[FOR TWO UPDATES ON BUSH'S BROKEN PROMISE AND MORE WHITE HOUSE SPINNING ON THE AWOL CONTROVERSY, SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM]
George W. Bush is lucky that Scott McClellan is not his lawyer and that the White House press briefing room is not a courtroom.
On February 10, the Bush White House tried to rid itself of the allegation that Bush ducked out of his Air National Guard Service from May 1972 to May 1973. Two days earlier on Meet the Press, Bush maintained, "I did report, otherwise I wouldn't have been honorably discharged." But he offered no details. He did not describe what drills he did; he did not mention anyone with whom he served during the time in question. When host Tim Russert asked if he would open up his "entire" file and release "everything to settle this," Bush said, "Yeah. Absolutely."
And two days later, McClellan was in the briefing room holding up new documents that he claimed proved Bush had "fulfilled his duties." The key material, which the White House had managed to obtain PDQ from the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver--were several pages of microfiche payment sheet summaries that apparently showed Bush was paid several times in the months of October and November 1972 and January and April 1973. McClellan also cited two retirement records that showed Bush had amassed attendance points for these days.
This new material did bolster Bush's defense. But it hardly resolved the issue. Nor did it address the most damning elements of the case against Bush. Most notable of these is the May 2, 1973, annual performance review--signed by two superior officers, who were friends of Bush--that noted, "Lt. Bush has not been observed at" his home base unit in Houston for the past year. Bush has said he spent about half of that period reporting to a Guard base in Alabama, while he was temporarily living there. The new records do not explain why the commander of that unit and his administrative officer say they never saw Bush. Nor do they explain why the Bush campaign in 2000 failed to keep its promise to produce the names of people who had served with Bush in Alabama. Nor do these records explain why Bush, who had been trained as fighter pilot, failed to take a flight physical during the year in question and was grounded. Nor do they back up the 2000 Bush campaign's explanation that Bush did not take a flight physical because he was living in Alabama and his personal doctor was in Houston. (Flight physicals are administered by military physicians, and there were flight physicians at the base in Alabama where Bush says he served.)
The records hailed by the White House only demonstrate that Bush received payments and credit for a modest amount of days. They do not show what he did and where he did it. Those sorts of records detailing Bush's service should exist, according to military experts. But that is not what the White House handed out. Is it possible Bush received payment and credit for days of service that did not happen? Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, recently wrote that he was routinely paid for Guard duty he never did. Given the other evidence, these pay records are not end-of-story proof.
But what makes the White House case particularly unconvincing is McClellan's performance at the press briefing. It was a remarkable exhibition of dissimulation that deserves to be studied by students of political spin. He avoided remaining questions. He kept insisting that these records meant there was nothing else to discuss. He denied reality and refused to acknowledge there was documentary evidence contradicting Bush's account. He was an automaton: these records showed that he served, these records showed that he served, these records showed that he served.
The first question was a tough one for McClellan. A reporter asked:
The records that you handed out today, and other records that exist, indicate that the President did not perform any Guard duty during the months of December 1972, February or March of 1973. I'm wondering if you can tell us where he was during that period. And also, how is it that he managed to not make the medical requirements to remain on active flight duty status?
The exchange that followed was not edifying.
A: These records verify that he met the requirements necessary to fulfill his duties. These records --
Q: That wasn't my question, Scott.
A: These payroll records --
Q: Scott, that wasn't my question, and you know it wasn't my question. Where was he in December of '72, February and March of '73? And why did he not fulfill the medical requirements to remain on active flight duty status?
A: These records -- these records I'm holding here clearly document the President fulfilling his duties in the National Guard. The president was proud of his service. The president --
Q: I asked a simple question; how about a simple answer?
A: John, if you'll let me address the question, I'm coming to your answer.
But McClellan never got there. He did not reveal where Bush had been during those months. And he said nothing about Bush's failure to take a flight physical.
Another reporter, citing the promise made by the Bush campaign in 2000, asked whether the White House had been able to find anyone who could verify Bush's service in Alabama. McClellan replied: "All the information that we have we shared with you in 2000, that was relevant to this issue....[T]here are some out there that were making outrageous, baseless accusations. It was a shame that they brought it up four years ago. It was a shame that they brought it up again this year. And I think that the facts are very clear from these documents. These documents -- the payroll records and the [attendance] point summaries verify that he was paid for serving and that he met his requirements." In other words, the Bush White House had found no one.
Then came this follow-up from a reporter: "I do think this is important. You know, it might strike some as odd that there isn't anyone who can stand up and say, I served with George W. Bush in Alabama....Particularly because there are people, his superiors who have stepped forward...who have said in the past several years that they have no recollection of him being there and serving. So isn't that odd that nobody -- you can't produce anyone to corroborate what these records purport to show?" McClellan answered, "We're talking about some 30 years ago." But there were 600 to 700 people who served at the Alabama base at that time. Surely, if the White House had to find someone who went to grade school with Bush 45 years ago--and class sizes were not that big back then--they could.
McClellan's most unbelievable statements came after a reporter asked him about the annual performance review that indicated Bush had not reported for duty at his home base in Houston for a year. Let's go to the videotape:
Q: The President's officer effectiveness report, filed by his commanders, Lieutenants Colonel Killean and Harris, both now deceased, for the period 01 May '72 to 30 April, '73, says he has not been observed at this unit, where he was supposed to show up and earning these points on these days....The president said he returned to Texas in November of '72. So some of these dates of service, which are in these [payment] records, ought to have been noted by his commanding officers, who, nevertheless, said, twice, he has not been observed here. Can you explain that?
A: I'm not sure about these specific documents. I'll be glad to take a look at them. But these [newly released] documents show the days on which he was paid for his service.....
