Blame for Iraq Extends Far Beyond the GOP
Anyone out there see the Letterman-O'Reilly dustup that went down recently? On the surface it looked like a seminal moment in modern television history, a Godzilla v. Megalon monster epic in which Godzilla was finally toppled just outside the Tokyo city gates. Keeled over, its rubber eyes flitting dumbly against the cardboard landscape, we finally saw the great lizard's vulnerable side. It was almost possible to feel sorry for Bill O'Reilly, who had trotted out on set with the peace-offering of a plastic sword and shield, expecting to make nice with his fellow overpaid TV icon -- but who instead ended up skewered and turned over the video-spit by the end of the segment, with an apple in his mouth and Sumner Redstone's massive billionaire foot wedged firmly in his ass.
For the rest of his days, few people will forget the image of O'Reilly sitting glumly and taking it while some smug ex-weatherman called him a "bonehead" to raucous studio applause. Which is too bad, because Bill O'Reilly wasn't even the dumbest person on the set that day. For that honor my vote goes to Letterman. Here's Letterman's explanation of his initial position on the Iraq war:
Here is my position in the beginning. I think I sort of felt the way everybody did. We felt like we wanted to do something, because something terrible had been done to us. We did not understand exactly why, all we knew was that something terrible, something heinous, something obscene had been done to us. So, while it didn't exactly make as much sense to go in to Iraq as it did perhaps to go into Afghanistan, I like everybody else felt like, yes, we need to do something. We need to do something. And as the weeks turned into months, turned into years, and as one death became a dozen deaths became a hundred deaths became a thousand deaths, then we began to realize, you know what, maybe we're causing more trouble over there than the whole effort has been worth.That's a hell of a speech -- back to it in a moment. For now, consider the context in which it was delivered. We are in the last week before midterm elections in George Bush's second term, five years after 9/11, three and a half since the beginning of the Iraq war. By now we can say without much hesitation that the media establishment has turned not only on George Bush, but on the public attack-dogs of his right flank who dominated the national political media for so long. There's no more free lunch for the likes of O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, the latter of whom also took an unusually savage fragging in the national media last week for his attack on Michael J. Fox. That incident basically moved Al Franken into the national mainstream, with even a normally gentle humorist like Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Muke Luckovitch (from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) calling Rush a "big fat idiot" last week.
What's happening is that these talk-radio pit-vipers who for a decade or so had us all wondering "How the fuck do these guys get away with this stuff?" are now no longer getting away with it -- there's now a mechanism in place in the national media that is poised to savage these guys for the same kinds of tactics that for the last ten years ago were mostly left to the likes of FAIR and Eric Alterman to bitch about.
And it goes beyond beating on O'Reilly and Rush. All across the media landscape, once-reviled liberal or Democratic figures are being rehabilitated and celebrated by the same national media that, at best, habitually described Democrats as soft on defense or as unelectable political losers throughout most of the Bush years. This process actually began some time ago, around the time the Iraq war really started to go sour; I remember in particular one week in May when Good Morning America had a fuzzy-warm bit on Al Gore's "comeback" and a laudatory piece on the Dixie Chicks on successive days. Could that have happened in 2003? I doubt it. And it's continuing today; Chris Matthews last week called Nancy Pelosi "stylish" and compared her to Joe DiMaggio, of all people, while David Gregory went on the campaign trail with Michael J. Fox for the Today show. Can you imagine NBC news throwing a tow-line to a liberal Hollywood actor before the 2000 presidential elections? 2004? No way. But this year, it's possible.
Last week we also saw Wolf Blitzer, before the war one of the chief cheerleaders for the invasion, finding himself arrayed in an antiwar pose in another Japanese monster-movie debate situation with Lynne Cheney, with whom he had a fierce exchange over the broadcast of unpleasant footage from Iraq. And of course there was Bob Woodward, who a few years ago published one of the all-time Electrolux suck jobs for the administration with Bush at War, reading the writing on the wall and doing a complete about-face in his new book State of Denial, which came out to much fanfare and an uncompromising 60 Minutes segment last month.
