Bob Somerby on Maddow, Dowd, Matthews and Mission Accomplished

THE DAILY HOWLER

LIKE DOWD ON RICE: Good God. The history of an age could be found in Greg Mitchell’s post last Friday. Or could it?

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On the sixth anniversary of “Mission Accomplished,” Mitchell recalled the way big pundits recorded Commander Bush’s splashdown on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The commander strutted about in his flight suit, producing some of the most god-awful “commentary” in the history of pseudo-journalism. We all recall the lunacy of Chris Matthews and Gordon Liddy, gaping at the commander’s manly assets on Hardball (text below). But thanks to Mitchell’s review, we could also recall what Maureen Dowd wrote, some four days earlier. Take the children—and the pets—to some distant chamber:

DOWD (5/4/03):The tail hook caught the last cable, jerking the fighter jet from 150 m.p.h. to zero in two seconds.

Out bounded the cocky, rule-breaking, daredevil flyboy, a man navigating the Highway to the Danger Zone, out along the edges where he was born to be, the further on the edge, the hotter the intensity.

He flashed that famous all-American grin as he swaggered around the deck of the aircraft carrier in his olive flight suit, ejection harness between his legs, helmet tucked under his arm, awestruck crew crowding around. Maverick was back, cooler and hotter than ever, throttling to the max with joystick politics.

Compared to Karl Rove’s ”revvin’ up your engine” myth-making cinematic style, Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies look like Lizzie McGuire.

This time Maverick didn’t just nail a few bogeys and do a 4G inverted dive with a MiG-28 at a range of two meters. This time the Top Gun wasted a couple of nasty regimes, and promised this was just the beginning.

Yes, that sounds like crazy stuff. But uh-oh! Missing from Mitchell’s post was a bit of elementary fairness. In her column, Dowd was actually mocking Bush for his manly, cock-of-the-walk presentation (to read the whole column, click here). Her attack on Bush begins at the point in the column where Mitchell stops quoting. Soon, she has an alter ego saying this to Bush:

DOWD: You can fly, Maverick. But you, Cheney and Rummy are strutting around on a victory tour when you haven’t found Osama or Saddam or WMD; you haven’t figured out how you’re going to stop tribal warfare and religious fanaticism and dangerous skirmishes with our soldiers; you don’t yet know how to put Afghanistan and Iraq back together so that a lot of people over there don’t hate us. And why can’t you stop saying that getting rid of Saddam removed “an ally” of Al Qaeda and was payback for 9/11? You know we just needed to jump somebody in that part of the world.

In fairness, that was salient stuff. Dowd had her Bush figure respond this way, using the kind of Dems-are-fems lingo she herself practically invented: “Hey, Miss Iceman, why don’t you head to the Ladies Room? John Kerry and John Edwards are already there, fixin’ their hair all pretty-like. Howard Dean’s with ’em, trying on a dress, and Kucinich is hemming it for him.”

We’d have to say that Mitchell’s quotation of Dowd was a bit unfair. But then, bungled quotation—and tortured paraphrase—are key parts of the modern landscape. If you could wave a magic wand and remove Bad Paraphrase from Campaign 2000, for example, there’s no way Bush could have reached the White House. The history of our modern politics is a history of this technique.

We humans love tendentious paraphrase! We see this again in Dowd’s new column, a column in which she actually gets something semi-right about Condi Rice. Dowd uses a tortured semi-paraphrase first—but lurking inside her central passage, Dowd does say something that’s basically accurate.

Even Dowd sees the basic framework here! Why can’t our progressive TV hosts?

Dowd is discussing the questions Rice took from some Stanford students last week. Before we get to her central passage, let’s enjoy a good solid laugh as she sets the scene:

DOWD (5/3/09): Condi Rice, who plans to go back to being a professor of political science at Stanford, got grilled by a student at a reception at a dorm there on Monday.

I’ve often wondered why students haven’t been more vocal in questioning the architects of the Iraq war and ”legal” torture who landed plum spots at prestigious universities. Probably because it would have taken the draft, like the guillotine, to concentrate the mind. But finally, the young man at Stanford spoke up. Saying he had read that Ms. Rice authorized waterboarding, he asked her, ”Is waterboarding torture?”

Too funny! Dowd often wonders why college students don’t question these people more! That’s odd! We’ve often wondered the same darn thing about our multimillionaire journalists! (And their young, millionaire-track colleagues.) Appropriate guffaws to the side, Dowd continues with her tale. In our view, she essentially misparaphrases Rice in the passage we highlight. But she makes a sound point in the process:

DOWD (continuing directly): She replied: ”The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations, under the Convention Against Torture. So that’s—and by the way, I didn’t authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency.”

This was precisely Condi’s problem. She simply relayed. She never stood up against Cheney and Rummy for either what was morally right or what was smart in terms of our national security.

The student pressed again about whether waterboarding was torture.

”By definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Conventions Against Torture,” Ms. Rice said, almost quoting Nixon’s logic: ”When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

She also stressed that, ”Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after Sept. 11, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans.”

Reyna Garcia, a Stanford sophomore who videotaped the exchange, said of Condi’s aria, ”I wasn’t completely satisfied with her answers, to be honest,” adding that ”President Obama went ahead and called it torture and she did everything she could not to do that.”

In fairness, no—Rice really didn’t “almost quot[e] Nixon’s logic.” (Please note the slick use of “almost.”) She really didn’t say what Nixon is said to have said: If the president orders it, that makes it legal. But by the time Dowd typed her column, everyone else had enjoyed some good fun with this rather tendentious claim. So Dowd went ahead and typed it too—hiding behind her “almost.”