Q: So he served, but his commanding officers didn't know it?
A: Again, I don't know the specific documents you're referring to. If you want to bring those to me, I'll be glad to take a look at them and get you the answers to your questions.
McClellan didn't know about this specific document? That would be like Martha Stewart's attorney saying he was not familiar with her stockbroker's assistant's contention that she had sold stock on inside information. This document--first brought to public attention in May 2000 by Walter Robinson of The Boston Globe--is at the core of the case against Bush. If McClellan does not know about it, Bush ought to fire him immediately (or name him head of the CIA).
Later in the press briefing, another reporter took a stab at forcing McClellan to deal with Exhibit A.
Q: After all of the things you repeated here, you cannot explain this contradiction, the fact that his payroll records indicate he was paid for a period of time for fulfilling service, and yet his commanding officers at that time wrote that he was not observed. Can you or can you not explain that contradiction?
A:....I said I would glad to go back and look at the document that he's referencing. I have not --
Q: You know the document he's referencing. Everybody does. His commanders --
A: No, I have not -- I have not seen the document he's referencing.
Q: -- are quoted repeatedly for years --
A: You're talking about quotes -- you're talking about quotes from individuals. And we said for years, going back four years ago, that the president recalls serving and performing his duties.
Q: I understand that, but his commanders do not recall it. And, in fact, they say, that he was not observed. So can you explain the contradiction, or can't you?
A: I've seen some different comments he's -- no, I've seen some different comments made over the recent time period.
Q: I haven't seen any different -- different comments...from his [Houston base] commanders, who said he was not observed. Can you explain the contradiction?
A: Look, I can't speak for those individuals. I can speak for the president of the United States. And I can speak --
Q: -- the documents --
A: And I can speak for the fact that the documents that -- as far as we know, all the documents that are available relevant to this issue demonstrate that the president fulfilled his duties. Are you suggesting these documents do not reflect that?
That's the whole issue. A critical document says Bush was gone for a year. It was signed by two superior officers who were also his buddies. As for the documents McClellan held in his hand, reporters asked him if the White House was maintaining that they proved Bush had actually reported for duty in Alabama.
Q: It's your position that these documents specifically show that he served in Alabama during the period 1972, when he was supposed to be there. Do they specifically show that?
A: No, I think if you look at the documents, what they show are the days on which he was paid, the payroll records. And we previously said that the president recalls serving both in Alabama and in Texas.
Q: I'm not interested in what he recalls. I'm interested in whether these documents specifically show that he was in Alabama and served on the days during the latter part of 1972 --
A: And I just answered that question.
Q: You have not answered that question. You --
A: No, I said -- no, I said, no, in response to your question, Keith.
Q: No, so the answer is, "no"?
A: I said these documents show the days on which he was paid. That's what they show. So they show -- they show that he was paid on these days....It just kind of amazes me that some will now say they want more information, after the payroll records and the [attendance] point summaries have all been released to show that he met his requirements and to show that he fulfilled his duties.
Can you believe it? Reporters wanted definitive information stating that Bush had truly been at the Alabama base? That apparently was too much for the press secretary. And when one of the media hounds asked exactly what Bush had done while supposedly serving in Alabama, McClellan countered, "You're asking me to kind of break down hour-by-hour what he was doing during 1972 and 1973. What these documents show is that he was serving in the National Guard and he was paid for that service." No one was requesting an hour-by-hour itemization. But McClellan would only say that Bush "remembers serving during that period and performing his duties." Bush, it seems, has no recollection of what that service entailed. Instructing pilots? Filing papers? Hanging out at the officers' lounge? He won't say.
A reporter asked, "You can't even tell us what kind of drills or what-have-you?" And McClellan resorted to an old dodge: "We addressed all those questions back during the 2000 campaign fully." That was an untrue statement. In 2000, the Bush campaign left much of this unaddressed. Bush did not state then what he had done in Alabama. This reporter noted that most people can "detail" what they did when they worked. But McClellan kept fibbing: "And we did. During the 2000 campaign, we talked about this issue fully."
The Bush gang did not talk about the issues fully then--and it is not doing so now. The currently available records support conflicting accounts. Bush's unwillingness (or inability) to provide any specific recollections is certainly suspicious, as is his refusal to answer questions about his failure to take a flight physical. By releasing the pay sheet summaries and retirement records, Bush has not made good on his pledge to Russert. There likely are other records in his military files that could be of use in settling this dispute--medical records, perhaps. Are there disciplinary records? When Bob Fertik of Democrats.com filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2000 requesting portions of Bush's military records, he asked for pay stubs. He was turned down by the military, which cited Bush's privacy rights. If Bush and McClellan really want to address this issue "fully," Bush should waive his privacy rights and release all the papers that remain. He did promise to disclose "everything."
Despite McClellan's repeated assertion, the pay sheet summaries and retirement records are not enough. That's especially true when they are waved about by a defender who spins, trims, and ducks and who at key moments is AWOL from the truth.
UPDATE NO. 1
On February 11, the White House released a one-page record of a dental exam that Bush received at the Alabama Air National Guard base on January 6, 1973. This is the first documentary indication that Bush was ever present at this base. This document does strengthen Bush's case. But assuming it is legitimate--and I'm not suggesting it is not--it does not seal the deal. Bush has said he returned to Houston from Alabama after the November 1972 election. (He had been working in Alabama on the Senate campaign of a Republican friend of his family, who ended up losing the race.) It certainly is possible that he stayed in Alabama for several months after the election--though he was in Washington, DC, with his family during the Christmas holidays. Still, there are no records covering the time he returned to Houston and the May 2, 1973, annual review that noted he had not been seen at the base.