Look, there's nothing mysterious about any of this. It's pretty obvious what's going on. We saw this same kind of cultural shift in 1968, after the Tet offensive (an analogy so obvious that even Tom Friedman saw it recently), when the American political establishment soured on the Vietnam War. Despite the conservative propaganda that for decades has insisted that it was the media that lost the war for us in Vietnam, in fact the media didn't turn on the Vietnam war effort until the war was already lost. And the reason the media soured on that war had nothing to do with it being wrong; it had to do with the post-Tet realization that the war was expensive, unwinnable, and politically costly. America is reaching the same conclusion now about Iraq, and so, like Dave Letterman, a whole host of people who just a few years ago thought we "had to do something" are now backing off and repositioning themselves in an antiwar stance.
What's dangerous about what's going on right now is that an electoral defeat of the Republicans next week, and perhaps a similar defeat in a presidential race two years from now, might fool some people into thinking that the responsibility for the Iraq war can be sunk forever with George Bush and the Republican politicians who went down with his ship. But in fact the real responsibility for the Iraq war lay not with Bush but with the Lettermans, the Wolf Blitzers, the CNNs, the New York Timeses of the world -- the malleable middle of the American political establishment who three years ago made a conscious moral choice to support a military action that even a three year-old could have seen made no fucking sense at all.
It doesn't take much courage to book the Dixie Chicks when George Bush is sitting at 39% in the polls and carrying 3000 American bodies on his back every time he goes outside. It doesn't take much courage for MSNBC's Countdown to do a segment ripping the "Swiftboating of Al Gore" in May of 2006, or much gumption from Newsweek's Eleanor Clift to say that many people in the media "regret" the way Gore was attacked and ridiculed in 2000. We needed those people to act in the moment, not years later, when it's politically expedient. We needed TV news to reject "swift-boating" during the actual Swift Boat controversy, not two years later; we needed ABC and NBC to stand up to Clear Channel when that whole idiotic Dixie Chicks thing was happening, not years later; we needed the networks and the major dailies to actually cover the half-million-strong protests in Washington and New York before the war, instead of burying them in inside pages or describing the numbers as "thousands" or "at least 30,000," as many news outlets did at the time; and we needed David Letterman to have his war epiphany back when taking on Bill O'Reilly might actually have cost him real market share.
Take a look again at Letterman's comment last week:
So, while it didn't exactly make as much sense to go in to Iraq as it did perhaps to go into Afghanistan, I like everybody else felt like, yes, we need to do something.Well, that's putting it pretty fucking mildly, wouldn't you say? It's not that Iraq didn't make "as much sense" as Afghanistan -- it didn't make any sense, and anyone with half a brain could have seen that. And Letterman's subsequent reasoning -- that seeing one death turn into dozens and then hundreds and thousands made him reconsider the whole thing -- all that tells you is that this is a person who makes life-and-death decisions without considering the consequences. If the Iraq war was not ever going to be worth 3,000 American lives (and countless more Iraqi lives), then why the hell did we go in in the first place? If you make a decision to fight, you had better not be scared of blood. And if you're suddenly changing your mind about things after you lose a few teenage lives, you're a hundred times more guilty than the guys like Bush who are actually sticking to their guns about this war.
Because Bush and the rest of that crew sent young men to die for something they believed in, fucked-up as their reasoning might be and have been. But these shitheads in the political middle who are flip-flopping right now sentenced teenagers to death for the cause of expediency and careerism. There are young men coming home now without arms and legs because the Wolf Blitzers of the world were too afraid to lose their jobs or piss off advertisers bucking the war hysteria of the times. Remember, CNN and the rest of the networks did great business in the run-up to the war. They had artists cooking up fancy new "America's New War" graphics and they were selling lawn fertilizer and soda and male-enhancement drugs by the metric ton right up to the time when the Saddam statue came down. But the war isn't selling anymore; the war is a bummer. And so these guys are changing their minds.
Are you throwing up yet? Surely that behavior is more shameful than anything coming out of the White House.
This assault on the Republicans that's taking place in the national media right now is partially a reflection of national attitudes, but mostly a matter of internal housecleaning. The members of the Bush administration have proven to be incompetent managers of the American system, and so they are being removed. It's that simple. They screwed up a war that all of these people wanted, turned public opinion against the dumbed-down militarist politics that until recently was good business for everybody. And so they have to go. Mistake any of this for ideology or principle at your peril.