In recent weeks, Oliver Stone's Sept. 11 epic, "World Trade Center," has become its own ground zero of national debate.
Columnists who have attended advance screenings of the movie have been generally favorable, though not without injecting a healthy whiff of ideology. "It's impossible not to take a political message from the movie," writes National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez, who goes on to describe the movie as an argument on behalf of faith, heterosexual marriage and "united outrage."
Armchair critics in the blogosphere, meanwhile, have been predictably sour, even though most have seen only the two-minute theatrical trailer. "Hey Oliver," taunts Agent Smith on starpulse.com, "how 'bout waiting at least 20 years or so before trying to cash in on other people's tragedy?"
And then there's MSNBC's Tucker Carlson, who went the bloggers one better.
"Neither I nor anyone I know is going to see it," Carlson reported. "How could your memory, your experience of 9/11, be any more vivid than it already is? Don't bring it to the silver screen. We don't need it there."
Welcome to the opening of an Oliver Stone film.
Breaking into the mainstream in 1986 with his Oscar-winning Vietnam memoir, "Platoon," Stone quickly morphed in the public consciousness from brilliant cinematic upstart to alleged conspiracy-theorist nut, primarily because of his Kennedy assassination chronicle, "JFK." Although the crackpot rep is largely unfair (while Stone took some liberties, he drew most of his material for "JFK" directly from the Warren Commission report and preexisting conspiracy theories), the loony label stuck. That's Hollywood.
Still, Stone forged ahead, taking on cultural institutions -- the Sixties, Watergate, even the National Football League -- with movies that had the moxie to plumb events of historical significance, often while the ink was still wet on the newsprint. If nothing else, that took guts.
Why go there?
But now Stone has embarked on the greatest gamble of his career, resurrecting the wrenching pain and seismic shockwaves that erupted five years ago next month, when four fuel-fat jets plowed into the American psyche, forever changing this nation's perception of itself and its place in the global community.
Public discourse about 9/11 has always been tortured. Like a family nervously discussing a favorite uncle's alcohol problem at the dinner table, many Americans find the conversation more harrowing than helpful -- so why go there?
And yet the truth is, America has always been obsessed with its own dramas. Whether on TV or on the big screen, on front pages or in quickie books, we are a nation bent on relentlessly reliving our darkest moments until either the pain has been exorcised or we just grow bored.
The West Virginia mine disaster in January, for instance, commanded newspaper and TV coverage far beyond the usual cycle. Hurricane Katrina segments still run on cable news channels nearly a year later. Even the networks' prime-time dramas have joined the collective chest-thumping, incorporating terrorism storylines into their shows as blithely as they do Pepsi can product placements.
But this time it's different. Like Paul Greengrass' "United 93," which was released earlier this year, "World Trade Center" asks us to tear the scab off the rawest of national wounds. This is where Carlson and his ilk, despite their arrogance, merit an answer to their question: Why does America need to see this movie?
The answer is painfully simple: Because much of the country has forgotten the real lesson of Sept. 11.
For a short while after that cataclysmic morning five hazy summers ago, parents hugged their kids a little tighter; neighbors dropped in on one another unexpectedly, then stayed for dinner; and Americans everywhere added a few extra words to their nightly prayers, asking God to provide comfort for people they didn't know.
In the end, we drew strength from our shared grief, and in doing so, propped each other up. For the briefest of moments, our sense of family, as a nation, ran far deeper than the gaping holes that scarred the soil of New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
And yet in less than a year, the very event that had inspired this awesome breath of unity had begun to tear us apart. In what now seems like an instant, Sept. 11 got ugly.
It became the driving force behind an unpopular, divisive war, waged against a country that played no role in the terrorist attacks.
It became a weapon in two national elections, recklessly waved about by politicians hell-bent on challenging the patriotism of their opponents.
It became Valerie Plame and Halliburton, wiretaps and funding fights, POWs and WMDs.
Just like the sickening footage of the Twin Towers pancaking down onto themselves, our pride as an undivided nation collapsed in the blink of an eye, leaving us wandering in the dust ever since.
If you think you were immune to this distressing transformation, try to remember the way you spoke about 9/11 to the guy in the next cubicle back in 2001, and the surprising ease with which you shared your feelings. Now imagine talking to him today -- about the "war on terror," or the fighting in Fallujah, or the congressional debate over prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Would you be just as candid with your thoughts? Would he?
The real tragedy is, this didn't have to be. Not since Pearl Harbor had the nation felt so blindingly compelled to pull together. But rather than hold fast to that common purpose -- to invest in what Lincoln called "the bonds of fraternal feeling" -- we squandered the moment, then sped off in the other direction.
Stone's film faithfully -- respectfully -- returns us to those sacred moments in late 2001, when what really mattered was the love we felt for one another, and for our country. As a stirring survival story, it reminds us that a handful of souls salvaged from the twisted carnage that had claimed thousands could still be a blessing. It is a tragically beautiful film.
Three weeks ago I went downtown to see Ground Zero for the first time in a few years. At the far east end of the mammoth excavation hole is a concrete observation deck, where New Yorkers and tourists can contemplate what is now a somber construction site for the planned Freedom Tower and 9/11 memorial.
A few dozen of us lined up along the chain-link fence, craning our necks upward to read a moment-to-moment chronology of the fiery chaos that had raged less than a hundred yards from where we stood. The summer sun was brutal, yet we all remained there, hands to foreheads, shielding our eyes against the glare as we read in silence.
It is my hope that Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" inspires moviegoers to do the same thing -- to squint against the harsh light of day in an effort to recall, even for just two hours, the common humanity that we, the people, felt on the morning of Sept. 12.
It's never easy to be in the middle of a war, but in early 2003, Phil Donahue found himself embroiled in two. Seven months earlier, Donahue had been lured back to television after a six-year hiatus to host an issues-and-answers program for perennial ratings underdog MSNBC. His new bosses were hoping the white-maned veteran of talk TV would give the struggling network the jolt it needed in the battle for cable-news supremacy.
On the other side of the world, however, a real war was gearing up -- in Iraq -- and it was Donahue's unabashed, on-air opposition to that conflagration that spelled the program's ultimate demise. "[He presents a] difficult public face for NBC in a time of war," read a leaked NBC memo, "Ã¢â‚¬Â¦at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag."