And as the White House released this document, it declared that it had no intention of opening Bush's entire Guard files. On Meet the Press, Bush had been asked if he would make his whole file available (as had Senator John McCain and retired General Wesley Clark). Bush replied, "Yeah. Absolutely." But now the White House position is less absolute.
Meanwhile, Bill Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard told various newspapers this week that in 1997 he was in a National Guard office and overheard Joseph Allbaugh, who was then chief of staff for Governor George W. Bush, tell an officer he needed to make sure there was nothing embarrassing in Bush's Guard file. Burkett recalled he later spotted items from Bush's file in the trash. Allbaugh and the White House denied these allegations.
Partial releases. Allegations of file-fixing. No explanations for remaining questions. The best way for Bush to reach a final resolution on this controversy would be to release everything in his file--that is, to keep his promise.
UPDATE NO. 2
At the daily press briefing on February 11, McClellan continued to trample the truth. When a reporter noted that Bush had agreed on Meet the Press to open up his entire military file, McClellan replied, "the specific question was about service, whether or not he had served in the military, if you go back to look at the context of the discussion." Translation: no friggin' way. But Bush had said he would "absolutely" release his full file. Call it, Promise Abandoned.
In another exchange, a reporter asked why the White House would not address questions regarding Bush's failure to take a flight physical in 1972. McClellan replied, "I think this was all addressed previously. I think that, again, this goes to show that some are not interested in the facts of whether or not he served; they're interested in trolling for trash and using this issue for political partisan gain."
Wrong again. The White House had not addressed this previously. And the explanation the Bush campaign offered in 2000 turned out to be phony. Moreover, why is seeking an answer to this question "trolling for trash"? The reporter pressed McClellan and asked "what was the answer previous to this?" Rather than provide that "answer," McClellan said, "I'm not going to engage in gutter politics." But he did not say why it would be "gutter politics" to restate what the Bush folks had said about this matter earlier. Still, he insisted "we went through this in 1994, I believe again in '98, 2000. Now some are trying to bring it up again in 2004." He just wouldn't repeat what had been said in those earlier instances.
At the press briefing the next day, McClellan once more was asked, "Why won't you talk about why he didn't show up for his physical, which is a question that still persists?" His initial response was predictable: "We answered that question four years ago." But then he added, "The reason--well, he was on--first of all, you're saying he didn't show up. He was on--he moved to Alabama for a civilian job and he was on non-flying status while in Alabama. There was no need for a flight exam."
But this was not what the Bush campaign had said in 2000. It had claimed that Bush did not take a flight physical because he was in Alabama and his personal physician was in Houston--even though personal physicians do not adminster flight physicals; Air Force doctors do. Moreover, Bush returned to Houston after November 1972, and he remained in the Guard until the end of July 1973. Why did he not take a flight physical then. Was it because he remained on non-flight status? If so, why? Perhaps his full records would resolve this mystery. But when it comes to releasing the complete file, McClellan has turned Bush's "absolutely" into an "absolutely not."
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
Congress is starting high-profile hearings today to debate the crisis in American media. The topic: Media concentration? No. Rather, indecency.
Spurred on by Janet and Justin's Super Bowl antics, Congress has decided to try to address the issue of television's "race to the bottom." Their answer? Increasing token fines on broadcasters that push the envelope with explicit content.
The problem with this approach, as Katrina vanden Heuvel argues in her new weblog, is that "for most conglomerates, even major fines won't dent their massive lobbying budgets. Besides, given the multi, mega-billion giveaway that Congress and the last several Administrations gave the broadcasters (free broadcast spectrum in 1996 worth $300 billion plus; cable channel space in 1992, worth tens of billions more), what Congress is doing must be seen by TV industry lobbyists as a minor nuisance at most. "
Fortunately, there are numerous citizen groups calling on Congress to focus on what's truly obscene: Big Media getting bigger. The Media Reform Network, co-founded by The Nation's John Nichols along with Robert McChesney and others, is at the forefront of the struggle.
Currently, the MRN is calling on people to urge their elected reps to co-sponsor House Joint Resolution 72, the resolution of disapproval that would roll back the new FCC rules. Click here to send a letter, and here to sign on to the MRN's free newsletter, a great place to keep up with new developments in the movement.
The Super Bowl half-time show is just the latest example of the corporate synergy that the Bush Administration and FCC Commissioner Michael Powell have done their best to accelerate. And Powell's "shock" at the spectacle is just a tactic to deflect attention from how his polices have contributed mightily to lewd and crude media. Members of Congress are focused on the media today. It's a good time to try to tell them what people really care about.
"All eyes of the nation should be on Philadelphia Wednesday, but now they're going to be on Michael Powell's public scolding of Janet Jackson," lamented Jeff Chester, head of the non-profit Center for Digital Democracy.
Wednesday, February 11, is when opening arguments on the FCC's new media ownership rules are scheduled to be heard in a Philadelphia appeals court. That's the same day that the GOP Congress has called back-to-back hearings in the House and Senate on violence and indecency on the public airwaves. (At least one Democratic FCC commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein, planned to travel to Philadelphia for opening arguments in the appeal of the agency's controversial decision last June, but had to change his plans when Congress tapped him--and the other four FCC commisioners, including Michael Powell--to testify. )
We can expect Powell to rail against profanity and smut on TV, and repeat his refrain that Viacom/CBS/MTV's Super Bowl stunt with Janet and Justin must be punished. He and several Republicans are already pushing a bill to increase indecency fines tenfold. But for most conglomerates, even major fines won't dent their massive lobbying budgets. Besides, given the multi, mega-billion giveaway that Congress and the last several Administrations gave the broadcasters (free broadcast spectrum in 1996 worth $300 billion plus; cable channel space in 1992, worth tens of billions more), what Congress is doing must be seen by TV industry lobbyists as a minor nuisance at most.