No, Candidate Gore didn’t say that he invented the Internet (the most consequential mis-paraphrase in American history). Candidate McCain didn’t say he wanted a hundred-year war (the press corps dropped that one quickly). And no: Condi Rice didn’t really say that if the president orders X, that means that X is legal. But in the midst of her fumbling fun, Dowd raised a very good point in this passage, which we quote again:

DOWD: This was precisely Condi’s problem. She simply relayed. She never stood up against Cheney and Rummy for either what was morally right or what was smart in terms of our national security.

Rice may not have made the decisions, Dowd said. But she didn’t push back either.

Dowd raises an excellent point in that passage, though her history may be imperfect. In this morning’s Times, Mark Mazzetti offers a history of the torture/enhanced techniques regime (just click here). Among other things, he attempts to report what Rice actually did about this regime at various junctures. His reporting could be wrong, of course. But in Mazzetti’s account, Rice offered “strong support” for the torture/enhanced techniques program at least until May 2004, when a critical internal report began to raise essential questions. He describes her pushing back against Cheney on several points during Bush’s second term, even winning at least one fight. (At other times, she accepts Cheney’s wins.) You can read Mazzetti’s full report for yourself. But his account of Rice’s conduct isn’t quite as one-sided as Dowd’s.

That said, Dowd raised an excellent point: By normal standards, serious questions should be asked about the role officials like Rice played in Bush’s regime. What role did she play in the move to war? What role did she play in the creation of the torture regime? Even Dowd understands that this is a basic, essential framework. That’s why we remind you again of the work which occurred when Rice’s number-one man, Philip Zelikow, appeared on our most liberal TV show.

Appearing on the Rachel Maddow Show, Zelikow was allowed to skate. No questions were asked about any of this—and the same policy obtained two nights later, when Colin Powell’s top aide appeared (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/27/09). But then, when Powell himself appeared on this show, he wasn’t asked the world’s most obvious question. Was water-boarding discussed in your presence? The question was screaming out to be asked. But your new imaginary best friend completely forgot to ask it.

Citizens need to lobby their journalists! More specifically, progressives need to tell people like Maddow that they expect her to ask these questions. That they expect her to challenge these public figures. That they want her to stop kissing up to every big star who drifts by.

Progressives need to lobby that way. Unless this nightly “journalism” is really just a social event, a way to define our glorious clan. A way to feel good for an hour each night. A way to feel good—and superior.

Even Dowd can see the shape of this problem! Why on earth does our new best friend keep giving big Bush aides a pass?

Yes, they actually said it: We think Mitchell’s quote is unfair to Dowd. But here’s what Liddy and Matthews said—and yes, the boys really meant it! In his opening question, Matthews refers to Democratic criticisms of Bush’s glorious splashdown:

MATTHEWS (5/8/03): Gordon, my buddy, thanks for joining us. I’m now giving you a shooting gallery of opportunity here.

LIDDY: Yes, you are.

MATTHEWS: What do you make of this broadside against the USS Abraham Lincoln and its chief visitor last week?

LIDDY: Well, I—in the first place, I think it’s envy. I mean, after all, Al Gore had to go get some woman to tell him how to be a man.

And here comes George Bush. You know, he’s in his flight suit, he’s striding across the deck, and he’s wearing his parachute harness, you know—and I’ve worn those because I parachute—and it makes the best of his manly characteristic.

You go run those—run that stuff again of him walking across there with the parachute. He has just won every woman’s vote in the United States of America. You know, all those women who say size doesn’t count—they’re all liars. Check that out!

Please note: Four years later, Liddy went straight to the smutty sexual trashing dished to Gore and Naomi Wolf—a sexual trashing which was thoroughly accepted by the “career liberal” world in real time. And make no mistake—Matthews took Liddy’s side on this program, ridiculing the silly folk who had been criticizing Bush’s splashdown. In fairness, that would have included Dowd, in her earlier column. Matthews thought they were all nuts:

MATTHEWS: And I’ve got to say why do the Democrats, as you say, want to keep advertising this guy’s greatest moment?

LIDDY: Look, he’s, he’s coming across as a—well, as women would call in on my show saying, what a stud, you know, and then guy—they’re seeing him out there with his flight suit, and he’s—and they know he’s an F-105 fighter jock. I mean it’s just great.

MATTHEWS: Let’s let him talk for himself. Here’s President Bush expressing his confidence that he did the right thing…

The boys were full of admiration for Bush’s manly splashdown. Of course, Matthews had always swum in this sea. Searching today on “Hardball and Bush and manly,” we hit this earlier bit of misery, from Campaign 2000. At this time, Hardball was soliciting and airing comments from insightful viewers:

MATTHEWS (4/27/00): Our second caller says that Al Gore and George W. Bush are both attractive candidates, but in very different ways.

CALLER: I really can’t believe that Chris Matthews thinks that Al Gore is the more attractive of the two presidential candidates. Al Gore is attractive in a sort of limp-wrist sort of way. However, George Bush is attractive in a manly sort of way.

MATTHEWS: Well, Susan, as I said last night, I’ve been polling women, by the way, on this subject, because I don’t know what—have any idea what the right answer is, which of these two bucks women find most appealing or least appealing. I’ll remember to include, however, your comments in my current tally. And if you want to play Hardball yourself, just call us at 202-824-6799, or e-mail us at hardball@msnbc.com.

Each candidate was attractive—Gore in a limp-wrist sort of way, Bush in a manly manner.

Of all the comments he had received, Matthews chose to read just two on the air. This was one of the comments he chose. Five months before, in November 1999, he had played an aggressive, leading role in the sexual trashing of Wolf and Gore.

Career liberals cowered and stared at all this. They still don’t discuss it, to this very day. Olbermann licks Matthews’ keister on air. Bush ended up you-know-where.

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