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Bill Kristol, Highly Recommended

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 23, 2007

Bill Kristol's the-war-is-being-won piece in The Washington Post brought him plenty of ridicule, but at least one person liked it.

President Bush read the July 15 Outlook article that morning and recommended it to his staff.

On the other hand, Arianna Huffington called it "the single most deceptive piece of the entire war" and said Kristol had "officially surpassed Dick Cheney as the most intellectually dishonest member of the neocon establishment." David Corn of the Nation dismissed Kristol's "Bush boosterism." And 260 pages of comments on The Post's Web site called him everything from an "uninformed, partisan fool" to a "Bush sycophant" to a "menace to America."

The Weekly Standard editor, looking a bit grayer at 54, takes the broadsides in stride, his genial, professorial demeanor seemingly unruffled by the highly personal attacks.

"I've been pretty consistent, pretty upfront and straightforward about my views," he says in his downtown office. "I had the same views when they were reasonably popular as I do now when they're unpopular. It would really be pathetic to adjust one's analysis based on public opinion."

As recently as a year ago, says Kristol, "it was frustrating, a cause I believed in being mismanaged so badly. I was defending a war whose strategy I really disapproved of. I felt an obligation not to jump ship because I thought jumping ship would be a worse outcome." But he now believes that Bush's surge will lead to a successful outcome in Iraq.

White House aide Pete Wehner calls Kristol "intellectually independent and intellectually courageous. He's been critical of us over the years, too."

No pundit is more closely identified with the war, and for good reason. The Fox News commentator, Time columnist and onetime Dan Quayle aide had long been agitating for an invasion of Iraq. "SADDAM MUST GO," says the cover of a 1997 issue on the Standard's wall. Kristol helped launch a hawkish think tank and pressed his views on the likes of Condoleezza Rice. He insisted, in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and months later hailed Bush as a "visionary."

What has driven his detractors crazy is that he has never acknowledged error in a serious way, instead brushing aside his botched predictions to lecture the country on the right course of action. Even as other conservative columnists have broken with the president, Kristol has stood his ground.

"If you're a Republican or conservative, you're so annoyed by the Bush administration over the years, you have so many grievances, and I do, too," he says. But while Kristol privately makes Titanic jokes about his support for the war, he continues to strafe his targets, writing that "the Defeatist Democrats have lots of support from the mainstream media" and that most reporters are "committed to discrediting the war."

During a White House session with conservative writers on July 13, Kristol suggested to Bush that the administration offer more detailed war briefings.

"Obviously I wish the war had gone better," he allows, but "I'm not going to say something I don't believe to make my critics happier."

Maybe he's seeking new ammunition: Kristol left yesterday on his first trip to Iraq.

Life Under Murdoch

An air of resignation has settled over the Wall Street Journal newsroom.

With Rupert Murdoch's takeover of parent company Dow Jones all but completed, Journal editors and reporters have been pondering what life would be like under the mogul who owns Fox News, the New York Post, Times of London, Weekly Standard and other media and entertainment properties.

While some reporters have sent out their résumés -- and others are being courted by rival news organizations -- those contacted say they have little choice but to try to adapt, especially in a tight job market.

"There's a lot of apprehension, but I don't think there's panic," one veteran staffer says. "There are some people who in conversation will say they're not hanging around. Other people are going to wait and see. I don't know anyone on our news staff who was rooting for this outcome. As with everything else in life, you accept it."

Says another staffer: "There are people who say this means doom for the paper, but I find sentiment is turning. People are right to be anxious, but what's the alternative? You've got this guy who loves newspapers, believes in newspapers, and wants to open his checkbook to make sure the Wall Street Journal makes it to the other side."

Journal employees are acutely aware of Murdoch's history of meddling in news coverage, particularly when his political or business interests are at stake. The question is whether he would be unusually restrained in the case of this acquisition, a theory described by the Journal veteran as "he's too smart to wreck the franchise, because that would wreck the economic value of what he's paying $5 billion for."

Numerous staffers -- none of whom would not be identified discussing their likely boss -- say they now believe the collapse of Murdoch's bid would have a major downside. Since the offer caused Dow Jones stock to nearly double, they say, its withdrawal -- exacerbated by a recent drop in advertising revenue -- would lead to cutbacks, layoffs and perhaps the closure of the Asian and European editions. In an era of shrinking newspapers, at least Murdoch is talking about beefing up the Journal's political coverage.

Many are pinning their hopes on an agreement to create a five-member committee to protect the paper's editorial independence. One member would come from the Bancroft family, which controls a majority of the stock, and Murdoch has said he would name former managing editor Paul Steiger.

The panel would have to approve the hiring or firing of the two top editors (the agreement says Managing Editor Marcus Brauchli and Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot would remain, but doesn't say for how long). It says that coverage should reflect independent judgments rather than the owner's "preferences," and that the committee can go to court to enforce these standards.

Of course, former Sunday Times of London editor Harry Evans -- who was fired two decades ago despite a similar agreement -- has quoted Murdoch as saying that such pacts "aren't worth the paper they're written on." Murdoch has denied the comment, but one thing is clear: When you spend $5 billion for a newspaper, you can pretty much be assured of getting your way. Perhaps the Journal's greatest challenge will be covering Murdoch's News Corp. with the same aggressiveness it has displayed in reporting on the takeover battle.

Magazine Mystery

U.S. military officials are now challenging the veracity of an anonymous diarist who has been writing for the New Republic about misconduct by soldiers in Iraq.

As The Post reported Saturday, the magazine is conducting its own investigation after conservative Web sites questioned the accusations by "Scott Thomas," who the New Republic says is a soldier in Iraq.

In a statement to the Weekly Standard, Maj. Kirk Luedeke, spokesman for Forward Operating Base Falcon, said he could "immediately refute the assertion that a mass graveyard of children's skeletons was found" in the area described by the diarist, who had said soldiers played with the skulls.

Luedeke also challenged the diarist's account that soldiers in a mess hall had mocked a woman whose face was severely scarred from an injury. "We have nobody matching that description here at FOB Falcon," and while she might have been a visitor, "you would think that someone with such visible wounds would stand out in memorable fashion."

The spokesman said he could not "decisively" dispute that a soldier used his Bradley Fighting Vehicle to run over dogs, but that "to be driving erratically so as to hit dogs or other things would be to put the entire vehicle's crew at risk and would be gross dereliction of duty."

New Republic Editor Franklin Foer says he has some corroboration of the incidents and that some of the criticism appears ideologically motivated.

Debating Olbermann

In a "special comment" earlier this month, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann called on President Bush to resign for commuting Scooter Libby's prison sentence, saying: "In that moment, Mr. Bush, you became merely the president of a rabid and irresponsible corner of the Republican Party. And this is too important a time, sir, to have a commander in chief who puts party over nation."

Now Olbermann has been picked to moderate a Democratic presidential debate, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, on Aug. 7. Which raises a legitimate question: Can a cable host who regularly bashes Bush be tough on the Democrats?

Olbermann says his work at the debate will resemble his co-anchoring role of past election events: fair. "I agree that the water carriers on the right have a perception problem," he says. "This is a non-issue from all sides. . . .

"I realize the far right understands that the pitchmen it turns to in lieu of newscasters could not be trusted to leave their commentary at home, and treat an actual news event as such, but fortunately I'm a journalist who does periodic commentary, and not a snake oil salesman pretending to be an analyst or newsman."

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