As Andrew Schwartzman, head of the Media Access Project, put it, "I don't think the solution to indecency and bad taste is more fines. I think it's selecting broadcasters that are going to be more responsive to the needs of the local community."
By holding the hearings on the same day as opening arguments in Philadelphia, the GOP Congress and Bush Administration are cravenly trying to change the channel--deflecting attention from their own role in creating the TV networks' weapons of mass distraction.
This week, the important implications are in Philadelphia--not DC. That's where public advocates, media labor unions, and church groups square off against Viacom/CBS; News Corp/Fox; GE/NBC, and lawyers representing almost every newspaper in the US, all of whom will be arguing that the court should affirm and extend what Michael Powell and his GOP wrecking crew did last June.
For years, the media industry has had a sympathetic hearing in the DC Appeals Court. So, the networks and newspaper companies were shocked when the Philly Court--after winning the case in a lottery--took the arguments of the media reformers seriously. (The court suspended implementation of Powell's rules--putting on hold all the deals planned to begin after the FCC June 2 decision.)
It would be a shame if the grandstanding in DC this week overshadows what happens in a courtroom in Philadelphia. It is there that the future of our media landscape may be decided. Will we live with Citizen Kane on steroids? Or can we achieve a media that serves the public interests of citizens? Now, that would be a victory for decency.
Howard Dean's supporters think he has gotten a raw deal from the media. And their candidate does not disagree.
Even before the former frontrunner started to stumble at the polling places in primary and caucus states, Dean says he started taking hits from media insiders who he says feared handing the Democratic presidential nomination to an outsider.
"I think I scared them. I think it goes back to when Al Gore endorsed me, and AFSCME and the SEIU; people in the establishment began to think I could win," Dean says, recalling the heady days last fall when he accumulated endorsements from top Democrats and labor unions. "That scared the hell out of them because they knew I didn't owe anybody. I didn't owe them a dime. Eighty-nine percent of our money comes from small donors. That's certainly not true of anybody else running for president on either side."
The "them" Dean is referring to are the Washington-based political pundits, reporters and commentators who shape so much of the discussion of presidential politics on television and on the pages of America's elite newspapers. "I think the media is part of the established group in Washington. They have a little club there," says Dean. "If you don't go down to kiss the ring, they get upset by that. I don't play the game. I pretty much say what I think. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable."
Initially, Dean says, he felt he could take the hits. After all, media outlets that once dismissed him as the "asterisk" candidate from the small state of Vermont made him a national figure when they featured him on magazine covers and news shows.
But, after what he refers to as a "pep talk" given to backers after his defeat in the Iowa caucuses began airing around-the-clock on cable news programs as the "I Have a Scream" speech, Dean says he began to fully understand how events can be warped by the media. "ABC actually did a fairly sound retraction on that one," Dean says of a report by ABC News that showed the "scream" in Des Moines was dramatically amplified in television and cable reports. "But that's one network, and one report. Most of the networks failed to offer any perspective."
Dean does not suggest that he has run an error-free campaign. He admits to plenty of mistakes. But his complaint that he has not gotten fair coverage is echoed by a report from the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The center's study of 187 CBS, NBC and ABC evening news reports found that only 49 percent of all on-air evaluations of Dean in 2003 were positive. The other Democratic contenders collectively received 78 percent favorable coverage during the same period.
In the week after the Iowa caucuses, the center found that only 39 percent of the coverage of Dean on network evening news programs was positive; in contrast, 86 percent of the coverage of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was positive, as was 71 percent of the coverage of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the new front runner. Even CNN's general manager now admits that the cable networks overplayed the "scream" – which was aired 633 times on national networks in the four days after Iowa voted on January 19.
Yet, even as he tries to resurrect his campaign with a make-or-break push toward Wisconsin's February 17 primary, Dean does not talk much about media coverage of his campaign. Why? "It's not central to the stump speech. If I were leading the polls by 20 percent, I could say anything I wanted about the media," he explains. "But what I've discovered is that, if you complain about the media, they write that you're whiney and complaining. So I don't complain about the media."
That does not mean, however, that Dean does not think about how he would handle media issues if elected. "I figure I'll win, and then I'll really complain about the media," he says.
What does Dean mean by that?
"I think democracy fails under a variety of conditions and one of the conditions occurs when people don't have the ability to get the kind of information they need to make up their mind. Ideologically, I don't care much for Fox News. But the truth is that, as long as there are countervailing points of view available on the spectrum, it doesn't matter," says Dean, who began speaking last year about the need to reduce the power of big media companies.
"Now, the last time I saw a statistic on this, I think that 90 percent of the American people got their news from a handful of corporations," he adds. "That's not very good for democracy, and that's not very good for America. If I become president of the United States, I'm going to appoint a whole lot different people to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) so that we start to make the media more diffuse, more responsible. I'd also like public airwaves devoted to some public services – so that every single station serves the community where it is located."
Dean dismisses the notion that proposals to break the grip of media conglomerates are radical. "That's not radical at all," he says. "That's what we used to have. The right wingers have undone that over the last 15 or 20 years, and we need to go back to what we had to have a sound democracy."
Dean also dismisses the notion that it would be difficult to get the American people to go along with a challenge to big media. "I think the public would love what I was doing," he says of a presidential assault on media monopolies. "The public doesn't particularly like the media, which works in my favor."
Name the Democratic presidential candidates who scored unexpectedly strong showings in Democratic presidential caucuses over the weekend?
John Kerry? No, it is not exactly news that the frontrunner is winning primaries and caucuses. No doubt, Kerry's showings in Washington, Michigan and Maine were impressive, and he is likely to secure some even more impressive finishes Tuesday in the Virginia and Tennessee primaries -- proving in the period of four days that he can win in the west, the Midwest, the east and the south. But Kerry's finishes confirm what the polls have been predicting ever since he won a surprisingly strong victory in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses. He is the man to beat, and no one is beating him.
