Sunday, June 12, 2005

Sunday Reading

Last night on The Capital Gang, Bob Novak and Kate O’Bierne read their Rove-scripts very well, dismissing the Downing Street Memo as just liberal propaganda. Well, good morning, Bob and Kate — there’s another British memo, another embarrassment for the Bush administration, and another chance to ask the hard questions.

A briefing paper prepared for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers eight months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq concluded that the U.S. military was not preparing adequately for what the British memo predicted would be a “protracted and costly” postwar occupation of that country.

The eight-page memo, written in advance of a July 23, 2002, Downing Street meeting on Iraq, provides new insights into how senior British officials saw a Bush administration decision to go to war as inevitable, and realized more clearly than their American counterparts the potential for the post-invasion instability that continues to plague Iraq.

In its introduction, the memo “Iraq: Conditions for Military Action” notes that U.S. “military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace,” but adds that “little thought” has been given to, among other things, “the aftermath and how to shape it.”

The July 21 memo was produced by Blair’s staff in preparation for a meeting with his national security team two days later that has become controversial on both sides of the Atlantic since last month’s disclosure of official notes summarizing the session.

In those meeting minutes — which have come to be known as the Downing Street Memo — British officials who had just returned from Washington said Bush and his aides believed war was inevitable and were determined to use intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and his relations with terrorists to justify invasion of Iraq.

The “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” said the memo — an assertion attributed to the then-chief of British intelligence, and denied by U.S. officials and by Blair at a news conference with Bush last week in Washington. Democrats in Congress led by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), however, have scheduled an unofficial hearing on the matter for Thursday.

Now, disclosure of the memo written in advance of that meeting — and other British documents recently made public — show that Blair’s aides were not just concerned about Washington’s justifications for invasion but also believed the Bush team lacked understanding of what could happen in the aftermath.

Well, hindsight is 20/20, and we know all too well now.

  • Frank Rich says that the revelation of Deep Throat reminds us that it wasn’t the story of Watergate — The Movie that was important — it was what the people who did it tried to do to the country. Don’t Follow the Money.

    This confusion of Hollywood’s version of history with the genuine article would quickly prove symptomatic of the overall unreality of the Deep Throat coverage. Was Mr. Felt a hero or a villain? Should he “follow the money” into a book deal, and if so, how would a 91-year-old showing signs of dementia either write a book or schmooze about it with Larry King? How did Vanity Fair scoop The Post? How does Robert Redford feel about it all? Such were the questions that killed time for a nation awaiting the much-heralded feature mediathon, the Michael Jackson verdict.

    Richard Nixon and Watergate itself, meanwhile, were often reduced to footnotes. Three years ago, on Watergate’s 30th anniversary, an ABC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans couldn’t explain what the scandal was, and no one was racing to enlighten them this time around. Vanity Fair may have taken the trouble to remind us that Watergate was a web of crime yielding the convictions and guilty pleas of more than 30 White House and Nixon campaign officials, but few others did. Watergate has gone back to being the “third-rate burglary” of Nixon administration spin. It is once again being covered up.

    Not without reason. Had the scandal been vividly resuscitated as the long national nightmare it actually was, it would dampen all the Felt fun by casting harsh light on our own present nightmare. “The fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before” was how the former Nixon speech writer William Safire put it on this page almost nine months ago. The current administration, a second-term imperial presidency that outstrips Nixon’s in hubris by the day, leads the attack, trying to intimidate and snuff out any Woodwards or Bernsteins that might challenge it, any media proprietor like Katharine Graham or editor like Ben Bradlee who might support them and any anonymous source like Deep Throat who might enable them to find what Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

    The attacks continue to be so successful that even now, long after many news organizations, including The Times, have been found guilty of failing to puncture the administration’s prewar W.M.D. hype, new details on that same story are still being ignored or left uninvestigated. The July 2002 “Downing Street memo,” the minutes of a meeting in which Tony Blair and his advisers learned of a White House effort to fix “the intelligence and facts” to justify the war in Iraq, was published by The London Sunday Times on May 1. Yet in the 19 daily Scott McClellan briefings that followed, the memo was the subject of only 2 out of the approximately 940 questions asked by the White House press corps, according to Eric Boehlert of Salon.

    This is the kind of lapdog news media the Nixon White House cherished. To foster it, Nixon’s special counsel, Charles W. Colson, embarked on a ruthless program of intimidation that included threatening antitrust action against the networks if they didn’t run pro-Nixon stories. Watergate tapes and memos make Mr. Colson, who boasted of “destroying the old establishment,” sound like the founding father of today’s blogging lynch mobs. He exulted in bullying CBS to cut back its Watergate reports before the ’72 election. He enlisted NBC in pro-administration propaganda by browbeating it to repackage 10-day-old coverage of Tricia Nixon’s wedding as a prime-time special. It was the Colson office as well that compiled a White House enemies list that included journalists who had the audacity to question administration policies.

    Such is the equivalently supine state of much of the news media today that Mr. Colson was repeatedly trotted out, without irony, to pass moral judgment on Mr. Felt – and not just on Fox News, the cable channel that is actually run by the former Nixon media maven, Roger Ailes. “I want kids to look up to heroes,” Mr. Colson said, oh so sorrowfully, on NBC’s “Today” show, condemning Mr. Felt for dishonoring “the confidence of the president of the United States.” Never mind that Mr. Colson dishonored the law, proposed bombing the Brookings Institution and went to prison for his role in the break-in to steal the psychiatric records of The Times’s Deep Throat on Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg. The “Today” host, Matt Lauer, didn’t mention any of this – or even that his guest had done jail time. None of the other TV anchors who interviewed Mr. Colson – and he was ubiquitous – ever specified his criminal actions in the Nixon years. Some identified him onscreen only as a “former White House counsel.”

