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Runaway general: Rolling Stone's political tune

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010; 11:16 AM

In the summer of 2008, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner ended an interview with Barack Obama -- whose campaign he financially supported -- by saying, "Good luck. We are following you daily with great hope and admiration."

This week, the magazine that endorsed Obama plunged his administration into crisis mode, publishing sharply disparaging comments by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides about the president and other White House officials. Beyond costing McChrystal his job on Wednesday, the article highlighted the grinding frustration among those prosecuting the seemingly intractable war.

"I'm stunned," Wenner says, an hour after Obama announced the firing. "That is pretty major stuff." But he says the New York-based magazine's role should come as no surprise: "Our specialty for years has been long-form journalism, deep reporting and politics. I've had a strong passion about having a say in national policy."

Eric Bates, Rolling Stone's executive editor, concedes that "there's still this lingering sense that you're a music magazine and what are you doing over in Afghanistan? I call it the 'of all places' syndrome." But he says that view is changing after the biweekly magazine's stinging stories on such topics as the BP oil spill and the Wall Street bailout.

There has been grumbling that McChrystal must have assumed he was off the record with reporter Michael Hastings, a former correspondent for Newsweek and freelancer for The Washington Post, and that in one case an aide to the general was quoted while drinking.

But Bates says that "this isn't an instance where someone makes an off-the-cuff remark and the reporters put down their tape recorders. This took place over the course of weeks. They were working, they were in their war room."

Hastings says from Afghanistan that he has the remarks -- ranging from McChrystal's distaste at receiving an e-mail from envoy Richard Holbrooke to an aide's reference to Vice President Biden as "bite me" -- on tape or in detailed notes.

Rolling Stone initially failed to put its story online until late Tuesday morning, enabling Politico and Time.com to draw traffic by posting actual pages from an article that hadn't yet hit newsstands, a move that Bates called unfair and inappropriate. The rival sites took the piece down after Bates complained.

To be sure, the 1.5-million circulation magazine is primarily known for such recent cover subjects as Jay-Z, Mick Jagger, Black Eyed Peas and Eric Clapton. (The average reader is 30 years old.) In fact, the cover of the current issue is devoted not to "The Runaway General" but to Lady Gaga, wielding a pair of automatic weapons attached to her bra.

Matt Taibbi, whose angry, profanity-laced pieces follow in the footsteps of Hunter Thompson, says perceptions have changed since he joined the magazine six years ago. "I'd call up some bank and their PR guy would do a double take and say, 'Why are we hearing from you?' But I hear that less and less now."

Taibbi says he lost friends in the administration after a December piece headlined "Obama's Big Sellout," in which he questioned whether the president is "the vacillating, ineffectual servant of banking interests." In March, just before the health-care bill passed, Taibbi wrote that Obama "did everything wrong," along with "his team of two-faced creeps like Rahm Emanuel . . . willing to sell out every inch of the body politic to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries."

These were surely more surprising pieces for the magazine than Sean Wilentz's 2006 cover story on George W. Bush, titled "The Worst President in History?" Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg once wrote that "Rolling Stone has essentially become the house organ of the Democratic National Committee." So it's worth noting that the magazine -- which Wenner says has a "mission" to promote "social justice" -- is assailing Obama from the left.

Wenner says he is "disappointed" by much of Obama's White House record and "disturbed that some pattern is emerging. It's naive to think you're going to change American policy by compromising on a lot of stuff." He says Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should have been fired over the BP debacle and that the administration's financial regulation bill "gets weaker and weaker" over time.

Wenner says he is still "rooting" for Obama but hasn't been invited to the White House: "I'm not part of the gentleman's club."

The same could be said of many Rolling Stone writers, including Hastings, who wrote a 2008 book about his fiancee being killed by a car bomb while both were in Iraq. He got the story on McChrystal that no one else did -- or would -- by spending a month essentially embedded with the general and his staff.

The 43-year-old magazine can rightfully claim a history of outsider journalism, going back to Thompson's drug- and alcohol-fueled binges. Timothy Crouse's observations of reporters on the 1972 presidential campaign became the classic book "Boys on the Bus." Tom Wolfe's articles on NASA's original seven astronauts led to the 1979 book "The Right Stuff." Evan Wright was embedded with a Marine unit during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and his stories became a book and then the HBO miniseries "Generation Kill."

The coverage can be overheated and politically loaded, but it is not restrained. "They give you an enormous amount of space to address any topic I want, and there's no editorial interference in terms of political viewpoint, and I can use any language I want," says Taibbi.

Bates sees Rolling Stone going back to its roots. "In the last 10 years," he says, "the magazine has returned to form and made it a point to go after abuses of power."

Wenner offers a simple explanation: "We're not a public company, afraid of whatever the implications of that may be. We're independent. I own it."

Firing fallout

Judging by the media coverage, Obama smothered a growing brushfire by replacing McChrystal with none other than David Petraeus -- replacing a ham-handed general with one who knows how to work the press. Even McChrystal's partisans knew that his self-inflicted wound was fatal, and even Afghan war boosters can't complain about his replacement. In fact, one sign that the president had pulled off a deft political maneuver -- imagine how he would have been pilloried for tolerating insubordination -- is that the debate quickly shifted to the war strategy itself.

National Review's Rich Lowry: "I'm not sure how Obama could have handled this any better. He was genuinely graceful about McChrystal and his explanation of why he had to go made perfect sense. He called for unity within his administration in pursuing the war and sounded quite stalwart about both the war and about the strategy. More importantly, his choice of Petraeus as a replacement for McChrystal is a brilliant move: He gets a heavyweight, an unassailable expert in this kind of warfare, and someone who presumably can step in pretty seamlessly."