After the boom was lowered in February 2003, Donahue remained unbowed. "We weren't Elvis," he says, "but we often led MSNBC's nightly ratings. We deserved to be nurtured, not canceled." Today, Donahue, 70, who is married to actress-activist Marlo Thomas, watches the action from the sidelines, but is no less engaged: He continues to attend peace rallies and publicly press for a withdrawal of American troops. I caught up with Donahue by phone at his home in Manhattan.
Bruce Kluger: Two-and-a-half years ago, MSNBC cancelled your show, in large part because it expressed an anti-war message -- a sentiment that is now embraced by a majority of Americans. Do you feel tempted to say "I told you so?"
Phil Donahue: No, those are awful words. What do we possibly gain from that? That wouldn't do anything for the troops. I'd be standing on top of the pain of all these families, glorifying myself. Criticism, I'm used to that. But nothing ever comes from saying "I told you so."
Does the fact that you were right all along frustrate you, or is it weirdly satisfying in a way, knowing you weren't crazy?
I'm still bewildered by how naive I was. When MSNBC first announced my show, there was this notion that Donahue, this 29-year veteran with name recognition, was going to save the network. In fact, headlines said, CAN DONAHUE SAVE MSNBC? Now, I'm not exactly the youngest member of the choir here, and I actually thought I was going back on television with a show that would be able to make a contribution toward the dialogue about the Iraq war, and that this would give it commercial value. I wasn't ashamed to be concerned about ratings. The size of the audience is the coin of the realm, and if you don't draw a crowd, sooner or later you'll be parking cars. I honestly thought that having an anti-war voice in the middle of all the drum-beating would be good strategically for a network that was trying to gain some traction.
A genuine anti-war voice.
Yes. I wasn't cute about it, I didn't finesse it. I was outspokenly against this military effort, so it wasn't like I was ambushing anybody. I thought this anti-war voice would distinguish us, and to put it very crassly, be good for business at NBC. But I never anticipated how truly hostile the management team would be to an anti-war voice, not only within the corridors of NBC, but at all the commercial networks. That's why I call myself naive Ã¢â‚¬â€ for not understanding how badly all of this would be received.
After MSNBC pulled your show, you released a statement that said, "It took almost three years for Fox [News Channel] to overtake CNN. We had six months."
Right. Look, we weren't Elvis. We did not burn down the town at MSNBC. What we did do was often -- not always, but often -- lead the night. The tent pole of the evening. We never beat Fox, but nobody else did, either. And because our numbers were good enough -- relative to the rest of the programs on the network -- we deserved not to be canceled but to be nurtured. To be promoted.
But as the program made its way into its very short, unhappy life at MSNBC, management became very, very concerned. I was conducting aggressive interviews with conservative people who couldn't wait to bomb something. I was suggesting that Rummy was a kind of a wise-guy secretary of defense, going out there and performing for the reporters at his news conferences. Remember, I was working for General Electric [the parent company of NBC and MSNBC]. You know, one of General Electric's biggest customers is the Pentagon. Do I know for a fact that that's germane [to my show being canceled]? No, I can't prove this. But I can prove that a memo was certainly leaked to the media in which management said I was presenting a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
What's surprising to me is that NBC News had been taking surveys to determine what people watched and what people liked. I mean, the news division is doing focus groups to determine what people like? The news division is supposed to gather the news, whether it makes people happy or not. But we've become so corporatized.
In your public statement, you also criticized General Electric's CEO and chairman of the board, Jeffrey Immelt.
Yes, we did criticize Immelt for going on Fox and saying he wished that MSNBC was more like Fox. It was hardly good for the morale of the hardworking people at MSNBC to see the chairman of the board of General Electric make that comment. It was certainly a mistake for him to do it, and I think he'd probably say so himself now.
I mean, it was tough to realize that not only was I going over the side, but I was taking a lot of our team with me. And we had a fabulous team -- young, passionate people who really gave a damn -- smart, nice and with a real good pedigree within the industry.
Is it possible to be anti-war in this country and have your own show?
Yes -- if you're a comedian. You can't report on the war and have your own show unless you're funny. It's got to be "I oppose this warÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.ba-duh-bum!" Don Imus is against the war, Jon Stewart is against the war. Bill Maher and Al Franken are against the war. They all have good consciences -- and God bless them all, I wish we had more of them. But what distinguishes them from the rest is that they're all funny, so they can have their own show. Bill Moyers can't.
What's happening to the progressive voice in American politics?
Because the Republican Party has spent millions of dollars marginalizing the dissent and protest of the progressive voices. Liberal is the political idea that dares not speak its name. The people who own and manage the great networks of America today are -- and I choose this word thoughtfully -- frightened of the word liberal. You may recall that around the time Walter Isaacson got the job as president of CNN, there was this kind of whispering campaign going on, saying, "CNN is liberal." Well, the first thing Isaacson did after he got the job was rush to Washington to call on Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich and other right-wing Republicans. [His message was] "We're not liberal!" Because people won't watch you if you're liberal.
What's happening at the crossroads of news and entertainment? Since 2003, you've moved from the playing field to a perfect 50-yard-line seat, so your perspective has got to be clearer. Are things getting worse?
Well, Fox is the megaphone for this White House. So I suggest that any future president -- before he's elected -- should start planning meetings to determine which network is going to be his. I mean, that's the way it appears now, right? "Bush is wonderful, Bush is good, let's not worry about the neighborhood!"
To give you an example, take The Beltway Boys. You have Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes, who sit there and essentially start at one place and end at exactly the same place. "Oh, sure there are problems with the Republicans and the administration," they say, "but these are overexaggerated!" Fred Barnes almost had a vapor attack and fainted on live television talking about [Iraq war mom] Cindy Sheehan. "Cindy Shee-han! Cindy Shee-han! Who is she? She's getting all her press because it's August, and it's a slow press month! Cindy Shee-han!" [Makes a hissing noise]. Holy cow, I couldn't believe it! They just sit there -- it's unbelievable! You've got to watch this.
Now, imagine a show called The Beltway Girls, with Amy Goodman and Maxine Waters. It could never happen, it's unthinkable. Why? Because they're on the left. And this is what the American people have to recognize: The voices of proud Americans on the left side of the political spectrum are muted. Occasionally, they will appear on Fox and other stations as guests, but they are like the dolls in the carnival booth on the midway. They are there to have objects thrown at them for the amusement of the onlookers.
And what's the name of that other Fox show in the morning?
Fox & Friends.
