardly the picture of honesty and confidence that these pundits wish to paint. Her claim in May 2002, for example, that "I don’t think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile,” has been repeatedly disproved not only by the testimony of former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, but by the official findings of the 9/11 Commission itself.
First, there’s the August 6, 2001, presidential briefing that warned the administration that potential bin Laden plots included the hijacking of an American airplane and a July 2001 briefing that advised the administration that terrorists had explored using airplanes as missiles. (It also appeared in a Stephen King novel.) What’s more, Rice’s contention in a March 22, 2004, Washington Post op-ed that, "No al Qaeda plan was turned over to the new administration" has also been proven wrong by the facts.
According to the National Security Archive at George Washington University, on January 25, 2001, Richard Clarke sent Rice a memo that read, in part, “We urgently need �??? a Principals level review on the al Qida network�??? As we noted in our briefings to you, al Qida is not some narrow, little terrorist issue that needs to be included in broader regional policy�??? We would make a major error if we underestimated the challenge al Qida poses.”
And as Clarke told the 9/11 Commission just two days after Rice’s op-ed: "There’s a lot of debate about whether it’s a plan or a strategy or a series of options — but all of the things we recommended back in January were those things on the table in September. They were done. They were done after September 11th. They were all done. I didn’t really understand why they couldn’t have been done in February." What was done, as the Commission reported, was that Clarke and his staff handed over a paper, entitled "Strategy for Eliminating the Threat from the Jihadist Networks of al Qida: Status and Prospects," that, according to the official report, “reviewed the threat and the record to date, incorporated the CIA’s new ideas from the Blue Sky memo, and posed several near-term policy options.”
But that none of the pundits on “Hardball” remembers any of this should come as no surprise. As MediaMatters reported back in November 2004, when Rice was nominated to take over for Colin Powell in late 2004, “Major news outlets have produced numerous reviews and assessments of Rice’s record during Bush’s first term. But these reports have generally omitted mention of Rice’s numerous apparently false statements, even when the reviews were conducted by outlets that originally broke the news of the statements in question.” Perhaps the most shocking news of the week was contained in Ron Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Doctrine, where he reports on that fateful day in Crawford — August 6, 2001 — when Bush and Rice were informed of a CIA memo entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." What was the president’s reaction to this frightfully imminent threat, issued barely a month before the tragedy of 9/11? He replied: "All right, you’ve covered your ass, now." That was it. No more questions, and the president went fishing.
Have you seen that story covered anywhere but Salon? I didn’t think so. There’s no room in the storyline of “good news for the White House” for such things. The punditocracy decreed that this would be a good week for Bush and that Rice would be celebrated as the return of competence and realism in foreign policy. The fact that “reality” refused to cooperate didn’t matter; the pundits were willing to take it — and pass it along — on faith.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of 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 recently published in paperback by Penguin.