Slate's Fred Kaplan: "President Barack Obama has accomplished what many might have thought impossible just a few hours earlier. He has fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his combat commander in Afghanistan, in such a way that not only will the general go unmissed but his name will likely soon be forgotten.

"Obama's decision to replace McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus is a stroke of brilliance, an unassailable move, politically and strategically.

"On a political level, McChrystal has many fans inside Congress and the military, but Petraeus has orders of magnitude more. No one could accuse Obama of compromising the war effort, knowing that Petraeus is stepping in. On a strategic level, while McChrystal designed the U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, Petraeus is its ur-architect."

Frum Forum's Shawn Summers: "President Obama has managed to thread a seemingly-impossible needle in his handling of the McChrystal/Rolling Stone controversy. By replacing General Stanley McChrystal with the unimpeachable General David Petraeus (with Petraeus literally flanking the president, nodding along to his words, at this afternoon's press conference, no less), repeatedly stressing McChrystal's honorable and frankly superhuman service to the nation, and reaffirming his commitment to the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan, the president has found the best way to salvage this military and political debacle and allow everyone involved to move on with some modicum of dignity."

Powerline's John Hinderaker: "I'm glad that President Obama has appointed Gen. David Petraeus to replace Gen. McChrystal, but I can't help wondering whether Obama himself feels any discomfort at turning to the hero of the Iraq surge to try to bail the administration out in Afghanistan. After all, Obama opposed the Iraq surge before it happened, and after the fact claimed that it had made only modest gains and was not responsible for the most significant improvements in Iraq."

Former paratrooper D.B. Grady, in the Atlantic questions whether contents of the Rolling Stone article really constitute a firing offense:

"Only one of [McChrystal's and his aides'] quotes refers to the president of the United States, and it is, at worst, vague impatience and regret that the decision was such a difficult one. If that's insubordination, then half the military should be up for court martial and promptly convicted. Most every damning quote in the piece comes from McChrystal subordinates, and of those quotes, nearly all of them appear in jest. This should not be surprising -- Michael Hastings has admitted to Newsweek that McChrystal's men 'were getting hammered' on booze in Paris, where the general was to give a speech. . . .

"George Patton was notorious for speaking his mind to reporters, questioning war planners and the loyalty of allies. Few would argue that history would have turned out better without George Patton leading the way. Because of President Obama's notoriously thin skin, history will find out by proxy."

Perhaps the strongest criticism comes from such Afghan war critics as Andrew Sullivan:

"One suspects there is simply no stopping this war machine, just as there is no stopping the entitlement and spending machine. Perhaps McChrystal would have tried to wind things up by next year -- but his frustration was clearly fueled by the growing recognition that he could not do so unless he surrendered much of the country to the Taliban again. So now we have the real kool-aid drinker, Petraeus, who will refuse to concede the impossibility of success in Afghanistan just as he still retains the absurd notion that the surge in Iraq somehow worked in reconciling the sectarian divides that still prevent Iraq from having a working government. I find this doubling down in Afghanistan as Iraq itself threatens to spiral out of control the kind of reasoning that only Washington can approve of."

Poll watch

Obama at 45 percent: "Americans are more pessimistic about the state of the country and less confident in President Barack Obama's leadership than at any point since Mr. Obama entered the White House, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll."

Spitzer's comeback

When I Googled Eliot Spitzer and CNN to see who was writing what, one of the first links that popped up was on CNN.com:

"Federal prosecutors have unsealed an affidavit that details a rendezvous in a Washington hotel room last month between a prostitute and a client who a source tells CNN was New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer."

That was in 2008. Today Spitzer is the new co-host of an 8 p.m. CNN program, along with Washington Post columnist (and recent Pulitzer winner) Kathleen Parker.

The Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik is not a fan of the move:

"I'll hold off pre-judging and screaming bloody murder until I see the show on-air, but as I said in a previous post, I don't know how any channel committed to journalistic integrity makes a host out of a guy who betrayed the public's trust by his actions and then tried to cover it up by manipulating the very records of his deception. Forgive me again, but that feels like the Richard Nixon School of Ethics to me.

"When you no longer have the credibility to be governor of New York, you might wonder what's left. The new answer: A co-hosting job on CNN."

Time's James Poniewozik is more relaxed: "It's fun to joke about Spitzer's journey from being Client No. 9 to CNN Rising Star No. 1, but really I'm not concerned with TV shows, news or otherwise, rewarding or punishing people's moral behavior in their hiring practices. This is, after all, the business that employs Charlie Sheen. So if CNN decides that the route to primetime goes through the doors of the Emperor's Club, I won't criticize. There are too many other things to criticize. . . .

"CNN has decided to go the he-said-she-said route instead. I'm not convinced it will be good for CNN. I don't believe it will be good for news viewers. But it's great for Eliot Spitzer!"

This is, to say the least, not an easy one to defend.

More on Gore

After all the media speculation about the breakup of the former veep's marriage, the National Enquirer strikes again:

"Al Gore has been accused of sexually attacking a masseuse in Portland, Oregon -- and is named in the official police report about the alleged assault, The ENQUIRER has learned exclusively!

"The bombshell story will appear in the new issue of The ENQUIRER and will include the secret police documents, a photo of the woman making the stunning charges and will reveal the shocking details about the pants she saved as evidence!"

This doesn't mean the woman's allegations are true. In fact, says the Oregonian, "according to a Portland police 2007 report, the woman reported the encounter several weeks after the incident. Portland Detective Cheryl Waddell said the woman cancelled interview appointments three times, and declined police investigation, saying a civil case would be pursued. . . .

"In January 2009, the woman returned to Portland police and said she wanted to give a statement. . . .After interviewing the woman, the Police Bureau provided additional counseling services through its victim advocate program. The case was not investigated further 'because detectives concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations.' "

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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