Signs of a Pulse

I noted in the June Prospect that while the bombs were bursting over Iraq, America's TV networks were so excited about embedding with troops that they declined to subject the war's rationale to serious scrutiny. How could hype, hysteria, wishful distortion and rank deception in high places be news when there were no -- well, not many -- pictures to interrupt the all-conquering crusade? The networks, America's channels for what is euphemistically called information, had untold hours to spare for desert travelogues, retired generals' briefings and the spectacular deliverance of Jessica Lynch. But they tiptoed around the spurious Iraq-Niger uranium deal, a story that had started to leak into lower-circulation public view -- thanks to Seymour Hersh's exposé in The New Yorker last March -- but was evidently not ready then for prime time. Early on, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) smelled a rat and demanded a Pentagon explanation, but news of his challenge stayed safely online and, to the big-deal media, off-limits.

Patience, good critic! What a difference the months make when the White House's triumphal arch begins to sag. Throughout July the sleeping giant of American journalism at long last stretched, yawned and scrambled to its feet while the Bush White House played its favorite games, Hide the Responsibility and We, Like God, Have Our Reasons, though with dwindling success. Could these rambunctious reporters trying to squeeze some truth out of tricky White House officials be part of the same herdlike press corps that had dutifully let Bush get away with joking that his choice of reporters who could ask questions at a March 6 press conference was scripted? As late as June 22, David Rosenbaum, on page 1 of the Times' "News of the Week in Review," was maintaining that Bush may have exaggerated but that he hadn't lied -- a distinction not conventionally made on behalf of Al Gore, anointed the Pinocchio candidate during the 2000 campaign. Evidently we were supposed to be cheered to consider the president only a serial hype artist, an unwitting deceiver, a helpless retailer of untruths that the servants were supposed to weed out and not a conscious, i.e., thoughtful, i.e., knowledgeable faker.

What made the difference, in part, was the outraged professionalism of intelligence officers and diplomats, and -- weary of having been broken down to stenographer status and finally scenting weakness in their antagonist flacks -- journalists themselves. July brought Ambassador Joseph Wilson's testimony that, at the behest of Dick Cheney, the CIA had sent him to Niger to see what he could see, and what he saw was ... no evidence of uranium sales. Dana Milbank and Mike Allen in the July 10 Washington Post were noting bluntly that "the president avoided answering questions." This ran on page 1. A prewar March 18 alert by Milbank and Walter Pincus had run on page 13, reading, "As the Bush administration prepares to attack Iraq this week, it is doing so on the basis of a number of allegations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that have been challenged -- and in some cases disproved -- by the United Nations, European governments and even U.S. intelligence reports." Suddenly Milbank, who early on had incurred the wrath of the White House for calling lies lies, didn't look quite so outré. Now the sluice gates were flung open and the blood scent was thick.

Emboldened, the press played its great game of catch-up, even if the headlines often grayed out the revelations. Who knew what and when did they know it? That was the question of the month. The point would have been all the sharper if the press had dug down into the memory hole to retrieve proof that either knowing deception or flagrant ignorance had been the administration's game all along. On July 16, ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross was on World News Tonight referring to "a two-bit job of a forgery" as he displayed a copy of the now infamous documents purporting to certify the Iraq-Niger deal -- documents so amateurishly faked as to have been outed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a matter of hours.

So, in full ungainly spin mode, Ari Fleischer twisted himself into knots trying to defend the president. But questions from The New York Times' David Sanger, among others, must have convinced White House higher-ups that the credibility drain was considerable, and the buck had to cease whirling around and stop ... somewhere. Enter CIA Director George Tenet to say that, while he'd never read Bush's text, he should have stopped the president from reading his lines.