    Had anyone been so rude (or professional) as to recount Mr. Colson’s sordid past, or to raise the question of whether he was a hero or a traitor, the genealogical line between his Watergate-era machinations and those of his present-day successors would have been all too painfully clear. The main difference is that in the Nixon White House, the president’s men plotted behind closed doors. The current administration is now so brazen it does its dirty work in plain sight.

    […]

    Only once during the Deep Throat rollout did I see a palpable, if perhaps unconscious, effort to link the White House of 1972 with that of 2005. It occurred at the start, when ABC News, with the first comprehensive report on Vanity Fair’s scoop, interrupted President Bush’s post-Memorial Day Rose Garden news conference to break the story. Suddenly the image of the current president blathering on about how hunky-dory everything is in Iraq was usurped by repeated showings of the scene in which the newly resigned Nixon walked across the adjacent White House lawn to the helicopter that would carry him into exile.

    But in the days that followed, Nixon and his history and the long shadows they cast largely vanished from the TV screen. In their place were constant nostalgic replays of young Redford and flinty Holbrook. Follow the bait-and-switch.

  • Howard Dean takes on the moral values issue.

    Unrepentant after a week of controversy over his inflammatory remarks, Democratic Chairman Howard Dean told party leaders yesterday that casting traditionally liberal issues in moral terms is a key to breaking Republicans’ eight-year hold on the White House.

    Dean acknowledged that he sees his party’s national campaign apparatus as being “30 years behind” the one fielded in November by the Bush-Cheney campaign, and said the solution is for Democrats to be tough, describe themselves boldly and get organized in all 50 states.

    “People want us to fight, and we are here to fight,” Dean said during a quarterly meeting of the party’s 64-member executive committee. “We are not going to lie down in front of the Republican machine anymore.”

    Dean’s aides said he now realizes he needs to choose his words more carefully but plans to keep the pressure on Republicans.

    Several key Democrats had said early last week that Dean should resign but concluded by week’s end that there was no viable movement to oust him. Dean yesterday embraced his reputation for volatility, saying he is being buoyed by activists and donors. At one point, Chicago alderman Joseph A. Moore had trouble getting recognized and joked that next time he would “jump up and down.”

    “That’s my job!” Dean said, and the room shook with applause.

    The Democratic National Committee’s lead pollster, Cornell Belcher, said that religious people who have been stymied economically represent a huge opportunity for the party, and that the challenge is to portray moral values as “not just gay marriage and abortion.”

    It amounted to a call for the party to reclaim Reagan Democrats, the blue-collar social conservatives who have voted largely Republican for the past 20 years. In a possible future play for President Bush’s voters, the party announced the creation of a Veterans and Military Families Council.

    The party, determined to compete in what Dean called “the Mississippis and the Kansases,” has vowed to put paid organizers with four-year commitments in every state, and is starting a monthly donation program for small givers.

    Dean and the pollster provided the most specific blueprint yet for a party where a multitude of factions and potential candidates are competing to point the way back from Sen. John F. Kerry’s (D-Mass.) loss to Bush, 19 states to 31 states. “We have not spoken about moral values in this party for a long time,” Dean said. “The truth is, we’re Democrats because of our moral values. It’s a moral value to make sure that kids don’t go to bed hungry at night. . . . It is a moral value not to go out on golf trips paid for by lobbyists.”

  • Michael Kinsley has some fun with the Downing Street Memo.

    After about the 200th e-mail from a stranger demanding that I cease my personal coverup of something called the Downing Street Memo, I decided to read it. It’s all over the blogosphere and Air America, the left-wing talk radio network: This is the smoking gun of the Iraq war. It is proof positive that President Bush was determined to invade Iraq the year before he did so. The whole “weapons of mass destruction” concern was phony from the start, and the drama about inspections was just kabuki: going through the motions.

    Although it is flattering to be thought personally responsible for allowing a proven war criminal to remain in office, in the end I don’t buy the fuss. Nevertheless, I am enjoying it, as an encouraging sign of the revival of the left. Developing a paranoid theory and promoting it to the very edge of national respectability takes a certain amount of ideological self-confidence. It takes a critical mass of citizens with extreme views and the time and energy to obsess about them. It takes a promotional infrastructure and the widely shared self-discipline to settle on a story line, disseminate it and stick to it.

    It takes, in short, what Hillary Clinton once called a vast conspiracy. The right has enjoyed one for years. Even moderate and reasonable right-wingers have enjoyed the presence of a mass of angry people even further right. This overhang of extremists makes the moderates appear more reasonable. It pulls the center of politics, where the media try to be and where compromises on particular issues end up, in a rightward direction. Listening to extreme views on your own side is soothing even if you would never express them and may not even believe them yourself.

    So, cheers for the Downing Street Memo….

    Cheers, indeed. Even if the DSM leads nowhere, it’s been a tonic for reviving the dispirited and the doomed on the left and been a unifying force for a lot of bloggers left wandering after November.