When George W. Bush appeared before the annual Radio & Television Correspondents' Association dinner and joked about his failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it was a challenging--and illuminating--moment for the Washington media. As Bush flashed photographs of himself looking about the Oval Office and quipped, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere," the betuxed and begowned audience generally laughed. I did not--and the next morning wrote what I believe was the first review critical of Bush's performance (www.thenation.com/capitalgames ), accusing him of callousness and arrogance for making fun of the primary reason he'd cited for sending Americans to war and death, and for turning serious scandal (his use of false assertions to launch a war) into rimshot comedy.
Perhaps it was not surprising that Bush was so insensitive. By turning his prewar misinformation--or disinformation--into material for yuks, he was downgrading a controversy. Suspicious minds can wonder if that was the strategic intent of the bit. But did the media have to go along?
An extensive though unscientific review of the subsequent coverage suggests that many, if not most, in the Washington press corps saw Bush's shtick as no big deal. Was this a sign of Washington clubbiness? An indication that big-name journalists are removed from the substance of the political and policy debates they cover? Or that for them nothing is out of bounds--or sacred? I find it hard to ascribe motives to a group. But quite a few journalists--some of whom strike me as decent folks--were all too willing to cut Bush slack. On the Today show Tim Russert said, "Rather than be judgmental, let me just step back; ironically...the exact same joke was told to me two weeks ago by a very rabid antiwar Democrat." But had that Democrat asked Americans to die for a phony argument? Referring to somber comments Bush had made about US troops overseas, Russert noted, "If you look at the evening in the totality, the people who were there I don't think came away with some of the same conclusions as people who just heard snippets." Wall Street Journal political correspondent John Harwood said that to criticize Bush over this was a "cheap shot." Fox News's Brit Hume decried people who are too "easily offended" and said the joke "made [Bush] look good only in the sense that it showed he could poke fun at himself." His advice: "Get over it." Also at Fox, Tony Snow compared Bush's gag to Bill Clinton kidding about the Lewinsky controversy. (On CNN's Capital Gang, Al Hunt made the obvious point: "Nobody died as a result of the...Lewinsky miscues.") NPR's Juan Williams said the complaints were just politics. CNN's Dana Bash and Elaine Quijano both noted that the joke got plenty of laughs and nobody booed, as if that settled the matter.
Much of the media approached the story as just another tussle between Democrats and Republicans. On CNN's Newsnight, White House correspondent John King merely noted that John Kerry had issued a statement rapping Bush for the joke and that the White House had defended the remarks as appropriate. An AP story quoted three Republicans (including GOP chairman Ed Gillespie) and three Democrats expressing the obvious views. "You can hear the laughter," Gillespie said. "The people in the room obviously saw the humor in it at that moment, and to play it back now in a different context is unfair." (What different context?) The Washington Post also ran a partisan tit-for-tat piece. The New York Times carried a 255-word dispatch that cited "unhappy" viewers who had seen a clip of the event on CNN, and it quoted a Bush spokesperson.
Not all Washington journalists and commentators went with the just-a-joke or it's-all-politics lines. Kenneth Bazinet, a White House correspondent for the New York Daily News, penned a front-page piece on family members of dead GIs who were enraged by Bush's routine. CBS Evening News interviewed Sue Niederer, whose son, Lieut. Seth Dvorin, was killed in Iraq. She said, "You don't joke about things of this nature." MSNBC's Bill Press and Pat Buchanan agreed Bush had gone too far. So (predictably) did CNN's Paul Begala. On Hardball, Chris Matthews roughed up Tucker Eskew, a Bush campaign adviser, who defended the joke as "mildly self-deprecating." Matthews, noting he'd recently visited Walter Reed hospital, where about 3,000 seriously injured soldiers were being treated, pounced: "Would you have [Bush] tell those jokes as he tours the [veterans] hospitals?"
Overall, there was more excuse and explanation than outrage and examination. Before an audience of people who supposedly spend their days pursuing the truth, Bush joked about misstatements (if not lies) he had used to persuade (if not hornswoggle) the American people and the media. This was a real inside joke--that is, for Bush, Karl Rove and the gang. And few media insiders got it.