Howard Dean? No, he is not even exceeding the lowered expectations for his formerly frontrunning campaign. Dean continues to secure second-place finishes in northern states such as Washington, Michigan and Maine. But he is struggling to come in fourth in southern and border states. Even in his native New England, he has now lost both New Hampshire and Maine to Kerry. And the fact that he cannot do better in passionately anti-war states such as Washington and Maine begs the question: Where can he win?
John Edwards? No, he failed to move ahead of Dean in any of the northern states that voted over the weekend -- even though he had support from the United Steelworkers union and former House Whip David Bonior in Michigan. And if he and retired Gen. Wesley Clark both lose to Kerry in Virginia and Tennessee Tuesday, it is going to get harder for Edwards and Clark to spin themselves as serious competitors for the nomination.
But if all the candidates that the media covers fell within their expectations over the weekend, then who were the exceptional contenders? A pair of candidates who are seldom accused of being serious competitors for the nomination, but whose candidacies offer primary and caucus goers opportunities to send real messages: Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton.
Kucinich ran third in the Washington state and Maine caucuses, beating Edwards and Clark. In Maine, Kucinich was winning around 14 percent of the vote, and he could yet have enough support to secure a delegate or so when all the caucus votes are counted.
Kucinich backers in Maine were not, for the most part, being romantic. In interviews with the local media on caucus day, they indicated that they knew the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair was unlikely to win the nomination. But they also indicated that they wanted to send a message by backing the candidate who had staked out the most clearly antiwar, anti-Patriot Act, and anti-free trade stances in this year's race. "Hopefully, he can have some influence on the final platform. (A strong performance) can add some credential to his positions," explained Dennis Rioux, who caucused for Kucinich in Biddeford, Maine. Rioux, who was enthusiastic about Kucinich's anti-war position and the candidate's support for single-payer health care, said he hoped Kucinich would have enough delegates to raise those issues at the Democratic National Convention in July.
Sharpton backers were sending a similar message in Michigan. Sharpton, who campaigned aggressively in Detroit, actually ran second in the city. Only Kerry did better than Sharpton, who won 30 percent of the vote in one Detroit-based Congressional district, and 35 percent in the other. "(Candidates need to) pay attention to the urban agenda," Sharpton backer Dorothy Redmond, of Detroit, told the Michigan Daily. "Although Sharpton won't make it, I want to show blacks do vote and have issues." Those sentiments won Sharpton seven delegates from Michigan, more than any of the candidates except Kerry and Dean.
"We can accumulate the delegates we need to go to the end of this campaign, to get 300 to 400 delegates," says Sharpton. That may be a stretch, although Sharpton does have the potential to secure a good number of delegates in the March 2 New York primary. But it is not extreme to suggest that, as the big-name candidates stumble and fall out of the race, there will still be a desire among primary and caucus voters to send a message about the issues the Democratic Party so frequently fails to address. And the showings for Sharpton in Michigan and Kucinich in Washington and Maine suggest that they could come to serve as the message carriers for those Democrats who want to make sure their party stands for something come November.
I take it back. In my last column I referred to Meet the Press host Tim Russert as the Grand Inquisitor of the Sunday morning talk shows. Not this Sunday. Not when George W. Bush was in his clutches.
Russert is a master of the legitimate gotcha question. I admire his hard-nosed interviewing techniques. But he must have checked them before passing through the metal detectors at the White House. In his Oval Office, hour-long session with Bush, he repeatedly let Bush slide or elide. The few tough queries produced the predictable replies from Bush. And then Russert did not come back with the obvious follow-ups. He was not his usual self: a polite but aggressive quizzer who sticks to specifics, wielding quotes and source material to force his subjects to address previous statements and past actions. Instead, Russert allowed Bush to dish out the all-too familiar, White House-approved rhetoric. It pains me to say, he was more enabler than interrogator.
Russert began by asking Bush about the new commission Bush has created to review the prewar intelligence on Iraq. Bush responded with platitudes about the need for good intelligence. Russert queried Bush on the March 2005 deadline Bush set for the commission's report--which means the report will come out after the election--and noted that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had given a similar British commission a July deadline. Bush said that he didn't want the commission "to be hurried" and that there "will be ample time for the American people to assess whether I made good calls." This sounded like a dodge. Why couldn't the commission, which has to look at a wide range of issues, at least put out before the election an interim report--as commissions often do--on whether the White House exaggerated the prewar intelligence? Wouldn't that help the American people to assess Bush? Russert didn't ask. He took Bush's answer at face value.
On the dicey matter of the absent weapons of mass destruction, Russert reminded Bush that before the war Bush declared the intelligence left "no doubt" that Iraq had WMDs. Faced with this inconvenient quote, Bush offered a defense composed of the assorted lines the White House has been using for months. He said that he had relied upon the best intelligence the US government had at the time, that everyone knew that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous fellow who had used weapons of mass destruction in the past, that former chief weapons hunter David Kay has said that Hussein had the "capacity to produce [WMD] stockpiles," and that the U.N. had declared there were "unaccounted-for stockpiles."
Russert could have challenged Bush on much of this. But he did not point out that U.N. inspectors had not concluded there were unaccounted-for WMD stockpiles in Iraq. (The weapons inspectors, after leaving Iraq in 1998, had said there were discrepancies in Iraq's accounting of its weapons and WMD-related material and that this was worrisome and might mean some weapons remained.) Kay, who found no evidence of any existing weapons, also reported he had uncovered no signs that Iraq had any significant WMD production capability after the first Gulf War. Kay had indeed unearthed evidence of WMD-related "program activities" that he considered dangerous, but he had concluded Iraq had not possessed a serious production capacity. Bush misrepresented Kay's findings, and Russert did not call him on it.
