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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Open Season on Rummy?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004; 6:39 AM

If Don Rumsfeld has lost Bill Kristol, he's losing his conservative base.

Kristol, after all, is a leading foreign-policy hawk. Editor of the Weekly Standard and Fox talking head. Former Republican strategist and White House chief of staff for Dan Quayle. Major backer of the war in Iraq.

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Snow Job (washingtonpost.com, Dec 9, 2004)
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Which is why the town is buzzing about Kristol's Washington Post op-ed yesterday, in which he called for Rummy to be thrown overboard.

Not that Rumsfeld should be worried about his job. The only man who counts wants him to remain at the Pentagon. But this has gone beyond predictable potshots from Democrats and liberals. Now some visible figures on the right have had enough of Rumsfeld--a far cry from the days when his press sessions were regularly televised and he was depicted as a rock star.

The Kristol blast comes days after his friend John McCain said he had "no confidence" in the Secretary of Defense. And the turning point seems to have been Rumsfeld's dismissive-sounding "you go to war with the Army you have" response to that question in Kuwait from a Tennessee guardsman worried about inadequately armored vehicles. (Yes, the question was planted by a Chattanooga reporter, but the emotion of the soldiers in that room was real, and had Rumsfeld managed a more convincing and sympathetic answer, the story wouldn't have had legs.)

The sight of Colin Powell and so many other Cabinet members being jettisoned has also prompted critics to ask why the Pentagon chief gets to stay, given his insistence on a smaller invading force for Iraq whose consequences we see every day.

If other voices on the right join Kristol and McCain, look for journalists to start attaching the word "embattled" to Rumsfeld's name.

Here's what Kristol wrote after citing Rummy's comment that you don't have "the Army you want or wish to have at a later time":

"Actually, we have a pretty terrific Army. It's performed a lot better in this war than the secretary of defense has. President Bush has nonetheless decided to stick for now with the defense secretary we have, perhaps because he doesn't want to make a change until after the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections. But surely Don Rumsfeld is not the defense secretary Bush should want to have for the remainder of his second term.

"Contrast the magnificent performance of our soldiers with the arrogant buck-passing of Rumsfeld. . . .

"Perhaps Rumsfeld simply had a bad day. But then, what about his statement earlier last week, when asked about troop levels? 'The big debate about the number of troops is one of those things that's really out of my control.' Really? Well, 'the number of troops we had for the invasion was the number of troops that General Franks and General Abizaid wanted.'

"Leave aside the fact that the issue is not 'the number of troops we had for the invasion' but rather the number of troops we have had for postwar stabilization. Leave aside the fact that Gen. Tommy Franks had projected that he would need a quarter-million troops on the ground for that task -- and that his civilian superiors had mistakenly promised him that tens of thousands of international troops would be available. Leave aside the fact that Rumsfeld has only grudgingly and belatedly been willing to adjust even a little bit to realities on the ground since April 2003. And leave aside the fact that if our generals have been under pressure not to request more troops in Iraq for fear of stretching the military too thin, this is a consequence of Rumsfeld's refusal to increase the size of the military after Sept. 11.

"In any case, decisions on troop levels in the American system of government are not made by any general or set of generals but by the civilian leadership of the war effort."

That would include the president whom Kristol supported, no?

Andrew Sullivan seconds that emotion:

"It reads at times like the arguments on this blog. The most effective argument is about Rumsfeld's absolute refusal to take responsibility for any of his own errors, and his instinct, when in trouble, to blame others. This is not straight-talking; it's buck-passing. And, of course, Kristol's points about insufficient manpower for the post-invasion period remains blindingly obvious - except, of course, to the people running this war.

"Check out this simple statistic from one of the official reports on Abu Ghraib: at one point, General Sanchez had only 495 of the 1400 staffers he needed. There were 92 military police guards for 7,000 prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The responsibility for the consequences of that under-manning lies with Rumsfeld and the president. It's a responsibility they still both refuse to take. And by reappointing Rumsfeld and anointing Bremer and Tenet, Bush has just told his critics to pull a Cheney. I think the stakes in Iraq are too great for this kind of petty intransigence. But that's the president we have."

On National Review's "The Corner," Mark Levin has a contrary view:

"Kristol's piece is unimpressive. . . . At no time does Kristol, or his Senate friends McCain and Hagel, explain where the additional troops will come from. It's very odd that those who supported the war from day one now complain about troop strength, when surely they knew at the time that we didn't have another 100,000 to 150,000 troops to deploy to Iraq. And, as numerous experts have pointed out, exactly what would these troops do there? Create more targets for the terrorists who attack our convoys, I suppose."