Right, Fox & Friends. The day the country marked the 2,000 dead in Iraq -- it might've been the next morning -- the host of Fox & Friends is saying, "What is it about 2,000? Why are we making such a big thing about that? I mean, we're certainly sorry and all, but what's this 2,000? Why is this such a news story? What's the point?"
In other words, no criticism of Bush is tolerated. There are disagreements, there's a kind of a fig leaf of varying opinions, but it's always about some superficial political consequence of this or that act. It's never about anything substantial.
Ever think of just turning off the TV?
No, I'm fascinated by this. I believe you're culturally illiterate if you don't watch any of these things. And yet a very small section of the American populace is watching cable television. CSI gets, what, 27 million viewers? The king of cable gets just outside 2 million. OK, no small number there, and in my neighborhood, we'd call [Bill] O'Reilly a hit. But the more important question is, who are these people who are watching the food fights? I think they're important. I think they give us a sense of where America has been, and where it's going.
You mention Bill O'Reilly. You faced off with him on his show, The O'Reilly Factor, last month, and by anyone's standards got the best of him. He barely got a word in edgewise. How did you do that? Did you do research?
No, I didn't have a strategy. I'm not that well-organized. In a lot of ways, he kind of hurt himself. This whole huff-and-puff thing. Didn't he say he'd throw me out of the studio or something? I mean, hey, pretty insecure there, right?
Calling him "Billy" may have helped that.
You know what? The Irish do this. I grew up with Patty Callahan and Timmy O'Brien and Jimmy Breslin. It's a part of Irish culture that the first names of males are always two syllables. So, all of my friends who are William, I refer to them as Billy. It wasn't necessarily meant to be some sort of slur; if anything, I may have presumed a friendship with O'Reilly that doesn't exist. Anyway, a lot was made of that, but it certainly wasn't an intentional thing.
You are arguably the godfather of talk TV, having practically invented the format, then running with it from 1967 to 1996. When you look at the shows Donahue ultimately spawned -- from Oprah to Ellen -- are you proud of your progeny?
I don't want to be the old guy sitting in his rocker one day, looking back and saying, "It ain't what it use to be. When I was on TV Ã¢â‚¬Â¦" I've seen so many people walk bitterly into the sunset, complaining, "We've lost our soul." So when I'm asked about the shows that followed mine, what I usually say is, "I love them all -- they're all my illegitimate children." And we should also remember that Donahue was the show [that] brought you male strippers.
That's right. What was that all about?
A little nonsense now and then is treasured by the best of men. And by the way, male strippers wasn't my idea -- I didn't know where the hell I was going to clip their microphones. But, no, I couldn't believe it, I mean, those guys came out and started taking their clothes off and the audience went berserk! I've never seen anything like it. And the audience is all-female -- your mother is there, your grandmother, your baby sister, they're all having the time of their lives! I stood there Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ stunned. And you know what? The next day we had Dick Gephardt on for a whole hour.
In many ways, we knew we had to entertain people. You can't say "Ain't it awful?" five days a week and succeed. That's why I'm not going to sit here and act like the monsignor, telling you who's committing sins. I understand what these shows are doing. It's just that now we've moved into a male-strippers-five-days-a-week genre. It's all about degree. You won't see Dick Gephart or Trent Lott or anybody else for a full hour on a daytime show anymore.
What about the Dr. Phil-type shows?
We did lots of those, too. "My Husband Doesn't Kiss Me Anymore" -- that sort of thing. People still come up to me at airports and say "Thank you, Mr. Donahue" -- they call me "Mr. Donahue" now. "Thank you. Because of your show, I got out of an abusive relationship." Or, "Because of your show I came out to my parents." I get a lot of that and it makes me feel good.
I would wish this odyssey on anybody I love. It was a wonderful, wonderful ride.
And nothing like the MSNBC experience.
Nothing like it at all. When I was in syndication, I was the gorilla in the room. We did whatever we wanted to do. Nobody censored us. It was fabulous. If some station out there in the heartland didn't like a certain show, they could cancel us -- but I'd still be on 113 other stations. It was a syndicated program, the most honest way to deliver material on television. One vice president of programming -- while he was shaving -- could not cancel my whole career. In the case of MSNBC, that was not true. I didn't have the protection I had in syndication. I didn't have the democracy. It was emotional, it was very unpleasant, I didn't like it and I don't want to do it again. I mean, when it came to guests, we had to have two conservatives on for every liberal Ã¢â‚¬Â¦
That was an actual formula?
Yes. I had gone into this thing at MSNBC feeling sky-high, thinking that we were really going to be something different. What I didn't expect was the resistance from these people. And right after we were fired, they hired Michael Savage.
Who lasted about 10 minutes, before being fired himself for making anti-gay comments.
Yes, but they knew who he was at MSNBC. And during all of this, I often wondered about the "MS" in MSNBC. I'd think, "Do Bill and Melinda Gates watch this?" Then I saw Rupert [Murdoch] being interviewed on TV, probably Fox, and he said -- with no hostility at all, more like with wonderment -- "I'm not sure why MSNBC is having so much trouble gaining traction." And I thought, "Well, you know what, Rupert? I'm not sure either."
Do you think you know now?
Well, the very real agony here is that the liberal point of view is not going to get you ratings. [Makes his voice sound ominous] Liberals are unrealistic. Liberals are wimpy. Liberals don't like war. Liberals are for unions. I mean Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ unions? If you're a Republican white male suit running a network, why the hell would you want to have somebody on promoting unions? Unions drink coffee and are worried about pay raises!
Liberals are for minimum wage. Liberals never saw a cause that they didn't want to spend your money to fix. Liberals sing "Kumbaya." Liberals are for gay people getting married. Liberals don't want God in our schools. If a kid sneezes in a public school, liberals don't think the teacher should be able to say "God bless you!"
And you want to know the biggest coup de grace? Liberals don't like God. Conservatives have God, liberals don't. Conservatives are for life; liberals are for death and choice.
The thunderous, relentless, organized spending of millions and millions of dollars by the radical Republican conservative fringe -- in cahoots with evangelical, messianic Christians -- has marginalized the liberal, progressive, left-speaking members of our populace so effectively that significant numbers of Americans now believe all those canards. It is unbelievable what they've done!