Russert reminded Bush that before the war Bush had claimed that there was a "unique urgency" to the threat from Iraq and that this threat had to be countered "as quickly as possible." He reasonably asked Bush if Hussein really was an "imminent" threat. Bush tossed out the line that the White House has been deploying for months: Hussein was a "grave and gathering threat" because "he had the capacity to make a weapon." Russert could have asked Bush what was "gathering" about the threat from Hussein, especially since no WMDs have been found and Kay has said Hussein's WMD-making capabilities were minimum. But he did not put this important piece of White House rhetoric on the griddle.
In explaining his decision to go to war, Bush told Russert there had been no other choice. It would have been irresponsible, Bush said, to say, "Let's hope [Hussein] changes his stripes....Let us try to contain him." But when Kay testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee two week ago, he said that the U.N. inspection process had contained Hussein's WMD programs. Russert did not bring that up.
Russert did ask Bush whether he had hyped the prewar intelligence on Iraq. Bush replied, "I and my team took the intelligence that was available to us and we analyzed it and it clearly said Saddam Hussein is a threat to America." But Russert did not then do what he is most noted for: he did not present a series of quotes from Bush and his aides and ask Bush to explain and justify specific statements in which he and his aides had overstated the intelligence. Russert could have chosen from a long list. He could have compared these assertions to portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and asked Bush to address the discrepancies between what Bush claimed and what the intelligence actually said.
There are many examples Russert could have thrown at Bush. (I suggested some in a previous column .) For instance, Russert could have reminded viewers that during a nationally televised speech in October 2002, Bush said that Iraq had a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons. But at the same time the National Intelligence Estimate--what was supposed to be a summation of the intelligence community's best material on Iraq--reported that the intelligence agencies had no information on any bioweapons stockpiles. Mr. President, Russert might have asked, please tell us why you said Iraq possessed bioweapons stockpiles, even though U.S. intelligence had no proof such stockpiles existed?
What would Bush have said? We don't know.
Russert could have done the same regarding Bush's and Cheney's dramatic prewar statements suggesting Iraq was close to producing nuclear weapons. He might have done the same concerning the supposed link between Hussein and al Qaeda. Before the invasion, Bush maintained Hussein had an operational alliance with al Qaeda, even though the intelligence did not say so. But Russert did not question him on this. Nor did he do so on whether Hussein was a direct threat to the United States. Russert could have put up on the screen the various times Bush made that claim and then cut to the National Intelligence Estimate's finding that it was unlikely Hussein would strike the United States or share any of his weapons with a terrorist outfit unless the Iraqi dictator was about to be attacked by the United States.
Russert posed too many questions that permitted Bush to reach for sounds-good buzz phrases and platitudes--such as, was this "a war of choice or a war of necessity?" He did not often enough attempt to puncture Bush's assertions with facts. When it came to Bush's reasons for war, he did not truth-test Bush's remarks.
The same happened when Russert turned to the controversy over Bush's service in the Air National Guard. There is evidence--documents from Bush's own file and the statements of Guard officials--that indicate Bush did not report for duty for an entire year. Bush's annual performance review, dated May 2, 1973, is rather damning. It noted, "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit" for the past year. Bush claims that for several months he reported not to his home base in Houston but to a base in Alabama, where he was temporarily living. But the commander of the base has said he never saw Bush. During the 2000 campaign, Bush aides promised they would produce the names of people who served with Bush in Alabama. They did not. And Bush, who says he returned to Houston after November 1972, has never explained why he failed to show up at the base there for six months.
His military record could yield difficult questions for Bush. Why did your campaign not come forward with the name of a single individual who could vouch for your presence at the Alabama base? Why were you not seen at the Houston base after you returned to Texas? Do you deny what was written in your annual performance review? Why did you fail to take a flight physical during that missing year--an act that caused you to be grounded? Why in May, June and July 1973 did you put in extra days of duty? Were you making up for missing time?
Bush has never been grilled by a journalist on this touchy topic. Russert had an opportunity, but he did not, as they say in journalism, advance the story. When he asked Bush about the charge that Bush had been AWOL, Bush dismissed the charge as just "politics." Russert countered that there was no evidence that Bush had reported for duty for a year. But oddly he cited none of the specifics. Bush replied that his critics were "just wrong. I did report....I did show up in Alabama." Russert could have run through the details and pressed Bush to address them. Maybe Bush has decent explanations that he has not yet shared with the public. Instead, Russert merely pushed Bush to make all the available records public. Many key records, though, are already public. So it was no big deal that Bush said, "Sure." The issue is not that Bush is sitting on information; it is that he has not fully discussed and explained the existing record.
Russert next moved to the economy, and Bush said what he always says about his tax cuts: they're great; they're stimulating the economy. But, Russert asked, whatever happened to Bush the fiscal conservative? To make his point, Russert pointed to a General Accounting Office study that maintains the deficit will be so out of control in the year 2040 that the federal government will either have to cut total spending in half or double taxes in order to balance the budget. What are you doing about this "deficit disaster?" Russert asked.
Bush replied with the current White House mantra: "the budget I just proposed cuts the deficit in half in five years." To viewers who are not well-versed in budget policy, Bush's reply probably seemed sensible. Russert was worrying about the deficit 36 years down the road; Bush said he was reducing the deficit in the next few years. But Bush's budget projections are a scam. They do not include obvious expenses--such as the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan after this coming September. Budget experts across the political spectrum--from Goldman-Sachs, the Concord Coalition, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities--have all said that the Bush White House is engaged in fake accounting and that his deficit projections are a fantasy, a dishonest coverup. They agree that the deficits in the coming years will be much higher than Bush is claiming. Just a few days before this interview, The Washington Post editorialists blasted Bush for engaging in outright budgetary deceit.
