The Pundit War, Three Years Later

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006 8:21 AM

For some liberal pundits, it's payback time.

For some conservative commentators, it's time for uncomfortable explanations.

For the rest of us, it's the best show in town.

It was probably inevitable, once the Iraq war started to go badly -- though how badly remains a matter of political dispute -- that those who opposed it from the start would begin kicking sand in the face of those who backed it from the start. Had the war been a smashing success, accusing fingers would undoubtedly be pointing in the opposite direction.

Some of those on the right now say they were wrong, or that they miscalculated, or that the Bush administration has bungled what remains a noble effort. Others insist the war is not going all that badly, given the difficulty of bringing democracy to Iraq, and that history's verdict is not yet in.

But this is no high-minded debate about military strategy and ancient religious hatreds. It is an old-fashioned smackdown by those who detest George W. Bush against those who once defended him.

Andrew Sullivan, the author and blogger, wrote in Time that he and his fellow neoconservatives made "three huge errors" in underestimating the difficulty of invading Iraq three years ago this week. "We have learned a tough lesson," Sullivan wrote, "and it has been a lot tougher for those tens of thousands of dead, innocent Iraqis and several thousand killed and injured American soldiers than for a few humiliated pundits."

This drew a blast from Paul Krugman, the liberal New York Times columnist, who wrote: "Mr. Sullivan used to specialize in denouncing the patriotism and character of anyone who dared to criticize President Bush, whom he lionized. Now he himself has become a critic, not just of Mr. Bush's policies, but of his personal qualities, too . . .

"If you're a former worshipful admirer of George W. Bush who now says, as Mr. Sullivan did at Cato, that 'the people in this administration have no principles,' you're taking a courageous stand. If you said the same thing back when Mr. Bush had an 80 percent approval rating, you were blinded by Bush-hatred. If you're a former hawk who now concedes that the administration exaggerated the threat from Iraq, you're to be applauded for your open-mindedness. But if you warned three years ago that the administration was hyping the case for war, you were a conspiracy theorist."

Sullivan conceded that he "lionized George W. Bush for a while after 9/11" and "criticized many whose knee-jerk response immediately after 9/11 was to blame America, and whose partisanship, like Krugman's, was so intense they had already deemed Bush a failure before he even had a chance." But he accused Krugman of "grossly distorting" his record, noting that he has criticized Bush on a wide range of issues, from Abu Ghraib to federal spending, and endorsed John Kerry in 2004.

A similar squabble erupted after National Review founder William F. Buckley, the intellectual godfather of modern conservatism, wrote that Bush must face reality: "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed . . . And the administration has, now, to cope with failure."

David Corn, the Nation's Washington bureau chief, used the concession to jab at Rich Lowry, National Review's editor, for having said while debating him that opponents of the war were enemies of democracy and freedom. "How can he not apply the same label to Buckley?" Corn demanded, adding: "If one side is willing to accuse the other of being weak, treasonous, and fans of tyranny, it is difficult to have a decent discourse."

Lowry responded by saying he didn't remember using that phrase, but that "I do remember complaining that in all our debates David had never once expressed the slightest pleasure at Saddam's ouster or the Iraqi elections . . . For the record: I don't think David is an enemy of democracy, just a partisan blinded by Bush hatred. And I see no connection between the crowd-pleasing bile he sometimes spews at our debates, and Buckley's prudential doubts about nation-building in Iraq."

It would be easy to dismiss all the sniping as pundits behaving badly. After all, the usual drill is for liberals to declare some administration policy a failure (the economy, Hurricane Katrina, the Medicare drug program) and for conservatives to insist that things are going much better than the Bush-bashers and left-leaning press would have you believe. There were exceptions to this pattern -- many conservatives savaged the Harriet Miers nomination and the Dubai ports deal -- but their rarity made them especially newsworthy.

As Bush continues to flounder in the polls, more some on the right are breaking ranks. Bruce Bartlett, who was dropped by a free-market think tank over his new book "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," recently called the administration "unconscionable," "vindictive" and "inept."

Peggy Noonan writes that she would not have voted for Bush had she known he was going to turn into a big-spending Lyndon Johnson. Jonah Goldberg writes that "most conservatives never really understood what compassionate conservatism was, beyond a convenient marketing slogan," and the "reality" is "that there was nothing behind the curtain."

Not everyone is jumping ship. Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, who remains a strong Bush supporter, writes that "the mainstream media likes nothing more than to play up conservatives who attack other conservatives."