And this also has to be said: This administration believes that all men are created equal unless we're scared. This administration has shredded the Bill of Rights. We have people in cages for going on two years now -- no papers, no visitors, no phone calls, no lawyers, no nothing. You're fooling with the soul of America here! And by the way, watch what you say. To these people, the First Amendment -- the notion of free speech -- has become a quaint idea. It's not very practical in these times. These are the same people who give prizes to children at all these wonderful banquets at the Rotary Club or the Daughters of the American Revolution for writing essays -- 25 words or less -- on "Why I'm proud to be an American." And yet when it comes to actually standing behind the Bill of Rights, they're the first ones to turn their backs, to drop their tools and run away from this magnificent idea called the United States Constitution. And the American populace is largely standing there mute. I never used to be able to figure out how the hell we could put 120,000 Japanese-Americans behind the fence [during World War II]. I'm no longer bewildered.
George Clooney's current biographical film of Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck, speaks to many of these issues.
Good Night and Good Luck is a wonderful, cinematic reminder of how easily we can be intimidated, and how the whole threat of being accused of being unpatriotic is a very, very effective silencer. It's the best and easiest way to mute the population. And the media has gone along with it. This administration says, "You can't cover the bodies coming home at Dover [Air Force Base]," and the entire United States media establishment says, "OK."
Because access is everything in Washington, and if you're the executive producer at one of the big news shows and you piss off Karl Rove, you're not going to get Condi or Rummy or any of those guests who would legitimize your show as a serious, important program. Suddenly you're going to be shut out, wallowing alone, with a boss saying, "What's wrong with you? How come those people got Colin Powell and we didn't?"
There's an unwritten, subliminal need to curry favor here. There's a reason why Michael Moore was never on Meet the Press or Face the Nation. He's probably the No. 1 hated figure in the White House, or certainly he was last year.
Think about it, Michael Moore was literally being considered as Time magazine's Man of the Year in 2004. His film [Fahrenheit 9/11] was at the center of the presidential campaign. And yet he was never invited to be on Meet the Press or Face the Nation. He was on George Stephanopoulos, but he was taped and edited. Very edited. He was invited on Larry King Live, but when the White House refused to send a balancer, he was canceled.
I think all of this is Karl Rove. So what we're looking for now in the media are more and more reporters and journalists who don't care if the White House doesn't call them back. Sy Hersh is a good example. People who aren't beholden to the big nipple of information that is the White House and legitimacy. We're looking for journalists who don't have to be popular, who are willing to engage in the very inelegant job of sticking their nose under the tent to see what our self-righteous political leaders are planning for us. It's a very unbecoming activity for anybody, but that's the job.
Your wife, Marlo Thomas, is also known for having strong political opinions. Any ideological battles on the home front?
Well, we had a tough time with Ralph Nader. I was on Ralph's bus in 2000, and that upset Marlo. In fact, they wrote about that in a New York Times editorial. They said, "Marlo Thomas should give her husband a civics lesson." I've always wondered what the hell that civics lesson would be. That I shouldn't follow my conscience and support who I want? But I did get off the Nader bus in '04 along with a lot of other people. I mean, Marlo knew who she was marrying and so did I, so there's hardly any surprise there.
You come from Cleveland, went to Notre Dame, built your career in Chicago, and now divide your time between New York and Connecticut. By my calculations, that's three blue states to two red states.
Wow, I've never heard it parsed that way.
Which do you consider your real roots?
I guess I'm still a Cleveland boy. I grew up with the Cleveland Indians -- like Larry Doby, the Jackie Robinson of the American League. Spanish-speaking ballplayers were beginning to make their talents visible in the Bigs. We had a Jewish third baseman, Al Rosen; we had a 24-year-old matinee-idol-type player-manager shortstop, Lou Boudreau; we had [owner] Bill Veeck. We had the Cleveland Browns -- Marion Motley and Otto Graham. I mean, pictures of these guys were on my wall! We had four clearly defined seasons. We had the aroma of burning leaves in October, heralding the coming of winter and Christmas. We had a wonderful spring, where suddenly crocuses and robins were appearing. I thought everybody had this, you know? It wasn't until I started spending a little time in California that I realized, Wow, I really miss that.
What was your neighborhood like?
West Side, very blue-collar, working class. My neighborhood was Irish Catholic, which was great. All the bishops and the monsignors were Irish. We had our own parade. We had the best music -- I mean, I felt sorry for people who weren't Irish and didn't have that music. [Laughs] And then in 1980, I married a Lebanese girl and the music of my life got even better.
I guess I'm a late learner -- too soon old, and too late smart. I began to see the importance of cultural diversity. We bussed our children because we thought the Catholics were raising another generation of racists. All of our statues were white -- Jesus was white, the Holy Spirit was a white bird, God the Father was a white old man with a white beard, the guardian angel was white. Essentially, we believed that you couldn't come out of this experience without having the vestiges of racism in your soul. It's not conscious. Racism is a lot like cancer -- you don't always know you have it. So to give our children a diverse childhood, we sent them to a downtown Catholic school, much to the anxiety of neighbors who thought we were going to sell our house to black people. I learned a lot during those days.
I had Noam Chomsky on my show at that time. I remember asking him, "What are you trying to say?" Now remember, I'm a kid who came of age in the '50s -- Eisenhower, America Victorious! Lend-Lease. The Marshall Plan. America, America! The grandest and most noble!
So I'm talking to Chomsky in '67, '68, and I said, "What is it you're saying?" And he said, "Never, ever trust the state." And I thought, "What?!" I mean, we weren't raised to protest. We weren't raised to question. We were raised to wave the flag. To pledge allegiance. "My country, right or wrong." It's a terrible, terrible trap. Here were all these guys dying to protect our way of life, yet at the very center of all that is the right to protest; and when it comes to protesting about something that's really important -- like the advance of a war -- we're told to shut up and sing.
So I suppose I'm out there trying to say, "Look, if we can't protest now, then at least stop sending all these men and women to die." OK, so we'll have a neo-Mussolini telling us what's good for us, but let's not waste their blood anymore.
I'm sorry to orate so much.
No apology necessary.
It was the perfect gesture at the perfect time.
On March 11, 2002 – six months after the world changed forever – the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and PBS stations across the country simulcast a three-minute, 11-second music video in which more than 100 beloved children's characters – from Kermit the Frog and Winnie the Pooh to Barney and SpongeBob SquarePants – came together to perform a decidedly animated version of the '70s hit song "We Are Family." No fanfare preceded the broadcast, no money was made from it. Rather, the event – an unprecedented collaboration among broadcast giants and cartoon-and-felt TV stars – was intended solely as a message of healing in the wake of 9/11.
