A TALE OF TWO STORIES! A pair of tales helped and hurt Bush. But neither one made real good sense:
TUESDAY, JULY 13, 2004
STORY ONE—THE HONEST AMBASSADOR: HOWLER readers swung into action, eager to challenge heretical notions. Was it possible? Was it possible that Joe Wilsons famous claims didnt quite make sense? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/12/04.) Readers raised assorted irrelevant points. But a sensible question was frequently asked:
E-MAIL: Good logical deconstruction as far as it goes, but why in the world did Bush administration admit that it was wrong to include the 16-word claim in the speech if believed it was correct regarding a non-Niger source? I am missing the logic on this part.Many people asked this question. For what its worth, the Bush Admin said it was wrong to include the 16-word claim in the speech because it was based on British intelligence—intelligence the US couldnt examine, confirm or refute. We have no idea if that explanation was sincere, but it has the advantage of making some sense. Please dont send us e-mails saying that you—a good member of the liberal team—are quite convinced that it wasnt sincere. Like us, you have no real way of knowing. Spare us the brilliant mind-reading displays! Ouija boards? Put them down too!
Well stand by what we said last year. Its hard to see how Wilson could have known whether Iraq had been seeking uranium in Africa. He only went to one country—Niger. He hadnt seen the British intelligence. Indeed, even when he wrote a 500-page book, he didnt say how he could have known what was happening in Somalia or the Congo. To all appearances, Wilsons claims went well beyond the things he actually seems to have known. Was Iraq seeking uranium in Africa? We dont have the slightest idea. But its hard to see what made people think that Wilson could have answered that either.
But when Wilson arrived on the scene last July, the press corps had begun to come down from its Bush is a conquering emperor high. Things were getting shaky in post-war Iraq, and that may explain why they bought Wilsons presentation so thoroughly. In doing so, they ignored better-founded stories about Admin deception. For example, those aluminum tubes played a much larger role in the run-up to war than the sixteen words did. (The sixteen words were ignored in real time. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/28/03.) And the evidence was rather strong—the Bush Admin had vastly misstated the intel about the tubes. But Wilsons story may have seemed appealing because of its cinematic elements. It featured an honest ambassador on the Niger road, shooting down those 16 words. At any rate, what followed was the lazy pseudo-journalism of which the modern press is so fond.
How could Wilson have known what was in the Brit intel? How could he evaluate the possibility that Iraq sought uranium in Somalia or the Congo? Indeed, how did his claim—the claim that Iraq couldnt likely complete a purchase in Niger—relate to Bushs actual claim—the claim that Iraq had sought uranium, not that they had obtained it? Wilson has done a thousand interview shows, but weve never seen these obvious questions asked. But this is common press corps conduct. When they get a story they like—a story which promotes a view they have formed—they tend to ignore the facts of the case. They recite the tale in its most pleasing form. All questions—all probing—tends to stop.
In Story One—The Honest Ambassador—the corps ran with a story which harmed Bushs cred. But when Bob Woodwards Plan of Attack presented a story which helped Bushs cred, the corps decided to run with that too. One story helped Bush; the other one harmed him. But each of the stories was largely a tale, made more pleasing by a lack of real inquiry.
STORY TWO—THE SCRUPULOUS PRESIDENT: On balance, we thought Tim Russert did a good job on Sundays Meet the Press, questioning solons Roberts and Rockefeller about the Senate intelligence report. But at one point, Russert turned to an iconic tale from Bob Woodwards ballyhooed book. No, the anecdote never exactly made sense. But so what? Within the mainstream press, it became the most commonly-cited item from Woodwards puzzling tome. The story concerns George Tenets slam dunk. Russert addressed chairman Roberts:
RUSSERT: Heres the concern: In December 2002 there was a briefing in the Oval Office. And heres how Bob Woodward describes it in his book Plan of Attack:That was an excellent question—as far as it went. (Indeed, its a question which Woodwards book notably fails to ask or answer.) But in this presentation, Russert became the three millionth scribe to put the weight of Woodwards rep behind this pleasing scene with Bush—a scene in which Bush, The Scrupulous President, spots the weakness in the weapons intelligence.
This anecdote from Woodwards book has been recited again and again. Its a pleasing story from the White House perspective; it suggests that Bush was scrupulous and alert, then was led astray by George Tenet. But as we noted when Plan of Attack appeared, the anecdote doesnt quite make sense. Earlier in his book, for example, Woodward said that Cheney and Bush had themselves begun misstating the weapons intel back in August 2002. By Woodwards own assessment, Bush had been explicitly overstating the intel for three solid months by the time this meeting occurred. Why did Bush become so scrupulous? Woodward doesnt try to say. Nor does Woodward ever say what happened after the December meeting. If Bush was concerned about the intel, what sort of follow-up sessions occurred? Woodward doesnt report on that. We are left with only one thing—the pleasing image of The Scrupulous President, cautioning Tenet not to stretch. Scribes recite it again and again—failing to note that this scrupulous president, and his VP, had themselves been stretching the intel for months at the time that this meeting occurred.
On Sunday, Russert eventually mentioned the way Bush had been misstating the intel before that iconic meeting. But Russert only put Woodwards imprimatur behind the tale of The Scrupulous President. He didnt mention what Woodward had said about Bushs own prior stretching.
So there you have two well-shaped stories. An Honest Ambassador refuted the sixteen words. A Scrupulous President cautioned George Tenet. Each story is pleasing in its own way—and each pleasing tale has floated around, one helping Bush, the other harming him. But the press corps hasnt examined either story in the way real journalists would.
Meanwhile, theres one clear difference between the two stories. When we critiqued the tale that helps Bush, readers responded with notes of high praise. But when we applied the same logic to Wilsons presentation, readers offered helpful hints about our nefarious motives. Our readers know which team theyre on—and theyre happy to go after those who would dare spoil a good, pleasing tale.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: What happened after that slam dunk meeting? Was there an effort at follow-up, or did Bush and the others just take Tenets word? Plan of Attack doesnt ask. But on last Fridays NewsHour, David Kay discussed that iconic meeting. We thought his take was intriguing:
KAY: You know, thats the missing guest at this table that really shocks me. Where was the NSC during this time? There should have been someone else protecting the president, asking questions about how sound is the intelligence, what are the uncertainties?Why did Woodward fail to explore the aftermath of that crucial meeting? We cant say, but thats very much the way modern journalism works. Kay was shocked that the NSC didnt follow up on Bushs alleged question. But to modern scribes, Pleasing Story is all. Everyone has recited the tale of The Scrupulous president—as they did with the tale of The Honest Ambassador. Everyone loves reciting these tales, although neither tale quite makes sense.