Maybe so. But the war is the overriding issue of the Bush presidency, and when conservative commentators begin shifting their stance on whether the conflict has been mishandled, it's hardly surprising that their liberal counterparts are going to pile on. Iraq, like Vietnam, may well stir passions for a generation, and those in the opinion business will not be able to escape the question: Which side were you on?

"The cover photograph in The Times Magazine on Sunday rendered colors incorrectly for the jacket, shirt and tie worn by Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor who is a possible candidate for the presidency. The jacket was charcoal, not maroon; the shirt was light blue, not pink; the tie was dark blue with stripes, not maroon . . . The film that was used can cause colors to shift, and the processing altered them further; the change escaped notice because of a misunderstanding by the editors." -- Wednesday's New York Times.

It all depends on the meaning of the word blog.

George Clooney is mighty steamed at Arianna Huffington for stitching together comments from a couple of his interviews and running them as a posting on her Web site. Clooney says the Huffington Post created the false impression that he wrote the short essay about being a proud liberal.

The Oscar-winning actor told the New York Daily News he feels "abused" and that Huffington had warned him that his griping would be "bad for my career . . . I'm not going to be threatened by Arianna Huffington!"

Huffington's blog response is that it was all "an honest misunderstanding" and she believed she had written permission from Clooney's PR person. "But any misunderstanding that occurred, occurred between Clooney and the publicist." Over the weekend, however, Huffington apologized for making a "big mistake" and said she will now make clear when blog postings are reprinted from elsewhere.

Veteran magazine editor Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine.com is siding with Clooney: "How Hollywood can this go: 'I'll have my person link to your person'? . . . Huffington was wrong to try to create a faked-up post under Clooney's name."

"I was so micromanaged that they were telling me how to pronounce syllables of words." -- Bob Edwards on his former employer, National Public Radio, telling Newsweek he feels liberated at XM Satellite Radio.

By the way, I reported on Saturday that the New York Times has admitted misidentifying the Iraqi prisoner in that famous photo of the hooded man on the box--here's the editor's note -- but Ed Morrissey isn't satisfied:

"The correction, quite frankly, stinks...When reading the actual text of the correction, the Times only takes partial responsibility. It starts out by accepting responsibility for shoddy research, but then blames everyone else for getting suckered. PBS reported it first. Vanity Fair did the same thing . The Times even blames activist attorneys who would have been delighted to get any bad press against the US military on the front page of the Times -- instead of scolding itself for using them as a corroborating source from the beginning."

Mediacrity also piles on:

"The New York Times ate a massive feast of crow, in an embarrassing front-page article and editor's note admitting that it had been suckered by a liar who claimed he was the famous 'man in the hood' at Abu Gharib.

"But while dining on a smorgasboard of black bird, the Times still doesn't get it. This piece, like an earlier unsigned article on the subject, still doesn't acknowledge the distinct possibility -- if not probability -- that nothing this man said was true and, again, obscuring his motive, which was clearly monetary. He is, after all, suing the government."

Time's Joe Klein is downbeat about the war in year three:

"The U.S. effort in Iraq has been a deadly combination of utopian fantasy and near criminal incompetence. The absence of thoughtful military preparation--the Bush Administration's unwillingness to acknowledge the threat of a guerrilla insurgency--is laid out in greater detail than ever before in a new book, Cobra II, by General Bernard Trainor and Michael Gordon. It remains a mystery why Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of this disaster, has been allowed to continue as Secretary of Defense."

But Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria is more optimistic:

"For all my misgivings about the way the administration has handled this policy, I've never been able to join the antiwar crowd. Nor am I convinced that Iraq is a hopeless cause that should be abandoned. . . .

"There is no doubt today that the costs of the invasion have far outweighed the benefits. But in the long view of history, will that always be true? If, after all this chaos, a new and different kind of Iraqi politics emerges, it will make a difference in the region."

( Rumsfeld, by the way, takes on the media coverage in a WashPost op-ed: "Fortunately, history is not made up of daily headlines, blogs on Web sites or the latest sensational attack. History is a bigger picture, and it takes some time and perspective to measure accurately." But retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton says on the NYT op-ed page: "Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is not competent to lead our armed forces . . . He has shown himself incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically, and is far more than anyone else responsible for what has happened to our important mission in Iraq. Mr. Rumsfeld must step down.")

What's the state of Bush's domestic agenda? "A growing Republican chorus is calling for a staff overhaul inside President Bush's beleaguered White House," says the Los Angeles Times , but some conservatives say such a change would stop far short of fixing what they view as a serious flaw: an unfocused domestic agenda.