The men behind the project – producers Nile Rodgers and Christopher Cerf – were clearly well-suited to their task. Rodgers, the renowned music impresario and co-founder of the group Chic, had written the disco anthem 22 years earlier for Sister Sledge; and Cerf (son of legendary Random House founder Bennett Cerf) had racked up a shelf full of Emmys for his work on Sesame Street and the popular literacy-preparedness program, Between the Lions.
In other words, these were guys who clearly knew a thing or two about children, music and the magic of humanity.
So positive was the feedback from the broadcast that the project instantly became the cornerstone of Rodgers' We Are Family Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes diversity, understanding and multiculturalism. In March, a revised version of the video will resurface when it is sent to 61,000 U.S. elementary schools as part of a campaign designed to demonstrate to children "the importance of togetherness," while keeping an eye out for those who are "victims of intolerance."
Message to the We Are Family Foundation: Consider yourself the latest victim.
Last week, Christian conservatives launched an attack on the video, specifically targeting SpongeBob Sqaurepants, Nickelodeon's bright yellow superstar who for six years has captivated kids (and grownups) from his modest pineapple digs under the sea. The amphibious assault on Bob was led by Rev. James Dobson, founding blowhard of the Ã¼ber-conservative Focus on the Family organization. In what can only be described as an outright effort to become a cartoon himself, Dobson chose inaugural week to publicly finger the happy, hapless Sponge as the ringleader in what he deems a "pro-homosexual" agenda within our popular culture.
What fueled Dobson's preposterous broadside is the fact that the We Are Family Foundation has posted a "tolerance pledge" on its web site that makes reference to respecting a person's "sexual identity" (along with his or her beliefs, culture and race). This clearly doesn't sit well with the Reverend, who insists that such an inclusion "crosses a moral line" – especially, it seems, in a music video that flaunts interspecies, puppet-cartoon miscegenation.
"We see the video as an insidious means by which the organization is manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids," Dobson's press rep told a slack-jawed media last week. "It's a classic bait and switch."
Quicker than you can say, I can't believe they're going after a cartoon sponge, Dobson's cronies in the holier-than-thou contingent weighed in on the underwater turbulence.
"Tolerance" and "diversity" are part of a "coded language that is regularly used by the homosexual community," said a spokesman from the reliably over-caffeinated Family Research Council; while Donald Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association and reigning Chicken Little of moral depravity, warned parents everywhere to be on the lookout for the sinful video making its way into their kids' classrooms.
Short of a perverse aversion to seafood, why on earth would these men carry such an ample supply of venom for the Spongester? Perhaps it's because SpongeBob occasionally holds hands with Patrick, his starfish buddy, or that the show itself has reportedly become something of a fad among gay adults (sort of like an aquatic Judy Garland).
Or maybe it's simply because the moral crusaders – buoyed by the turnout of the evangelical vote in November, and interpreting that as a mandate to go on the attack – have finally lost their minds. (As a dumbfounded spokesman for Nickelodeon aptly commented: "It's a sponge, for crying out loud. He has no sexuality.")
Over the weekend, I called Rodgers at his home in New England to ask him about about the firestorm surrounding his project. He was holed up from the blizzard outdoors, while fielding nonstop calls from a fascinated national media. Genetically incapable of succumbing to negativity or hot-headed retaliation (the guy is genuinely sunnier than SpongeBob), Rodgers finally did admit to a certain sense of frustration over the brouhaha.
"The only thing that gets me mad," he admitted, "is when someone has the chutzpah or audacity to speak on behalf of my organization – to make up their own interpretation of our efforts and then present those opinions as fact.
"As much as I appreciate the support we're getting from all over," he added, "I think the one thing that's been missing from all the coverage is a discussion of the video itself, and how all of these organizations joined forces to create a spirit of unity. Naturally, kids don't understand – or even care about – all the behind-the-scenes work it took to get giant entertainment corporations to pull together like this. But they will see Barney and Kermit and, yes, SpongeBob, on the same screen together, and they'll immediately understand the message: that even though we're different, we're really all the same."
When the dust – rather, seaweed – finally settled on last week's silly debacle, a few salient facts bubbled to the surface of the brine. As it turns out, the whackos who originally led the attack on the We Are Family Foundation had logged onto the wrong web site in their search for ammunition. Rather than boot up the Foundation's site – www.wearefamilyfoundation.org – they'd mistakenly gone to the home page of the similarly named We Are Family organization (www.waf.org), which is, indeed, a gay and lesbian resource site. But instead of fessing up to messing up – especially now that the media was running with (and laughing at) the story – the resourceful Christians doubled back onto the Foundation's site, found the tolerance pledge, and had the smoking sponge they needed.
Never mind the fact that the pledge is a wholly separate entity on the site, and won't be part of the music video campaign. Those are just little details. And if there's one thing the Dobsons and Wildmons of the world hate, it's details.
The only good thing to come of SpongeGate, of course, is that, in classic style, Dobson and company over-reached, and in the process of chumming for anti-gay outrage among Americans, wound up sinking their own dinghy. It's a small victory for the good guys, but a pretty darn sweet one just the same.
Meanwhile, I can't help but wonder to myself what SpongeBob himself might say about the Bible-thumping band of bullies who briefly had him on their sonar. Good guy that he is, he'd probably rather dry up and float away than say anything negative. Mr. Krabs, however – Bob's cranky boss and proprietor of the Krusty Krab – might have this comment:
"I smell the smelly smell of something that smells smelly."
On July 4, 1826, as citizens celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of America's freedom, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died in their respective homes. From that day forward, historians have enjoyed imbuing the men's synchronized passing with a kind of other-worldly irony, inspiring them to look both forward and backward in assessing the legacy of these Founding Fathers.
A similar event transpired last weekend, when two symbols of American justice and presidential politics died on the same day, just as the nation was gearing up for Memorial Day. To be sure, the simultaneous passing of Archibald Cox and Sam Dash will not be remembered with the same providential reverence as the Jefferson-Adams deaths, but rather as one of those fluky bits of timing.
All the same, in remembering the feats both men performed during a time of unprecedented domestic turbulence, one can't help but recognize how far we have come as a nation, and yet -- as always -- how history is doomed to repeat itself.
As chief counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign activities -- otherwise known as the Watergate Committee -- Sam Dash oversaw the legal machinations of the Congressional inquiry, a painful proceeding that would ultimately lead to the first and only resignation of an American president.
