While I was tussling with rightwing activist Grover Norquist this morning on NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show,” Norquist did what many conservatives do when confronted by the charge that George W. Bush dishonestly hyped the WMD threat in Iraq. He referred to Bill Clinton. The 42nd president, Norquist maintained, supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq because he (Clinton, that is) also believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The subject of the show was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and this point did not get fully explored. We had to stick to the film. My take on F9/11–thanks for asking–was that the movie is brilliant when it actually documents matters: civilian casualties in Iraq, the attitudes of American GIs there, the horrific costs paid by US soldiers, the anguish felt by relatives of dead Iraqi citizens and dead American GIs, and Bush’s seven minutes of do-nothing silence after being informed a second airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center. But the film is problematic and self-defeating when it offers overly conspiratorial connect-the-dot explanations: Bush attacked Afghanistan to benefit cronies who wanted to develop a pipeline there; Bush invaded Iraq to preserve the power of his ruling class and feed the ever-hungry war machine; the Bush clan’s too-tight relationship with the Saudis was to blame, somehow, for most things. But I noted that the film strongly–if briefly–made the case that the WMD argument for war had been a crock. That’s when Norquist brought Clinton into the picture.
As it happened, that same fellow was scheduled to be a guest on the show after we were done. And when Norquist and I left the studio–with Norquist noting that Clinton had recently been attacking only two conservatives by name, Kenneth Starr and himself–there was the famous author entering the station. Clinton glad-handed his way around. A dozen or so security people clogged the hallway. So I stood and waited for the whirlwind to pass.
But as Clinton walked by Norquist and me, he shook our hands and said, “You guys did a good job,” referring to our hour-long segment. Norquist nodded and made no mention of Clinton’s criticism of him. Clinton then asked me about a front-page story in The New York Times about those still-missing WMDs, saying he had only glanced at it.
This was a classic Clinton encounter, in which Clinton, ever the natural charmer, engaged the person in front of him by asking that person about something he knew was of interest to him or her and by asking for that person’s opinion (rather than spouting his own).
I obliged and explained the article reported that the CIA had been told before the war by relatives of Iraqi scientists that Iraq’s WMD program was kaput, but that the CIA had not passed this information on to Bush. As much as this revelation made the CIA look incompetent, I added, it was a sign that the GOPers in Congress are aiming to blame the WMD screw-up entirely on the Agency. This leak, no doubt, came from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is about to release a report on intelligence failures regarding Iraq’s supposed WMDs. But, I told 42, there had been plenty of instances prior to the invasion when Bush and his chief aides overstated WMD-related intelligence to make the threat from Iraq appear more pressing than the intelligence suggested. Clinton nodded and was about to move on.