Arianna Huffington sees it this way: "Iraq is Bush's signature offering to the world -- and firing Rummy would be like McDonald's deciding to pull the Big Mac off its menu. Instead, the president continues to operate in a fog of denial, serving up rosy assessments of the mayhem he has unleashed."

If Bernie Kerik is unfit to be Homeland Security secretary, how can he be Rudy's business partner? If you listen closely, you will hear the sound of Rudy distancing himself:

"After days of embarrassing revelations," reports the New York Daily News, "Rudy Giuliani scolded former NYPD commissioner Bernard Kerik yesterday, saying he has a 'fair amount of explaining to do.'

"'I told him directly, 'There are some significant mistakes you made here, even granted that only some of this is true,"' Giuliani said. 'And this is an aspect of Bernie's personality that needs to be changed. In this area - being careful - he is challenged. Really challenged.'"

Message received.

Want to understand the real business of Washington?

"Facing consumer clamor for cheaper drugs from abroad and official inquiries into the fatal side effects of some medications," says the Los Angeles Times, "the pharmaceutical industry said Wednesday it is hiring one of the capital's savviest lawmakers as its top lobbyist.

"Rep. W.J. 'Billy' Tauzin, who just had jurisdiction over the industry as the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will become president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America on Jan. 3, when his retirement from Congress takes effect. . . .

"The 13-term Louisiana Republican will go from a congressional salary of $158,100 a year to more than $1 million, according to a source. As a committee chairman last year, Tauzin helped to write the law to provide outpatient prescription coverage under Medicare."

What an amazing coincidence!

We got a look at one of the prez's top priorities yesterday, as the Washington Times reports:

"President Bush said yesterday he is "passionate" about protecting the business community from 'frivolous lawsuits' and will work hard to get legal reform through Congress, including making the issue a topic of his State of the Union address next month.

"Mr. Bush was the star attraction of a two-day economic summit filled with speakers who praised the president's first-term economic record and touted his new, aggressive agenda of tort reform, restructuring Social Security and making permanent the tax cuts he pushed through Congress in the last four years."

But can he make the sale? Here's what a Wall Street Journal poll says: "The public, by 50% to 38%, is inclined to believe it's 'a bad idea' to let workers invest Social Security taxes in the stock market. Similarly, the poll found Americans somewhat more likely to advocate leaving the tax code as is rather than embracing some of the more sweeping changes that have been advanced."

Harvard held one of its quadrennial reviews of the White House race, and the Boston Globe was there:

"Perhaps, the manager of his failed presidential bid admitted, Senator John F. Kerry should have responded more quickly to ads attacking his Vietnam War record by personally rebutting the charges as a group of Vietnam veterans emerged to oppose him earlier this year.

"'In hindsight, maybe we should have put him out earlier,' former campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill conceded in a rare public appearance at Harvard last night.

"And maybe, in hindsight, President Bush should have fought back harder at accusations that he was planning to reinstate the draft, according to his former campaign manager, Ken Mehlman. 'That was a mistake,' Mehlman acknowledged to the same crowd. 'We should have more forcefully responded.'"

Bill O'Reilly is in the midst of another self-created controversy, as Salon's Eric Boehlert explains:

"For most people, Christmas may be a time of peace and joy, but for Bill O'Reilly it's another chance to wage an us-vs.-them cultural war. O'Reilly and Fox News, along with a cadre of hard-charging right-wing talkers, have declared war on the anti-Christmas crowd. . . .

"During his Dec. 3 radio show, O'Reilly got more specific. When a caller identified himself as Jewish and began to complain about 'the secularization of Jews and about Christmas going into schools,' O'Reilly shot back that 'overwhelmingly, America is Christian. And the holiday is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus. So, you don't wanna hear about it? Impossible. And that is an affront to the majority. You know, the majority can be insulted, too. And that's what this anti-Christmas thing is all about.'

"At one point, O'Reilly told the caller, 'Come on, if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel then.'. . . .

"'It was offensive and over the top,' says Steven Freeman, associate director of the civil liberties division at the Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish civil rights organization.

"Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., is circulating a letter among colleagues on the Hill that urges O'Reilly to apologize for his remarks. 'By suggesting that Jews do not have a place in American society unless they accept without comment its 'predominantly Christian' nature, you are brushing aside the basic freedoms guaranteed to all by our Constitution,' she writes."

Happy holidays.

Being a White House correspondent has its perks, at least according to

Wonkette:"The Secret Service -- so versatile. They protect the president, ready to take a bullet to keep us from ever having to utter the phrase, 'President Cheney.' They plan all the security for things like the Super Bowl. They bust counterfeiters. And, if you're a bigtime White House correspondent who manages to lock your keys in your car, they'll even do a little breaking-and-entering for you. From Tuesday's press briefing:

"Q. Before my question, I must commend to the Secret Service agents at the Southwest gate yesterday. I had a problem with my key. I locked the key in my car, they were very helpful.

"SCOTT McCLELLAN: They've been duly thanked. (Laughter.)"

Do they also make house calls?

I linked the other day to a National Review piece I found very funny. But it turned out there were some, ah, problems with it. Here's the followup:


"I desperately want to appear in The Washington Post," Bruce Stockler wrote last week in National Review Online.

Now he has -- although not in the way he intended.

The public relations man produced a funny column on all the opinion pieces he has submitted to The Post without success -- or, as the headline put it, "one writer's suffering at the hands of a major newspaper." But Stockler said yesterday he is "quite embarrassed to admit" that he didn't submit any of them.

What about those impersonal "thank you for your submission" letters he said the paper kept sending him? After first saying he had to check, Stockler acknowledged: "I guess I lied about the fact that I got a cursory rejection letter when in fact I got nothing. Humorists are liars."

"This piece seems to me to be pretty obvious satire," said National Review Editor Rich Lowry. "It seems to me he's obviously making stuff up to be funny . . . not necessarily right at the top, but by the end." The second paragraph of the piece says "here are the facts"; only in the last half-dozen paragraphs does Stockler openly fantasize about disruptions to his phone and television service and an ice-cream truck with Texas plates circling his block. "If a couple of things are deliberately outrageous, that signals the reader it's not serious journalism," Lowry said.

Stockler did not contend that he had produced a transparent satire. He said he merely bent some facts to suit his narrative, and that he really has tried repeatedly to get published on The Post's op-ed page -- just not in the way he wrote.

Fred Hiatt, The Post's editorial page editor, said: "It's a little strange. I guess anybody who would make stuff up, it's just as well we didn't run his op-eds."

Stockler, who doubles as a freelance writer, maintains he has tried to crack The Post's op-ed page at least 20 times over the past four years -- but not with the articles he claims in National Review to have submitted. The Scarsdale, N.Y., publicist provided copies of two pieces he says he sent to The Post in September. But Hiatt said the editorial page, which keeps records for four months, found no submissions from Stockler.

In National Review, Stockler pokes fun at himself with a detailed chronology of op-ed humiliation. He tells of sending in a piece about Howard Dean in January. About Rush Limbaugh in March. About "The Passion of the Christ" in April. About the Middle East in May. About Jim McGreevey in August. About Osama bin Laden in November. All supposedly turned down.

"WashPo has turned on me, viciously, like a pet ferret that ate a bowl of bad calamari," he writes. "These sarcastic words repudiate my entire life's work. To respond with such furious, efficient contempt requires a team of hackers working 24/7. . . . Large, entrenched institutions cannot tolerate the challenge of satirical thinking."

Hiatt says the op-ed page receives 60 to 100 submissions a day and is unable to send out routine rejection letters. Asked about this, Stockler at first said he "may have added that to make it seem more ominous," then admitted it was a product of his imagination.

Stockler, a former film magazine editor and author of a book about being a stay-at-home dad with triplets, is not unfamiliar with the conventions of journalism. He has had articles published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Times of London as well as National Review Online -- some of them pieces he contends he submitted first to The Post. Why, then, make up the submissions he said went to The Post -- some of which, he now admits, were never written at all?

"The pieces themselves became less important than the fact that I'm just desperately trying to make a connection that I cannot make," he said. "It's about handling rejection." Besides, Stockler said, he had turned in the National Review column a year ago and needed "to create a sense of urgency" with more recent examples, adding: "Most people who read humor pieces realize the piece is bent to make the larger message work."

Surely it must have occurred to Stockler that someone at a large, entrenched institution like The Post would challenge his work of fiction? No, he said, "I would have thought it would be like a flea on the skin of a great warrior."

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