Archibald Cox, meanwhile, occupied a stormier perch in the Watergate scandal. Appointed as the government's special prosecutor into the affair, Cox was one of three high-ranking officials (including the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General) who lost their jobs on what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre" -- simply for doing what they believed was right for the American people.
While the deaths of Dash and Cox have induced a predictable spate of Watergate nostalgia in the media, a more valuable lesson hides between the lines of their obituaries. Recalling their actions during the convulsive days of Watergate, I couldn't help but recognize how the very quest for justice both men pursued 30 years ago, and the bedrock principles of democracy that informed those efforts, are still alive and well in the current debate over the performance of our 43rd President.
Take Archibald Cox. Before his egregious dismissal from his job as chief prosecutor, Cox had been nothing less than thorough in teasing out the seedier back-story to the Watergate fiasco. Lurking among the darker corners of the Nixon Administration, Cox helped uncover financial shenanigans within the Nixon re-election campaign, as well as damning evidence of conspiracy and cover-up within the highest reaches of the White House. And, of course, it was Cox's unyielding demand that Nixon turn over secret tape recordings made in the Oval Office that led to his firing.
In hindsight, Cox's doggedness in pursuit of the truth now seems not only justified but downright commendable, considering the outcome. So why do supporters of the current President insist that similar probes are out of bounds and unpatriotic?
Is it such a reach to compare the investigation of Nixon's notorious slush fund to the ongoing questions over the Bush Administration's chronic back-channeling of contracts and tax-breaks to former oil and business cronies? Were the Watergate conspiracy and cover-up any less murky than the ever-unfolding story of the Administration's secret ramp-up to the war in Iraq? And, frankly, how different was Cox's demand for the White House tapes from the ongoing pleas by journalists and legislators for the Bush Administration to hand over similarly vital evidence? It is unsettling, to say the least, that Nixon's stonewalling is now perceived as a fatal flaw, and yet the current administration has demonstrated the same kind of stubborn secrecy when petitioned for any number of documents -- from pre-9/11 memos, to early revelations about the Abu Ghraib mess, to the still-undisclosed details of the Vice President's Energy Task Force.
(The latter, like Cox's petition for the Nixon tapes during Watergate, is now before the Supreme Court. Back in 1974, the Justices stood behind the public's right to know what their leaders were up to. Don't expect the same courtesy from this Court.)
No less compelling are the parallels between Sam Dash's role in Watergate, and those of the men and women who now seek to swing open the doors of the Oval Office. To be sure, it was Dash whose persistent interrogation of White House aide Alexander Butterfield exposed the existence of a secret taping system; but what Dash will be remembered best for was not so much what he did on the Watergate panel, but the character and integrity he displayed throughout. He was admired on both sides of the aisle for his fairness and candor -- and not only during Watergate. In 1994, Dash surprised Democrats by signing on as an ethics advisor to Ken Starr's Whitewater investigation of President Clinton, only to quit four years later when he determined that Starr's aggressive pursuit of impeachment wasn't the kind of impartial investigation he had in mind.
"As a prosecutor, your job is to seek justice, not just to convict," Dash said at the time of his resignation. "This is an absolute mission with me."
At this moment, millions of Americans are on the same mission. Still rocked by the atrocities of September 11 -- and now embroiled in both combat abroad and political battles here at home -- the nation turns to its leader for answers. But time after time, President Bush has exhibited the same kind of contempt for public disclosure that got our 37th President into so much trouble three decades ago. Sam Dash wouldn't have stood for that. Neither should we.
I am not implying that the Bush Administration is guilty of Nixonesque abuse of power (not yet, at least); nor am I suggesting that if the President has engaged in misguiding American citizens, that his duplicity has reached the level of high crimes against our nation.
But the time has certainly come for President Bush to accept that fact that, like it or not, the country is now divided as painfully as it was during the Watergate era. And that it is this issue -- and not his re-election campaign -- that deserves his complete attention.
Bruce Kluger is on the board of contributors of USA Today. He also writes for National Public Radio and Parenting magazine.
This month, officials from the former Clinton Administrations testified before the independent 9/11 commission, indicating that members of the incoming Bush team were duly warned as early as December of 2000 about the growing threat of Al Qaeda terrorism on U.S. soil. These revelations capped off nearly two-and-a-half years of unsettling disclosures about similarly missed signals in the weeks and months leading up to the attacks, including warnings by field agents that Middle Eastern men were attending flight schools; the suspicious movement of money by terrorists among American bank accounts; and even an alert by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- one week prior to Sept. 11 -- that Osama bin Laden's terror network was in the late stages of mounting an attack on an American target.
All of this raises the question: How many other clues -- significant or otherwise -- were overlooked during those late summer days of 2001?
"And your Double Jeopardy categories are: Potent Potables, Broadway Musicals, Insects, The Bible, Starts With 'K,' Golf Legends, and Tangible Al Qaeda Threats Currently Facing American Security."
--Alex Trebek, host of "Jeopardy," on 9/3/01 broadcast
"Turn-ons: Enrique Iglesias, hot fudge sundaes and long walks on the beach. Turn-offs: traffic, busy signals, negative people, and the proliferation of terrorist recruits within previously impenetrable security barriers."
--Playboy Magazine's Miss July 2001, Kimberly Stanfield, on her Playmate "Data Sheet"
"I have a bad feeling in my gut about Osama Bin Laden. Could someone please call me back?
--Former Sen. Gary Hart, in message on White House answering machine, 8/2/01
"Hot Styles for Hot Times: What Gwyneth Will Wear If The Warning Signs About Increased Terrorist Activity in the United States Are True?"
--Cover line, "Us Weekly" magazine, August 2001
"Not only does it make an elegant centerpiece for your dining room table, but it can also be used as handy protective headgear in the likely event of a terrorist attack by an Islamic fundamentalist organization."
--Martha Stewart, CBS "Early Show," 6/29/01
"People are so busy being busy, they've let the colors fade from their lives. We need to spend more time listening to our hearts, listening to our souls, and listening to reconnaissance tapes secretly recorded by the CIA on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border."
--"Self Matters" author "Dr. Phil" McGraw, to Oprah, 8/27/01
"Listen, I'm serious here. I really think something bad might happen. Could somebody -- anybody -- please call me back?
