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The Delusional Duo

"Forget the debate over what to do about the war in Iraq. The White House is still debating what to call the war in Iraq. With retired generals, analysts, politicians and pundits increasingly using the term 'civil war,' the Bush administration insists that the definition does not fit as part of its latest effort to control the words of war.

"To people dying in the streets of Sadr City, it may be just semantics. But the White House fiercely resists the phrase out of fear of its impact in both Iraq and the United States. Defining it as civil war, some strategists worry, could accelerate the conflict and encourage Iraqi factions that remain on the sidelines to join the struggle. And acknowledging that it has become a civil war, they fear, could collapse the already weak support for the mission among Americans.

"But the risk for the White House, analysts said, is that once again it will appear out of touch with reality over there and with public perception here at home. For months after the invasion of Iraq, the administration denied there was an insurgency. Then it resisted the notion that there was sectarian violence. Now polls show that about two-thirds of the American public think that Iraq is mired in civil war."

Why has it taken so long for journalists to call it what it is?

In a washingtonpost.com Live Online discussion yesterday, media critic Howard Kurtz mocked a reader's suggestion that White House pressure could have anything to do with it.

Wrote Kurtz: "What kind of 'pressure' do you think the Bush administration puts on journalists? What are they going to do, have Tony Snow say mean things? Refuse to leak what they're already not leaking? Rescind the presidentially supplied nicknames?"

But Jonathan Alter writes in Newsweek: "[W]hy has the news media gone along with this fiction for so many months? Because beginning after 9/11, the White House had news organizations on the defensive. 'Be careful what you say,' then-press secretary Ari Fleischer intoned. Vice President Dick Cheney, who never faced combat, called reporters 'lazy' for not reporting more positive news out of Iraq. As recently as this past summer, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was still comparing opponents of the war to 'appeasers.'

"It wasn't too much of a leap to figure that such a characterization could also refer to media outlets careless enough to use a term for the war that the government disliked. With the midterm election returns, we've forgotten how recently the White House held a hammer over the head of anyone who might dare dissent. Earlier this year, any major news organization deciding to call Iraq a civil war would have almost certainly been attacked as unpatriotic by the White House-RNC-Fox industrial complex. Even now, using the phrase in defiance of the White House will be viewed in some quarters as a political act rather than reporting the self-evident truth."

Alter waxes nostalgic: "Once upon a time, the press didn't much care if the president disliked its descriptions of a war. . .

"But that was before the commoditization of news. It was before offending an administration (and thus the readers and viewers who backed it) inspired fear of lower circulation and ratings. In those years, Washington had other weapons with which to intimidate the media, particularly the issuance of broadcast licenses, but the power of the popular president to harm a news organization in the marketplace was not as great as it is today.

"The famous 19th century cartoon character, 'Mr. Dooley,' liked to say that the Supreme Court followed 'the illiction returns' (sic). The same is now true of the national news media, which never wants to risk getting too far out in front of public opinion, even when the facts on the ground warrant it."

Opinion Watch, Part II

There is, of course, another side to the argument. A Wall Street Journal editorial today is contemptuous of "this week's spectacle of the wannabe Walter Cronkites at outlets like NBC News and the Los Angeles Times patting themselves on the back for declaring that the Iraq conflict is a 'civil war.' Mr. Cronkite is often credited with helping turn public opinion against the war in Vietnam, and today's media point seems to be to declare the war unwinnable, as if this were actually desirable.

"To his credit, Mr. Bush refused to give ground to such defeatist rhetoric during meetings with NATO leaders yesterday. No doubt many critics will continue to snicker at his alleged lack of realism, but public confidence is crucial to avoiding disaster in Iraq."

Struck Down

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "A Los Angeles federal judge has ruled that key portions of a presidential order blocking financial assistance to terrorist groups are unconstitutional, further complicating the Bush administration's attempts to defend its aggressive anti-terrorism tactics in federal courts.

"U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins, in a ruling released late Monday, found that two provisions of an executive order signed Sept. 23, 2001, are impermissibly vague because they allow the president to unilaterally designate organizations as terrorist groups and broadly prohibit association with such groups."

Fighting Dems

Watch

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "At a recent White House reception for freshman members of Congress, Virginia's newest senator tried to avoid President Bush. Democrat James Webb declined to stand in a presidential receiving line or to have his picture taken with the man he had often criticized on the stump this fall. But it wasn't long before Bush found him.

"'How's your boy?' Bush asked, referring to Webb's son, a Marine serving in Iraq.

"'I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,' Webb responded, echoing a campaign theme.

"'That's not what I asked you,' Bush said. 'How's your boy?'

"'That's between me and my boy, Mr. President,' Webb said coldly, ending the conversation on the State Floor of the East Wing of the White House."

Emily Heil reports for The Hill that Webb told a confidant "that he was so angered by this that he was tempted to slug the commander-in-chief . . . but of course didn't."

Deadly Motorcades

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "They look glamorous from the curb, exciting and powerful as they race through a city with lights flashing, sirens blaring and a very, very important person waving from inside an armored limousine.

"But presidential motorcades can be dangerous. The most recent reminder: the death this week of a Honolulu motorcycle officer who was injured while escorting President Bush during a brief stop en route home from Asia.

"Sure, the president is safe in his limousine - so safe that no one can remember a commander in chief buckling his seat belt.

"But the rest of the entourage is at risk of accidents and injuries, and they happen more often than most people realize."

Bushism Watch

White House stenographers had to use both a "sic" and an asterisk to clarify this Bushism from yesterday: "And under the able leadership of the Secretary General, NATO is transforming from a static alliance focused on the defense of Europe, into an expedentiary* [sic] alliance ready to deploy outside of Europe in the defense of freedom. This is a vital mission."

The footnote explains that Bush was supposed to say "expeditionary."

Cheney Hunting Again

Tampa Bay's Channel 10 reports that Cheney was tying up Tallahasee traffic on Monday, on his way to go hunting -- not sure where.

Pay Up, Karl

The Colorado Confidential blog describes a local Democratic official's $5 bet on the November election with Karl Rove, placed when Rove was visiting Aspen this summer.

Rove hasn't paid up.

The Twins

Jo Piazza writes in the New York Daily News that "the Bush twins are solidifying themselves as the Paris and Britney of the political world. . . .

"[A] year and a half out of college, neither has found a serious job. Jenna is working as an intern for UNICEF in South America, and Barbara has joined her mother in traveling to Africa to work with children who have AIDS."

Former White House correspondent Saul Friedman blogs on NiemanWatchdog.org: "This is wartime, Americans are getting killed and maimed along with the innocents in Iraq, so I think it is not out of line to note that the president's twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, are having a heckuva good time, celebrating their 25th birthday."

He suggests that some of the questions raised by readers of ABC's blog ought to be asked of the twins' father. Among them: "Why are the Bush twins doing nothing to help the war effort? Why are they not raising money for veterans?"

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth and Ben Sargent on Bush's imaginary friend.

Tom Toles, Ann Telnaes and Stuart Carlson on White House semantics.

Mike Luckovich on Bush's library.


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