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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Slow-Cooked Rice

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; 9:43 AM

I've covered enough congressional hearings in my time to know what the game is, but still, after watching Condi's day on the tube, I have to ask:

Why on earth do senators who are supposed to be engaged in a serious "advise and consent" role spend so much of their allotted time giving endless speeches?

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Obviously they want to exploit the fact that Fox, CNN and MSNBC are taking the confirmation hearings live. But to the average viewer, it sounds like many, many minutes of congressional bloviation followed by, and what do you think, Dr. Rice?

No wonder senators who run for president have a hard time speaking cogently and concisely.

I wasn't running a stopwatch, but I went to the transcript to see how long the inquisitors droned on during their 10-minute turns. (Keep in mind that everyone knows Rice will be confirmed.)

John Kerry gave me flashbacks to the campaign trail when he launched a stemwinder that lasted for 16 paragraphs, concluding with: "Now, can you share with us what you believe the reality is on the ground and what steps you intend to take to change this dynamic that is spiraling downwards and not resolving, you know, centuries-old conflicts in the way that we ought to be?"

Joe Biden was briefer, but he had given a 39-paragraph opening statement.

Paul Sarbanes--18 paragraphs.

Chris Dodd--16 paragraphs.

Norm Coleman--14 paragraphs.

(Most Republicans were more abbreviated because they had come to praise Rice, not to bury her.)

But all this paled compared to a 27-paragraph monologue by Barbara Boxer, who went way over her time limit in accusing Rice of changing the rationale for Iraq after the WMD thing didn't pan out, ending with: "And you don't seem to be willing to . . . admit a mistake, or give any indication of what you're going to do to forcefully involve others. As a matter of fact, you've said more misstatements; that the territory of the terrorists has been shrinking when your own administration says it's now expanded to 60 countries. So I am deeply troubled."

That brought the day's sharpest exchange, when Rice forcefully defended herself, saying she has "never, ever lost respect for the truth" and didn't want anyone "impugning my credibility or my integrity."

Boxer got the day's sound bite, picked from her sound buffet, as her exchange with Rice was replayed over and over on the tube.

"Clashing sharply with critical Democrats," says the Los Angeles Times, "Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice Tuesday defended the Bush administration's decision to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and repeatedly asked senators at her confirmation hearing not to impugn her integrity or suggest she had been untruthful about the reasons for going to war.

"Rice, in a sometimes stormy session that opened what may stretch into two days of hearings, offered her sharpest retort to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who suggested that in 2003 Rice contradicted President Bush's comments on illicit Iraqi weapons, then contradicted her own positions in her remarks Tuesday."

The Boston Globe takes a similar approach: "Condoleezza Rice, on the first day of her confirmation hearings to be secretary of state, came under sharp attack from Democrats yesterday for her role in the Bush administration's Iraq policies, from her prewar assurances that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to an alleged failure to plan for enough troops and difficulty enlisting more international help."

The New York Post headline: "Boxer Out to KO Condi."

Other papers go with an Iraq-update lead, including the

New York Times:"Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's nominee for secretary of state, refused Tuesday to set any timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, but declared that the United States was making 'some progress' in training Iraqi security forces...

"By far the most severe questioning came from Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, whose berating tone clearly rankled Ms. Rice and brought an uncharacteristic flash of irritation. In the morning session, Ms. Boxer focused sharply on Ms. Rice's past statements about nuclear weapons in Iraq, showing them on a cardboard display."

The Philadelphia Inquirer focuses on the opposition: "Senators from both parties pressed Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice yesterday to provide a clearer U.S. exit strategy from Iraq, and one Democrat accused her of deliberately misleading the American public in the run-up to the war."

The Washington Times doesn't mention any Democratic criticism until the 11th paragraph, and Boxer is relegated to the 21st:

"Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice yesterday branded six countries, including Iran and North Korea, as 'outposts of tyranny,' coining a term reminiscent of President Bush's 'axis of evil' three years ago."

