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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Iraq Factor

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2004; 8:56 AM

At 2:45 yesterday afternoon, I was on a conference call with the Bush folks when Marc Sandalow of the San Francisco Chronicle asked Ken Mehlman about the new report on Iraq and WMD.

The president's campaign manager didn't miss a beat in responding to the finding -- by the administration's handpicked investigator -- that Saddam lost his entire illicit weapons capacity in the early 1990s. The findings were "very much consistent" with Bush's speech of the day before, said Mehlman. They showed Saddam's "continued desire to have" WMDs, and had the president not acted, Saddam would have been "potentially seeking to share those weapons with terrorists."

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The Veep Showdown (washingtonpost.com, Oct 5, 2004)
A Changing Political Landscape (The Washington Post, Oct 4, 2004)
Press Gives Kerry the Nod (washingtonpost.com, Oct 1, 2004)
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Those nonexistent weapons.

Minutes later, John Kerry was on the tube, speaking from Englewood, Colo. The report, he said, showed that Bush and Cheney "may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq."

My question: Is this report just another ping-pong ball in the presidential campaign, to be batted back and forth with the proper degree of topspin?

Is there a reasonable reading of the report that doesn't show the administration was wrong when it pounded day after day on the argument that Saddam must disarm to avoid war? According to the inspector, Charles Duelfer, it wasn't even close.

Will journalists who trumpeted the prewar WMD claims hold the administration accountable -- or just treat this as a "controversy" that could help one side or the other on short-term strategy?

Or will the whole subject get overtaken by the handicapping over tonight's debate rematch? (With ordinary folks asking the questions in a town-hall format, who knows if the report will even come up?)

Another question is whether the media will declare the president to have mounted a comeback if he simply does better in St. Louis than he did in Coral Gables -- not a terribly high bar. In other words, does Bush have to "beat" Kerry to chalk up a victory, or will the talking heads grade the prez on a curve of his previous performance?

Here's the back-and-forth on the trail, from the New York Times:

"President Bush and Senator John Kerry engaged in a bitter long-distance debate on Thursday about a report by the C.I.A.'s top weapons inspector, with Mr. Bush arguing that it demonstrated he was 'right to take action' in Iraq despite its findings that Saddam Hussein had eliminated stockpiles of illicit weapons years before the invasion.

"Mr. Kerry swiftly countered, saying the president 'won't face the truth.'

"Mr. Bush's statement in Washington, and a more impassioned case he made here late Thursday afternoon, were his first responses to the 918-page report by Charles A. Duelfer. Both Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney focused on sections of the report saying that Mr. Hussein had wanted to reconstitute his weapons programs at some point and that he had found his way around economic sanctions.

"Unbowed and defiant in an appearance on the South Lawn of the White House, Mr. Bush said of the Iraqi dictator, 'He retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction.' And, he added, 'he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies.' "

Even the White House is worried about the report, says the Los Angeles Times:

"The report from Iraq Survey Group head Charles A. Duelfer -- which flatly contradicts many of the statements about Iraq's weapon capabilities from senior administration officials before the war -- offers Kerry an opportunity to force the spotlight back onto Bush's decisions and credibility, as he did in last week's initial presidential debate. 'As the lead-up to the debate, it is not helpful,' acknowledged one senior GOP strategist familiar with White House planning. 'Part of the impact, frankly, will depend on how the president answers [the questions] in the debate.'

"The impact may also turn on how effectively Kerry can resolve doubts about his own approach to Iraq and use the report to take the offensive against Bush."

The Philadelphia Inquirer sets up the St. Louis Showdown:

"When George W. Bush and John Kerry debate here tonight, citizens with no firm allegiances will ask the questions. And chances are, they won't lob many softballs.

"That alone should give the 'town hall' event at Washington University a whiff of unpredictability, which is something that modern presidential candidates generally avoid. And it's especially true for an embattled incumbent who stumps in front of fans who have been vetted in advance for their fealty to the Republican cause.

"In other words, it's not likely the questions will resemble those frequently featured at 'Meet President Bush' events. Recent examples: 'What do you like best about being president?' and 'How has your faith helped you in your job?' and 'Thank you for signing into law the partial-birth abortion ban.' "

I could be wrong, but I find that audiences often ask what-are-you-going-to-do-about-X questions that enable the candidates to offer their stump speeches.

The Wall Street Journal comes back to the question: Do enough people like Kerry?