I waited for Russert to pounce on Bush. But no pounce came. Russert asked Bush why he insisted on cutting taxes in wartime (when every other wartime president since the Civil War has raised taxes). Once more Bush had the chance to pull out one of his stock lines: "I believe the best way to stimulate the economic growth is to allow people to keep more of their own money." Haven't we heard this before? Unfortunately, that could be said about much of what came out of Bush this hour.
In the days before the interview, some Republican strategists were telling reporters that they believed the White House had erred in accepting Russert's invitation. Bush might be experiencing political trouble at the moment. The MIA WMDs have tarnished his credibility. His poll numbers are not so hot. He's been pounded by the Democratic presidential candidates. But place him in Russert's crosshairs? Things aren't that bad. Who knows what might happen when that pitbull got hold of him?
It turns out the doubters had nothing to fear. Bush appeared hesitant the first few minutes, but he ended up doing fine. Russert never cornered him, never pinned him. Russert never made Bush sweat, and Bush was able to reel off the same-old/same-old. Was this because Russert was too respectful of the man or the office? Expectations (mine included) were high. After all, It's not too often a president has to submit to being interviewed by a smart, no-holds-barred journalist.
It's certainly easy to be a Sunday evening quarterback. To be fair to Russert, interviewing politicians is not easy. Most are programmed. Few answer questions directly. Many have learned--or been taught--to turn any query into an opportunity for soapbox speechifying. It's difficult to force them to provide straight answers. And Bush is no slouch in ducking questions and staying with the script. But Russert knows how to cut through the bullshit. This time, though, it looked as if he was unsure of how far he could go. It was as if Russert wouldn't let Russert be Russert. Booking Bush was the big "get," but, alas, Russert let this "get" get away.
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If Bush hoped to use his appearance on Sunday's "Meet the Press" to restore his vanishing credibility regarding the war in Iraq, his National Guard stint, and his stewardship of the economy, he failed.
As millions of Americans headed to church, I sat down to watch what Calvin Trillin calls "the sabbath gas bags." The big gas bag this Sunday--President Bush--was questioned by Tim Russert for an entire hour in the Oval Office. Yet, the gravity of the surroundings did little to obscure the fact that Russert's pointed questions were met with the usual Bush meets-the-press treatment: mislead, deny, deflect and hide.
Fortunately, people who want the truth--not whitewashed, rewritten history--can click here to check out the Center for American Progress's valuable dissection of Bush's appearance, "Claim vs. Fact: The President on Meet the Press." It's a valuable antidote to Bush's deceptions and well worth circulating to both friends and foes.
In his first appearance since being (s)elected, George W. Bush will appear for the full hour on this Sunday's Meet the Press. Last time Bush did the program in 1999, the program's usually combative host Tim Russert had a warm, respectful one-on-one with then-candidate Bush. Let's hope that gladiator Russert reappears this Sunday morning. For, as David Corn, points out in his weblog, "There is, of course, much to ask Bush about."
Here's what my questions would be if I were Tim.
1/ In a January 18th article, veteran Washington Post reporter David Broder quoted articles that appeared in the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News in 2000 showing that there was no evidence that you reported for duty with the National Guard during an eight-month stint in Alabama. Could you set the record straight?
Follow up: Although you were never penalized for failing to fulfill your Air National Guard duty for an extended period at the height of the Vietnam War, do you think your conduct casts doubt on your credibility as commander in chief?
2/ You have suggested in two different statements that we went to war because Saddam Hussein wouldn't let weapons inspectors into Iraq. But between November 2002 and March 2003, UN inspectors headed by Hans Blix conducted 731 inspections. Did you misspeak? Are you misinformed?
Follow up: Last September, you told Brit Hume of Fox News that "the best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world." Do you feel your top advisers have let you down by failing to provide you with accurate facts and objective information? Will you start reading newspapers, magazines--and which ones?
3/ In a major speech on Thursday, addressing the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, CIA director George Tenet said the intelligence community never told the White House that Iraq was an imminent threat to America. Yet you and key figures in your Administration issued repeated and unequivocal claims that war was necessary because Iraq posed an "imminent," "immediate," "urgent" and "mortal" threat. Why should the commission created to investigate intelligence failures exclude the role you and other senior officials may have played in abusing the facts?
4/ Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday that he does not know whether he would have recommended an invasion of Iraq if he had been told it had no stockpiles of banned weapons. What is your view of your Secretary of State's statement?
5/ Your former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill recounts that Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed concerns about the deficit--now estimated to reach $521 billion in fiscal year 2004--asserting: "Reagan proved deficits don't matter. We won the midterm. This is our due." Do you agree with the Vice President?
6/ Your most recent tax bill gives people who make over $1 million an average tax cut of more than $22,000; at the same time, it gives people making $35,000 per year a tax cut of $35. Paul O'Neill has reported that in cabinet discussions about your Administration's second tax cut, you asked, "Didn't we already give them a break at the top?" What did you mean?
7/ How many men and women currently serve in the military? (Russert grilled Howard Dean about this.)
8/ Why are even Republican members of the 9/11 Commission complaining about being stymied in gaining access to vital intelligence information related to the attacks? Don't you believe that Americans deserve to receive the fullest possible accounting of the attacks and whether they could reasonably have been prevented?
9/ Just this week, former State Department spokesperson Margaret Tutwiler told a Congressional committee that America's standing abroad had deteriorated to such an extent that "it will take us many years of hard, focused work" to restore it. What is your response?