Another middling poll, this one from USA Today, says Bush "will be leading a nation that is less optimistic about the future than it was when he was inaugurated for his first term. Then, 56% of those surveyed by USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup were generally satisfied with the way things were going in the USA; now 46% are. He'll face a public that is deeply divided over his leadership.

"That divide has solidified over the past four years, costing him the honeymoon that presidents -- even second-term presidents -- typically enjoy at inauguration. He takes office with a job-approval rating of 51%, the consistently lowest of any re-elected president in modern times. Partisan divisions eased when Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Eisenhower were sworn in a second time. They haven't for Bush."

So much for second honeymoons.

Slate's Chris Suellentrop says a Reagan-like next four years wouldn't be that bad for the left:

"Rooting for Bush to flop in his second term should give liberals at least some twinges of conscience. The obvious ways that Bush could fail in the next four years--thousands more American soldiers dead, a theocratic Iraq, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil--would be catastrophic for the nation as well as for the occupant of the nation's highest office. Is there a patriotic way to root for your president to fail? Try this as a liberal wish for the next four years: After infuriating Democrats in his first term by governing like Ronald Reagan, Bush will spend his second term infuriating Republicans by governing like Ronald Reagan . . .

"Bush decides, for example, that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is a terrorist he can do business with," just as Reagan intuitively determined that Gorbachev was a genuine reformer? Could Bush's skepticism of the United Nations, like Reagan's skepticism of arms control, lead him to push for the creation of a new, stronger, more effective international body? Bush does, after all, enjoy pushing to 'modernize' institutions, from Medicare to Social Security to the Pentagon. Could he--dare we dream it?--make nice with the French?

"Liberals may have more reason for hope on domestic policy. Bush doesn't embrace what Slate's William Saletan has dubbed 'Reagan's Law,' the belief that, as Reagan explained in his farewell address, 'As government expands, liberty contracts.' Rather, Bush believes in using government to expand individual choice in programs like Medicare and Social Security, as Jonathan Rauch explained in a 2003 essay for National Journal that remains the most compelling explanation of Bush's political philosophy . . .

"And who knows? Maybe Democrats can even convince Bush to throw a few 'revenue enhancers' (Reagan's preferred term for his tax hikes), such as a more progressive payroll tax, into his Social Security bill. At the very least, 'governing like Reagan' would mean agreeing to a budget deal that reins in the deficit."

Of course, W. may remember what happened with his father's read-my-lips pledge.

More on those Iraqi blogging brothers: Regular readers may recall I interviewed two of them, Omar and Mohammed, when they came to the United States, and reported that they had been ushered into a last-minute meeting with President Bush. My column was apparently translated in the Arabic press, prompting the third brother, Ali, to quit the blog (IraqtheModel) out of concern that the others were jeopardizing the family's safety with such high-profile activities.

This prompted a New York Times piece yesterday--"Pro-American Iraqi Blog Provokes Intrigue and Vitriol"--that gave an awful lot of space to unverified allegations. And that, in turn, produced this online scolding from the Buzz Machine's Jeff Jarvis, who had made some introductions for the brothers:

"Sarah Boxer's story on IraqTheModel in the New York Times Arts section is irresponsible, sloppy, lazy, inaccurate, incomplete, exploitive, biased, and -- worst of all -- dangerous, putting the lives of its subjects at risk. Let's start with her lead:

"When I telephoned a man named Ali Fadhil in Baghdad last week, I wondered who might answer. A C.I.A. operative? An American posing as an Iraqi? Someone paid by the Defense Department to support the war? Or simply an Iraqi with some mixed feelings about the American presence in Iraq? Until he picked up the phone, he was just a ghost on the Internet.

"So here is a reporter from The New York Times -- let's repeat that, The New York Times -- speculating in print on whether an Iraqi citizen, whose only apparent weirdness and sin in her eyes is (a) publishing and (b) supporting America, is a CIA or Defense Department plant or an American.

"Ms. Boxer, don't you think you could be putting the life of that person at risk with that kind of speculation? In your own story, you quote Ali -- one of the three blogging brothers who started IraqTheModel -- saying that "here some people would kill you for just writing to an American." And yet you go so much farther -- blithely, glibly speculating about this same man working for the CIA or the DoD -- to sex up your lead and get your story atop the front of the Arts section (I'm in the biz, Boxer, I know how the game is played).