"The war in Iraq is dominating the attention of Bush and his top aides, these critics say, while the recent departure of the president's top domestic policy advisor after just one year has left the White House without an obvious conductor to direct the sometimes disparate policy-making machine. 'You mean they have a domestic policy?' quipped Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. . . .

"Although Bush first campaigned on a largely domestic agenda, experts either said he had achieved much of what he had set out to accomplish or said he had put aside priorities at home to devote time, energy and government resources to the war on terrorism."

Remember, he wasted 2005 by pushing a Social Security plan that hit a brick wall on the Hill, unable even to get a committee vote.

Josh Marshall isn't scared off by the Feingold censure resolution:

"It's really not that surprising that not every Democratic senator would want to jump on the bandwagon with this. But I also don't think there's any particular reason to run from it like it's Dem kryptonite or the plague. I've said this before. But I think the bigger problem for Dems is not the things they do but the very public hand-wringing and navel-gazing about how people might react to the things they do.

"That doesn't look good. And it doesn't look good because it really isn't good.

"President Bush really does deserve to be held accountable for breaking the law and then even more for claiming after the fact that the law actually doesn't apply to him. In constitutional terms, that bogus claim is a very big deal. So 'censure' him. Or don't censure him. But most of all don't get all bent out of shape or whiny about whether it might make some Bush supporter unhappy or might prompt some scold on the WaPo oped page to say tut-tut."

But David Frum calls the censure move "astoundingly reckless":

"It's as if some uncontrollable nervous impulse has seized the Democratic party. They know they should not allow themselves to be dragged to the far left. They know they should position themselves as strong on national security and supportive of the war on terror. They know that measures like Feingold's portend only damage and danger for them. And yet. . . . they cannot help succumbing.

"I am beginning to think that the real issue in 2006 may be the need to stage an intervention to save the Democratic party from itself. The successive jolts they suffered in 2002 and 2004 drove them away toward the fringe - maybe one more in 2006 would recall them to their senses.

"As for the censure motion itself, well it is not unprecedented. A Whig majority in the House of Representatives censured President Polk in 1848, claiming that the war with Mexico was 'unconstitutionally and unnecessarily begun.' Bet you didn't know that obscure detail of history. Neither did I, half an hour ago. President Polk shook it off, as have the millions of future citizens of California, Texas, Arizona and the southwest who owe their homes and security to him."

In the New Republic, Ryan Lizza maps the internal division over the Russ Fuss:

"The nature of the split is obvious. Feingold is thinking about 2008. Harry Reid, Charles Schumer, and other Democrats are thinking about 2006. Feingold cares about wooing the anti-Bush donor base on the web and putting some of his '08 rivals--Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Evan Bayh--in uncomfortable positions. Reid and Schumer care about winning the six seats it will take for Democrats to win control of the Senate. Feingold cares about making a political point with a measure that has no chance of succeeding and which, even if it did, would have no actual consequences. His colleagues want something with a little more bite: subpoena power, control of committees, and the rest of the perks that go along with a Senate majority, which would make Bush's last two years hell."

On the other hand, a Newsweek poll finds that 42 percent support the censure motion. Bush's approval: 36 percent.

On the Huffington Post, Norman Solomon recounts the media optimism after the 2003 war, including from WashPost editorialists and columnists, and digs out these lines from Chris Matthews:

"We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It's simple."

This one hits close to home: Former NBC correspondent David Hazinski, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, proposes a ratings system for TV news (via Public Eye):

"T-N ('Tease News'): What we call a 'tease' in the broadcast news business means about the same thing as it did in high school: a sample of what is to come, but with no real substance. They now make up a large portion of many newscasts.

"P-D-N ('Promotion Disguised as News'): This can range from a CNN anchor suggesting you can get a lot more information about a story on the network's paid Pipeline Web service to 'Good Morning America' airing a three-minute excerpt from a Michael Jackson interview to try to persuade you to tune in to '20/20' that night.

"S-D-N ('Scolding Disguised as News'): This could be applied to everything from Grace to O'Reilly --even to portions of '60 Minutes,' where reporting is replaced with attacking people.

"R-C ('Repetitive Coverage'): This would apply to stories that have already been told 15 different ways with the same information in the past two hours with no more new reporting or additional facts.

"F-L ('Fake Live'): Or what some call 'Live For The Sake of Live.' This one would be used constantly by local news and occasionally by networks where some poor reporter is stuck 'reporting from the scene' when the event either has been over for five hours or won't start until next week."

Ouch.

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