--Former Sen. Gary Hart, in message on White House answering machine, 8/15/01
"He's the man with a plan /and he sits on top a llama / He's a snake in the sand /and he calls himself Osama."
--Rapper Jay-Z, from his little remembered song, "Osama, Yo Mama," July 2001
"Stay close to the bag. We don't want to risk the go-ahead run -- unless, of course, Al Qaeda strikes as you take your lead. In that case, run home as fast as you can."
--New York Yankees third-base coach Willie Randolph to base-runner Derek Jeter, 9/3/01
"And, dude, if you get the 4100 model now, it comes with a DVD-ROM drive, twenty gigs of storage space, a one-year warranty, and an emergency generator in the event that, like, some terrorist dudes knock out all the power stations across the country."
--Dell computer pitchman "Steven," in the company's summer 2001 TV campaign
"Hey, hon. I just hung up with Gary Hart, and he said nobody at the WH is returning his calls. Do you know anybody he could talk to over there? Lord knows, they don't return my calls, either : (
--Bill Clinton, in email to wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, 8/29/01
Bruce Kluger and David Slavin write satire for National Public Radio.
He chews with his mouth open, calls women "baby" and refers to himself as "an animal."
This is not Eminem we're talking about, nor the latest lout to appear on The Bachelor. It's George W. Bush, just months before taking the oath of office as President of the United States.
Last week, HBO released the DVD edition of Journeys With George, Alexandra Pelosi's sassy travelogue documenting her stint with George W. Bush's 2000 campaign press corps. The film originally aired in November of 2002, back in a time when the media, still rocked by 9-11, were going easy on the president. Consequently, most critics went out of their way to avoid giving the film any serious analytical weight, viewing it less as a political allegory than as a jaunty home movie starring a rag-tag band of reporters scarfing down junk food in the back of a campaign plane.
That was then and this is now. Perspective is everything; and watching the film again last night, I couldn't help but notice how practically every scene now resonates in an alarmingly political way. Back in 2002, George W. Bush was still steering the country with only two tires on the shoulder of the road, not yet having yanked the wheel hard to the right. So critics, it seems, had no reason to plumb the on-camera antics of Journeys With George for any greater depth or suspicion.
Today, however, we're deep in a cultural divide produced and directed by the Administration, and suddenly Pelosi's benign road picture seems more like a horror movie, whose moment-to-moment jolts eerily presage the political bloodfest to come.
Throughout the first eight minutes of the film, Pelosi (daughter of House minority whip Nancy Pelosi) self-effacingly sets the scene. Referring to herself and her colleagues as "hired help" who are "sequestered in the bubble" of a jalopy of a jet normally used to transport prisoners, she simultaneously paints Governor Bush as a warm and funny charmer who is not above such goofiness as pretending to be a flight attendant or rolling oranges down the aisle.
But 9 minutes and 15 seconds into the film, Pelosi quietly drops her first mortar round. In an interview with fellow reporter Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News -- who, according to Pelosi, "knows Bush's record better than any of us" -- Slater makes this casual, if resigned, observation:
"I have learned not a single thing about his policies or him that's new."
From this point on, Pelosi deftly crafts a portrait of Bush that is often chilling, as she neatly tucks small glimpses of The Man between the cracks in The Candidate's façade. Granted, there's nothing particularly revelatory about exposing the two-faced nature of politicians on the campaign trail. But given what we now know about the 43rd president -- notably, his evolution into the most dangerously regressive chief executive of our time -- Pelosi's chronicle serves not only as a wily political character study, but also poses the unavoidable question: Where was the discerning media coverage when we needed it most?
11 minutes, 20 seconds:
Just before the New Hampshire vote, reporters gather outdoors to watch a summit-jacketed Governor Bush ride a snowmobile. "This is not a photo op," someone announces. "He really wants to test snowmobiles."
Commenting about this scene, New York Times critic Caryn James cracked, "There's Mr. Bush driving a snowmobile in New Hampshire -- proving what? That he can make a quick getaway if UFOs land in the Rose Garden during a blizzard?" Two years ago, such an observation was appropriately arch, zeroing in on the silliness of such campaign press stunts.
But those were the days before President Bush's notorious flight-suited appearance on an aircraft carrier, or his hard-hatted visit to Ground Zero, or his cameo at last month's NASCAR event, decked out in speed driver regalia. Suddenly, we're forced to see the snowmobile clip as just the first taste of what would become this president's penchant for playing dress-up -- a talent that has helped him turn traditional presidential press coverage into one long costume party. As if to underscore this point, Pelosi once again corners Slater, who offers this offhand remark:
"I believe we've got to watch out for the big lie in this campaign."
Bush strategist Karl Rove makes his first appearance in the film, engaged in a friendly snowball fight with reporters. At first, the scene seems almost refreshing, offering, as it does, a cozy counterpoint to the routine contretemps between handler and the handled on the campaign circuit.
Two years later, however, Rove's role in the Administration -- and his relationship with the press -- is anything but funny. Still the number one suspect in the Valerie Plame-CIA debacle, Rove has become increasingly indispensable to the Bush Administration, especially as the president finds himself against the ropes in this election year. Even in those early days of the campaign, Pelosi was onto this, inserting the following exchanges just before and after the snowball scene:
PELOSI to Karl Rove: "Are you lying?"
ROVE (smirking): "I'm not a journalist; I'm not a liar."
PELOSI (gesturing to John McCain, who'd just won the New Hampshire primary): "So if the election were held today, the nominee for the Republican party is speaking."
ROVE:"In your perverted little mind."
George Bush speaks to an enthusiastic crowd, proudly declaring, "I will return the high standards of honor to the highest office in the land. This is my pledge." The audience goes wild.
Nothing out of the ordinary here unless you consider the venue that's hosting this foot-stamping Bush rally: Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which Pelosi promptly frames with clips of the Confederate flag whipping in the wind, and a mention of the University's ban on interracial dating.
In the film's funniest bit of extemporaneous commentary, R.G. Ratcliffe of The Houston Chronicle deconstructs a baloney and cheese sandwich, which along with Cheetos are Governor Bush's favorite campaign fare.
"A baloney sandwich is essentially white bread," Ratcliffe begins, peeling back the first layer, "which would be any Republican candidate for president. The primary ingredient would be baloney, which would be the meat of the message when you hear, 'Read my lips -- no new taxes.' It's baloney. The next element is cheesy things that go on TV. In this case, it's Swiss cheese, so there are holes in their argument.