"How dare you? Have you no sense of responsibility? Have you no shame?

"It's not as if you have the slightest -- not the slightest -- bit of responsible reporting that would guide you to put that speculation in your lead (and, of course, whenever a reporter launches that speculation high up and never really answers it, she's trying to lead the reader toward the same speculation -- that, too, is a trick of the trade, eh, Boxer?). All you have is the rantings of one known internet troll whose spittle-specked babblings have been dismissed in saner quarters. But you hang your lead on that. I hope that is all you end up hanging."

Glenn Reynolds is also appalled:

"At the moment, the New York Times is in court, demanding constitutional protection for its sources. If they're exposed, it fears, they may suffer consequences that will make others less likely to come forward in the future. That, we're told, would be bad for America.

"But the New York Times has no compunctions about putting the lives of pro-American and pro-democracy Iraqis at risk with baseless speculation even though the consequences they face are far worse than those that the Times' leakers have to fear. It seems to me that doing so is far worse for America.

"When journalists ask me whether bloggers can live up to the ethical standards of Big Media, my response is: 'How hard can that be?' Not very hard, judging by the Times' latest."

Writing in the L.A. Times, Mickey Kaus scolds the paper for . . . insufficient gossip:

"Did you know that Mayor James Hahn's marriage had collapsed? And the kids are living with him, not his wife? I didn't know that. When I tell people I run into, they're surprised too -- surprised they didn't know. Why don't they know? Because these people read the Los Angeles Times! And The Times, in the year and a half since the mayor announced his separation, has mentioned Hahn's marital situation exactly three times, by my count. Only once -- a piece in the Calendar section six months ago -- was it discussed for more than four sentences."

I didn't know it either.

"Now imagine what would happen if a mayor of New York announced that he was separating from his wife. It wouldn't be such big news -- but that's because the gossip columns would have been hinting about it for weeks. After the official press release, the story would get tossed around in the tabloids (the New York Post and Daily News). Why did the breakup happen? How will it affect his political future? Was the mayor in the wrong? Is one of the parties angry? Is there another woman? The Post would play some of this on the front page. Frank Rich would write a New York Times column connecting the event to Jerry Falwell and gay unions. Maureen Dowd would weigh in. Every time the newly single mayor ate dinner at a restaurant with a member of the opposite sex, it would be on the Post's Page 6. New York would be, at least briefly, buzzing -- thanks, in part, to extensive coverage by a competitive, gossipy press. That's certainly what happened when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's marriage to Donna Hanover disintegrated and he started dating a new woman -- now his new wife -- Judi Nathan.

"The L.A. Times is too virtuous to have a gossip column -- or even a slew of gabby individual columnists (e.g., Steve Lopez x 5) who can come up with new angles to keep a story like Hahn's separation alive. This has cost the city greatly. It's not just that there are any number of reasons why the ostensibly 'private' life of the mayor is very relevant to his public performance, though there are. (Here's one: Our single-dad mayor has no nanny. Does rushing home to try to take care of his children rob from the energy and time he can give to his duties? Two short paragraphs buried deep within a November 2003 piece on the mayor's 'slowed' momentum -- paragraphs 57 and 58, to be specific -- suggested this was exactly what happened. That was the first that Times readers had heard about it in the more than four months since it had started happening.)"

What say you, LAT? Too high-minded for this sort of stuff?

Finally, can this (from the Las Vegas Review-Journal) really be happening in 2005?

"Las Vegas civil rights leaders Monday condemned the on-air racial slur that KTNV-TV, Channel 13, weather forecaster Rob Blair made during his Saturday morning forecast, but they praised the TV station's management for its swift action in firing him.

"Blair's friends defended him, saying he is not racist and did not deserve to be fired. . . .

"Blair, the station's weekend weather forecaster, was delivering the extended forecast early Saturday when he said, 'For tomorrow, 60 degrees, Martin Luther Coon King Jr. Day, gonna see some temperatures in the mid-60s.'"

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