"The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in mid-September showed Mr. Bush leading 45% to 28% on who was more 'easygoing and likeable.' Separately, when pollster John Zogby asked undecided voters whom they'd rather have a beer with, Mr. Bush pulled 57% -- and he doesn't even drink beer anymore -- and Mr. Kerry just 9%. The remaining voters chose neither.

" 'Likeability is a very important factor,' says Mr. Zogby. 'It means approachability, accessibility, compassion and understanding, all of which are leadership virtues.' Mr. Zogby says his polls, like others, show undecided voters generally dissatisfied with Mr. Bush's performance, and siding with Mr. Kerry on many issues. Yet they can't quite bring themselves to back Mr. Kerry. 'They think he's up to the job intellectually, but they're not sure they can bond with him,' Mr. Zogby says of the Massachusetts senator."

American Prospect's Rob Garver questions the post-debate spin:

"As it became increasingly apparent that the public believed Bush had been decisively beaten, Republican operatives began appearing on the news and talk shows to dismissively cede the debate to Kerry, and to suggest in the same breath that there was something sinister or effete about the Massachusetts senator's debating skills.

"By 10:00 p.m. Friday, the talking points had been fully digested and were showing up all over the late news and talk shows. On CNN's Paula Zahn Now, Republican strategist Mike Murphy described Kerry's arguments variously as 'snake oil,' 'verbal card tricks,' and 'verbal trickery.'

"Over on Fox, virtue maven Bill Bennett set the tone: 'I think that Kerry won the debate and Bush won the argument.' . . . The reliable Sean Hannity leapt right in, missing no opportunity to denigrate Kerry by referring to him as a 'little trained debate boy from Yale,' adding that 'you learn how to debate in debating school in Yale.' (Apparently President Bush, who is also a Yale graduate, skipped those classes.) . . .

"The thing to watch in the coming week is whether there is a rebound effect in the media's treatment of the second top-of-the-ticket debate. In one respect, Bush may have lowered expectations so significantly with his performance last week that he will look good by comparison. On the other hand, expectations may play against him, because the town-hall format of Friday's scheduled meeting is supposed to play to Bush's strength.

"There is also the constant danger that the mainstream media, still overly sensitive to charges of liberal bias, will feel the need to balance a bad week for Bush by hammering of Kerry, regardless of the debate's actual result."

I come in for some veiled criticism for asking guests on television whether the "Kerry won" bandwagon might have been aided by liberal bias (as some conservatives contend) or the desire for a tight race (as several journalists have acknowledged). In today's environment, even asking questions invites criticism (much harsher than Garver's) from the left or right.

Kerry Surge Watch: The AP has him ahead, 50-46.

"Sen. John Kerry holds a slim lead over President Bush, according to an Associated Press poll that shows the Democrat gaining ground while Bush lost support on personal qualities, the war in Iraq and national security."

Josh Marshall takes on The Washington Post over Iraq:

"In its editorial Thursday, The Washington Post goes to some lengths to put a good face on the Duelfer report about Iraq's phantom weapons of mass destruction.

"One interesting passage notes what we might call the geopolitical educational benefits of the invasion. . . .

"As long as Saddam Hussein remained in power and refused to cooperate fully with the United Nations, there could have been no certainty about his weapons. Mr. Bush had to decide whether the risks of invading outweighed those of standing pat without knowing for sure what U.S. forces would find in Iraq or what would happen once they were there.

"Because Mr. Bush chose to act, we know what capabilities Iraq did -- and did not -- possess, and we've learned how difficult it is to occupy and attempt to reconstruct that country.

"So, it is only thanks Mr. Bush's decision to invade that we can now have the certainty we do about how wrong he was about Iraqi WMD.

"Similarly, Bush's decision to invade has gained us invaluable new insights into urban guerilla warfare and how badly an occupation can go wrong."

Even Wonkette piles on:

"Gosh, the Bush team is sort of running out reasons they invaded Iraq, no? First it's they've got WMDs, then it's that they were in the process of manufacturing WMDs, now, if we understand The Amazing Cheney right, Saddam was thinking about manufacturing WMDs. If that gets struck down, we hear the administration is going to go with "he told this guy my cousin knows that he was thinking about manufacturing WMDs."

Slate's Fred Kaplan sees the administration outsmarting cable:

"Did CNN and MSNBC get hoodwinked yesterday morning? On Wednesday, the White House announced that President Bush would be delivering a 'major policy address' on terrorism. The cable news networks broadcast it live and in full. Yet the 'address' turned out to be a standard campaign stump speech before a Pennsylvania crowd that seemed pumped on peyote, cheering, screaming, or whooping at every sentence.