"And that, in essence, is your Republican presidential campaign," Ratcliffe concludes. "A white bread candidate, with a baloney message and cheesy advertising."
As witty as the analysis is, four years later, one can't help but feel angry watching the scene. If reporters knew this early on that the presidential candidate's message was as insubstantial as processed lunch meat, why didn't they call him on it? Oh, that's right -- they were too busy pummeling Al Gore.
At a jammed press conference, Pelosi questions Bush about the record number of executions that have taken place in Texas while he was Governor.
"You sleep at night knowing everyone who has been put to death on your watch was completely guilty?" she asks.
"Alexandra, let me put it this way to you," Bush responds with clenched jaw: "I'm sleeping safely, soundly at night. Thank you for the question."
In the next scene, Bush refuses to speak to Pelosi's camera, commenting, "You came after me the other day. You went below the belt."
Another Bush fashion show -- this time an exclusive for Pelosi's camcorder.
"This is what Texans wear," Bush says, inviting the camera to capture a slow head-to-toe exploration of his wardrobe -- from his leather boots (worn high, he says, to prevent snake bites), to his Stetson-cut pants, to his big belt buckle emblazoned with the state of Texas. Narrated by the Governor himself, the segment is intended as an entertaining vignette, but rapidly morphs into a creepy bit of macho exhibitionism. Watching it today, it's nearly impossible not to think about how desperately this Administration relies on masculinity to fortify its public image -- from the president himself, down to his bully-boy troika of front-line cowboys, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft.
"And then from here up," says Bush, concluding his sartorial tour with a gesture to his neck and above, "it's all in your mind."
Pelosi sits Bush down for what is their longest -- and most disturbing -- exchange in the film. What makes the scene so painful to watch is seeing up-close how blithely Bush undercuts Pelosi's efforts to get to the core of his candidacy. Halfway through the scene, my wife, who was watching with me, fell back in her chair and said, "My God -- he's not taking one question seriously."
PELOSI: "So why should I vote for you [in the California primary]?"
BUSH: "You're in a key position. You happen to know me...And if I lose, you're out of work, baby. You're off the plane, baby. It's in your interests."
PELOSI: "But what about the little people?"
BUSH: "You're not little."
PELOSI: "What about the people who really need my vote? The hungry? The unemployed? The homeless? I'm supposed to vote for them."
BUSH: [Feigning mock enthusiasm] "That's very noble. I couldn't have said it better myself -- as I'm sitting here recruiting you to get your vote."
PELOSI: "Are you going to look out for the little guy?"
BUSH: "You are the little guy. I'm a little guy. Have you noticed that? I'm about 5'11" and my brother is 6'3"... How am I doing? Am I getting your vote yet?"
PELOSI: "What are you going to do for me if I vote for you?"
BUSH: "Give you a little kiss on the cheek."
PELOSI: "A kiss?"
[Bush leans in and kisses her on the cheek. After he leaves, we watch Pelosi mark her California ballot for Bill Bradley.]
Bush chooses Dick Cheney as his running mate and, according to Pelosi, a sudden gulf appears between the journalists and their subject.
"We are not getting any access at all to Governor Bush," says NBC's Campbell Brown, peering out a train window during a scenic whistle-stop tour. "He's been sequestered at the front of the train."
Once again, one need only fast-forward a few years to recognize a pattern that now dictates the Bush-media relationship. With Roger Ailes and his Fox News Channel now tucked neatly in the president's pocket (and vice versa), Americans get most of their direct access to the Administration via a select squad of softball-tossing Bush apologists.
It was only when I watched through Pelosi's lens, however, that I realized Bush's cherry-picking of the press began not when reporters started questioning his handling of world affairs as president, but before he even took office. No wonder he's so good at it.
"No politics, just a series of pictures," Wayne Slater tells Pelosi's camera. "All pictures, not news."
As Bush heads toward the general election, Pelosi reveals that campaign aides have begun to supply crowds with mass-produced, already-made signs. Among the hand-painted slogans -- courtesy of Bush operatives -- that adorn the placards: "NRA for Bush," "Pro Life For Bush," "Hunters for Bush." and "Vote for Bush Because Gay People Have Too Many Rights."
Pelosi gets into a fight with rowdy, hard-drinking reporters at the back of the plane. After brokering the peace, Bush sits down with Pelosi, pointedly advising her to chill out. What ensues is this frank and jaw-dropping bit of insight into the Bush character. What's amazing to me is that Bush's handlers, witnessing this from just across the aisle, never attempted to confiscate the film.
BUSH: "Look, these guys were just up there trying to have a good, solid margarita. They wanted to play some music, they wanted to get hoppin' here at 45,000 over Nebraska. It was innocent fun. And you stepped in and rained on the parade, man."
PELOSI: "What's it like to be in the front of the plane with all these animals back here?"
BUSH: "These are my people. It takes an animal to know an animal. (Slight pause.) I'm not admitting I'm an animal with 60 days to go in the campaign, but I am admitting I like the animals. You're back here with my people. You're back here with the tequila drinkers. What you need to do is go up there and make a little whoopee with the tequila drinkers, get to know 'em better."
PELOSI: "They scare me. I'm afraid of them."
BUSH: "Maybe they're afraid of you."
Another candid exchange.
PELOSI: "How have you changed over the year?"
BUSH: "I started off as a cowboy; I'm now a statesman."
Just before the general election, Pelosi asks colleague Richard Wolff to sum up the year for her.
"So much of it has been a kind of pack journalism," says Wolff, "and I've got this nagging feeling that the pack wasn't always doing the right thing. The Gore press corps was all about how they didn't like him and didn't trust him...And over here we were all writing about trivial stuff because he charmed the pants off of us."
Again, the exchange begs the question: If the media were onto the phony-baloney Bush juggernaut from the start, why weren't they reporting about it? Analysts have often said expectations of Bush's suitability for high office were so low in 2000 that reporters gave him a perpetual pass -- whether on past transgressions or those made during the campaign. Four years later, it's now apparent what a mistake that was.
In a final scene, Pelosi and her colleagues stand in a cluster across the street from the Governor's mansion, just as the post-election siege in Tallahassee has begun. Suddenly, Bush and his team stride into view.
PELOSI (calling from the roped-off pack of reporters): "Governor, how do you think the recount is going?"
BUSH (waving, disappearing into building): "Good to see you..."
Bruce Kluger writes for National Public Radio, and is on the Board of Contributors for USA Today.