At long last, reporters abandoned stenography and openly doubted the petulant, sneering suit behind the curtain. (Not all, however: A CNN newsreader referred to the uranium allegations as a Bush "slip of the tongue.") A telltale template recurred: The White House says X but certain irritating facts say not-X. In a July 16 front-page piece in The Washington Post, Pincus wrote:

In recent days, as the Bush administration has defended its assertion in the president's State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to buy African uranium, officials have said it was only one bit of intelligence that indicated former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program. But ... between Oct. 7, when President Bush made a speech laying out the case for military action against Hussein, and Jan. 28, when he gave his State of the Union address, almost all the other evidence had either been undercut or disproved by UN inspectors in Iraq.

"Undercut," "disproved" -- tantalizingly close to the plausible charge that Bush deceived, distorted, twisted and otherwise mangled facts, or doesn't know them when he sees them -- if he sees them.

The difference was blood -- not only blood in the water around Bush but blood in the soil of Iraq. As some soldiers complain by name and on air, and others are picked off by guerrillas who weren't supposed to exist, the White House appears newly vulnerable. And as Bush's ratings subside, reporters leave fear behind and start scrubbing Teflon off the president -- Teflon that they themselves were not so long ago in the business of spraying. As when Republican losses in the midterm elections of 1986 finally unleashed reporters to pursue the Iran-Contra story in earnest, Bush's current weakness and the Democrats' sudden revival have a bracing effect on journalism.

But not bracing enough. Front-page analyses and editorials are still slow to point the finger at Bush's dizzying errors with any of the same glee with which they pounced on "Travelgate," "Filegate" or Gore's infamous "controlling legal authority." On July 14, Bush told reporters, "Subsequent to the [January] speech, the CIA had some doubts." We now know that it expressed its doubts as early as October. Also on July 14, Bush told Dana Milbank, "We gave [Saddam Hussein] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." Why isn't such stupendous nonsense headline material?

One senses that, for all the peeling Teflon, much of the information industry is still embarrassed to exhibit the emperor's nakedness. A swaggering Bush came to office feinting, evading and bluffing reporters into submission, taming them with nicknames. They didn't look deeply into his demonstrated incapacity to reason, to doubt or to weigh rival explanations in difficult circumstances.

News organizations that aimed to dazzle the public for months on end with philosophical discourses on the nature of Bill Clinton's prevarications thought it would look unseemly to inquire into the mental capacity of the incumbent not-so-great communicator. Instead, whenever possible, they cleaned up Bush's syntax and overlooked his gobbledygook. They continue to leave largely unchallenged the dubious charge that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were in cahoots. Claims about aluminum tubes and killer drones remain evidence-deprived.

At this writing, the media are still reluctant to point out the most plausible hypothesis for Bush's evasiveness: self-hypnosis. This small man is in the grip of a large passion that floods out mere fact. The urgency of his fixation on Saddam Hussein was boosted by September 11, infusing him with a volatile mixture of glory and panic. That's why, as an anonymous White House official said, "The president is not a fact-checker." He never has been. His idea of truth is faith-based.

The purported competence of Bush's inner circle has often served to insulate him from any question of how someone so stupendously ignorant and incurious about the world is still capable of making sensible decisions. But it's increasingly evident that the president and his intimates -- Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and the other top Pentagon brass -- are more confident than competent. Having come to power on the strength of an inexhaustible will to win, they convinced themselves that they're destined to keep on winning, and that the world is what they say it is because they believe. They don't nuance, they don't fact-check. So what do they do when they decide to be resolute?

Even now, the press leaves the inner circle's magisterial auras untarnished. For example, there's Cheney's prewar disagreement with the IAEA conclusion that the Niger documents were forgeries, his claim that the CIA also disagreed (we now know this isn't so) and that "we believe [Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

There's also Rice's postwar comment on the fraudulent Iraq-Niger connection: "Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency. But no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions ... ."

Even from an awakened press, "PRESIDENT AND TOP ADVISERS LIE" is not a headline you're likely to see. Neither is, "PRESIDENT DOESN'T KNOW ENOUGH TO LIE." That would be too darned insubordinate.

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