10/ You recently cut back on the AIDS funding you promised to provide to Africa. Is this because you think the crisis there is getting better?
Bonus question: What are your views regarding "evolution"?
John Edwards is preparing to mount an issue-based challenge to the John Kerry juggernaut. And the issue will be trade policy.
Edwards, the North Carolina senator who many Democrats now see as the last challenger with a chance to derail Kerry's front-running campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, is already reaping the benefits of his "fair trade, not free trade" stance. On Saturday, in Milwaukee, he will receive a key labor endorsement from the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).
"UNITE members, like all working families, are struggling. George Bush has traded away 2.6 million manufacturing jobs, and put our economic stability, workplace standards and civil liberties at risk," says UNITE President Bruce Raynor, who will join Edwards and a large contingent of the union's more than 3,000 Wisconsin members for the announcement. "Our members are looking for bold new leadership to see us through these challenging times," says Raynor. "Senator John Edwards provides that leadership."
With an epic history that stretches back to the fights against sweatshops at the dawn of the past century, and with 500,000 active and retired members nationwide, UNITE has long been in the forefront of opposition to trade policies that undermine protections for workers, the environment and human rights. The endorsement from UNITE is the first Edwards has received from an international union, and he will use it to highlight the distinctions between his record of challenging free-trade pacts and Kerry's record of support for those agreements.
Don't expect Edwards to get particularly personal with Kerry; the North Carolinian is the "Mr. Congeniality" of this race. But Edwards will be more aggressive about highlighting positions on trade issues that differ from those taken by Kerry.
Edwards has pushed trade issues hard on the campaign trail in recent days, declaring in Tennessee on Thursday that, "It is wrong that our trade policies have caused one million good paying jobs to be shipped overseas because our companies can find cheaper labor and lower standards in another country...We cannot keep supporting trade deals if they are taking our jobs and our democratic way of life with them."
It's no coincidence that the announcement of the UNITE endorsement will come in Wisconsin, where the union has more than 3,000 members and thousands of retirees, and where the February 17 primary contest is shaping up as what could be the last chance to slow Kerry's march to the nomination. With wins in the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, and five caucuses and primaries on February 3, Kerry has emerged as the clear frontrunner.
Already, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has signaled that Wisconsin will be a make-or-break test for his battered candidacy. Edwards is not so blunt about the important of the Wisconsin primary, but his aides admit that he needs to win a northern state soon to remain viable.
Edwards scored a big win February 3 in South Carolina, and he posed solid, second-place finishes in Oklahoma and Missouri – which added significantly to his delegate totals in the race for the Democratic nomination. And he could score wins Tuesday in the Tennessee and Virginia primaries, where he is competing with Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, but the North Carolinian needs a breakthrough in the north. That's where Wisconsin, which holds the highest profile primary between now and the March 2 "Super Tuesday" primaries in delegate-rich states such as Ohio, New York and California, comes in.
"Edwards is going to have to win somewhere in the north, and there are no other targets for him except Wisconsin," says former US Rep. Jim Jontz, who has been working to get all the candidates to address trade issues as part of the "Regime Change 2004" initiative of the group Americans for Democratic Action. "So Edwards is going to need Wisconsin, and the issue that may get Wisconsin to listen to him is trade."
Jontz is hardly alone in suggesting that trade issues rank high on the list of concerns for Wisconsinites.
"In the past two and one-half years, Wisconsin alone has lost over 84,000 manufacturing jobs in part because of unfair trade policies," says US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who has been a leading Senate foe of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), permanent Most Favored Nation trading status for China, and the granting to President Bush of "Fast Track" authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement.
Feingold is not making an endorsement in the Wisconsin primary. But he has made trade a major issue in the state, which has been hard hit in recent years by trade policies that have encouraged US firms to shutter factories in the upper Midwest and shift production out of the country. Feingold and other members of the Wisconsin Congressional delegation have, as well, been leaders in raising concerns about trade policies that undermine the interests of Wisconsin's family farmers – who remain a significant electoral force in what has historically been known as America's Dairyland.
Edwards has not been so consistent a foe of free trade policies as Feingold, or Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who is also seeking the Democratic nod. But the North Carolinian has cast votes in the Senate against a number of trade agreements, and he has made opposition to the FTAA and calls for a reworking of NAFTA an important part of his message in the presidential campaign.
In contrast, Kerry voted for NAFTA, legislation that led to the creation of the World Trade Organization, Most Favored Nation trading status for China and Fast Track authority for the Bush administration to negotiate not just the FTAA but other new trade agreements. When the AFL-CIO quizzed candidates on trade issues in July, Kerry refused to indicate whether he would oppose a Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that did not include significant protections for workers and the environment in the US and abroad.
In September, in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Kerry accused critics of free trade pacts, including former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, and Dean, of "pandering" to organizing labor. Gephardt, who won the support of many industrial unions but ran poorly in the Iowa caucuses, has withdrawn from the race and is now backing Kerry.
But Gephardt's long-time ally in fights against the free-trade agenda of Presidents Clinton and Bush, former House Whip David Bonior, endorsed Edwards on Thursday. "One of the reasons I am supporting John is that he campaigned against NAFTA and knows thath we have to fight for fair trade, not just free trade," said Bonior, who remains a popular figure with labor audiences not just in his native Michigan and in neighboring Wisconsin.
Along with Bonior's backing, Edwards was endorsed this week by District 2 of the United Steelworkers of America, which represents steelworkers in Michigan and Wisconsin. "As the son of a textile worker, he has seen the devastation that unfair trade has brought upon entire industries," said Harry Lester, Director of the District 2 United Steelworkers of America. "It is time working people had an Administration that recognizes the success of business and the success of working people go hand in hand. John Edwards understands that and would bring fairness back to our government."