"The president announced no new policy, uttered not one new word about terrorism, foreign policy, or anything else. He did all the things he wanted to do in last Thursday's debate -- accuse his opponent of weakness, bad judgment, vacillation, and other forms of flip-floppery -- though this time without a moderator to hush the audience, much less an opponent to bite back. And Bush loved it, smiling, smirking, raising his eyebrows, as if to say, 'How 'bout that zinger?'

"In short, the cable networks were lured into airing an hourlong free campaign ad for George W. Bush. . . .

"It's hard to blame either network for taking the White House's bait. Most presidents would want to deliver, right about now, a major address on the war against terror and the war in Iraq. In the last few days, one blow after another has struck the very foundations of Bush's policies. The fact that, under the circumstances, Bush didn't deliver a major policy address after all, despite his advance word, should embarrass not only CNN and MSNBC but, still more, President Bush."

Dan Kennedy senses a turning point in the campaign:

"Paging through the headlines, it struck me that, as never before, everything is falling apart for George W. Bush, and it's happening in a very ugly, public way. That doesn't mean he's going to lose -- he should, of course, although we all know that's not how things necessarily work. But it seems that all at once, nearly four years of lies, exaggerations, and bullying are finally catching up with him.

"Just look around. His chief weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, now acknowledges that Saddam Hussein had dismantled his WMD programs in the early 1990s. Loyalist that he is, Duelfer prattled on yesterday about how Saddam really, really wanted weapons of mass destruction, as though that were something we didn't know. Guess what? So does Burma, I'm sure.

"Earlier this week, as we know, Bush's former guy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, said in a speech that the White House had never sent enough troops to Iraq to keep the peace. Again, this is another Bush loyalist, a man who immediately tried to distance himself from his own remarks as soon as he realized they were not off the record, as he had presumed. Looks like he can forget about being secretary of state if Bush is elected to a second term."

Andrew Sullivan picks up on Paul Bremer's unexpected blast against the administration (and I noticed some unnamed administration spinners trashing Bremer in the NYT):

"One of his early complaints was insufficient troop numbers to stop looting, restore order and protect unguarded weapon sites. Leave everything aside and focus on the latter. The war was launched because we feared Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The main fear was that these weapons might be transferred to terrorists who could use them against us. And yet in the invasion, there was little or no effort to secure these sites! And there was no effort to seal the borders to prevent their being exported, or purloined by terrorists.

"Why? I've long pondered this, but Bremer's gaffe brings it back into focus. Why would you launch a war that failed in its very planning to avoid the disaster that you went to war to prevent? I don't understand. We were lucky in retrospect that Saddam didn't have any WMDs. The way this war has been run, it would have actually increased the chances of such weapons getting to America via terrorists rather than reduced them. At least, that seems to me to be the logical inference."

If it wasn't for the presidential campaign, the DeLay saga would be dominating the news:

"House Democratic leaders yesterday called on Republican Tom DeLay to step down as majority leader after the powerful Texan was rebuked two times in the last week by the House ethics committee," says the Boston Globe. "DeLay brushed aside the rebukes and the Democratic demands

" 'The ethical cloud that has been hanging over the Capitol has burst,' said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, noting that Wednesday night's announcement by the ethics committee marks the third admonishment of DeLay by his colleagues this autumn. 'This is a pattern of unethical behavior by a man determined to win at any cost,' she added. 'The record has indicated that he will abuse power whenever he deems necessary.'

"DeLay defended himself against what he and Republican loyalists called a politically-motivated attempt to break the GOP's strong control of the House."

I guess the Hammer would also be a bigger issue if political reporters thought the Democrats had a plausible shot at capturing the House.

And just when you thought American ingenuity might be fading, the New York Post discovers some:

"A crafty bachelor figured out a novel way to meet girls -- by sneaking his phone number into the new Crate & Barrel catalog.

"And it's paid off in spades for Marc Horowitz, who's received more than 500 calls in a month, and who now plans a cross-country trip to go on more than 70 dates. . . .

"Horowitz, a free-lance photo assistant, had been working on the home furnishing chain's 2004 fall catalog when he noticed a door on one of the armoires in the shot seemed a bit bland. So he added his phone number under an invitation, 'Dinner w/Marc,' and forgot about it -- until the catalog came out last month and his phone started ringing off the hook."

So much for subtlety.


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