Real Life Politics

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, July 23, 2008 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, July 23 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.


Ruth Marcus: Hi everybody. I may be the only writer not on the Obama plane, but glad to be here and chatting!


Washington: You didn't like history class, did you? It was too complicated, there were too many details to remember for the tests. I may be parroting the comments section after your column, but you cannot compare Baghdad to the 1948 Berlin Airlift! The analogy fails miserably. When you get home at night, turn on the History Channel and learn something. Learn anything better than the "facts" you put in your column.

Ruth Marcus: Ouch. Actually, I did like history class. I was a history major in college. What do you mean, "cannot compare"? Of course, as I said, all historical analogies are imperfect -- and this analogy, as I also said, can be read to offer different lessons, both supporting and undercutting Sen. Obama.

I do like the History Channel, though.


Helena, Mont.: I read, then re-read your opinion piece today and cannot figure out what your aim is. I think you are equating the Berlin Airlift of 1948 to the Iraq war of 2002-2008 and counting, equating Truman's resolve of maintaining the airlift over Republican Congress's objections to Bush's resolve of continuing an unpopular war in Iraq, and equating the Republican Congress that Truman had to the Democratic Congress of 2008. But these things are not equal in any sense of the term, so the analogy fails.

Ruth Marcus: Well, I guess all I can say is thank you for reading twice!


Princeton, N.J.: The trouble with your analogy is that in Baghdad today, we are the ones building the walls. In fact, the walls of Baghdad are much more extensive and divisive than the Berlin Wall. So in your analogy, which side corresponds to the USSR and which side corresponds to the Allies? Which side favors unity of the Iraqi people and which side favors ethnic cleansing? From Berlin to Baghdad (Post, July 23)

Ruth Marcus: Look, I made clear that no historical analogies, including this one, are perfect. But your Berlin Wall/Baghdad walls comparison is really offensive. Agree or disagree about the wisdom of being in and staying in Iraq, but the U.S. is no Soviet Union.


Richmond, Va.: Did John McCain's and the GOP's taunts to Obama to go to Iraq, etc., turn out to be the worst taunt in history (okay, not the worst, but bad)? Do you think they underestimated Obama (though why should they have -- he beat the Clinton machine)? In any case, would you say Obama has done well on this trip, and increased his "foreign policy" presidential credentials?

Ruth Marcus: I believe Sen. Obama would have gone anyway, so I wouldn't fault the McCain campaign for taunting -- in fact, the taunting managed to convey the sense that Obama was to some degree bullied into going. I would fault the McCain campaign for then attacking Obama for taking the very trip that it suggested.

More broadly, the trip so far has been a big plus for Obama, in my view, and I suspect that the Berlin speech will add to the glow. He hasn't made any mistakes, he's conducted himself well, and he sunk that three-pointer. I think Berlin, handled right, will show that he can give some tough love to the Europeans -- maybe a Frau Soljah moment? -- while providing some reassurance to Americans dismayed about America's reduced standing in the world.


San Francisco: Senator McCain pledged to run "a respectful campaign." Saying Senator Obama "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign" doesn't seem very respectful.

Ruth Marcus: There was also some Obama would be soft on genocide suggestions from the McCain campaign today after his Yad Vashem visit. I think everyone should tone things down, and get substantive -- but I also remember campaigning with the first President Bush as he called Clinton and Gore "bozo" and "Ozone man." So ... plus ca change. And I'm not suggesting that this is a partisan issue, either. There's been nastiness to go around on both sides.


cartercamp: Another lesson of the airlift might be that politicians should be strong enough to overrule generals and CIA advice. Obama seems to know who's in charge in a democracy.

Ruth Marcus: I did think that was very interesting.


Ruth Marcus: sSrry for the time-out, folks. I had to take a call frommy daughter at sleepaway camp! That's why this is real-life politics. She sprained her finger ... but isn't homesick, so I am one relieved mommy.


Linda7: I am old enough to remember the airlift -- the newsreels at the movies brought it home to us at the time. Truman was much maligned for many of his policies. My husband was a paratrooper in the Korean War when Truman extended his stay, and needless to say, he was not a happy camper at the time. But not too many years later he expressed admiration for the little guy from Missouri. The candidates today should adhere to Truman's simplicity, instead of grandstanding for high ratings in the polls.

Ruth Marcus: Sharing this post...


Hamilton, N.J.: Isn't it true that Iraq is central to energy and political concerns in the world, and not secondary to Afghanistan as Obama suggests? Why aren't you and the rest of the news media properly informing us to this fact.

Ruth Marcus: Please read The Washington Post's editorial today, which points out that "Mr. Obama's account of his strategic vision remains eccentric. He insists that Afghanistan is "the central front" for the United States, along with the border areas of Pakistan. But there are no known al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and any additional U.S. forces sent there would not be able to operate in the Pakistani territories where Osama bin Laden is headquartered. While the United States has an interest in preventing the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, the country's strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world's largest oil reserves. If Mr. Obama's antiwar stance has blinded him to those realities, that could prove far more debilitating to him as president than any particular timetable."


Clifton, Va.: McCain and the GOP need to go all out on Obama's tax plan. Raising the effective tax rate on the richest Americans during a recession will turn that recession into a Depression. Along with renegotiating trade pacts, it will make the resulting Depression will be worse the Great Depression. How can you encourage investment in alternative forms of energy, etc., if you double the capitol gains tax rate? I am a middle-class federal worker, but even I know the middle class does not create jobs, and they usually don't start businesses, nor invest in risky new businesses. Taxing the very rich will get you into a Depression, not out of a recession!

Ruth Marcus: I'm listening right now to a Web cast from the wonderful Tax Policy Center, which has just released a fascinating analysis of the two candidates' tax plans. I agree with you about the importance of trade. However, I do not agree about the alleged horror of returning tax rates on the wealthiest Americans to the level of the Clinton administration, when, as I recall, we were not in a depression! I agree that this needs to be done wisely, perhaps gradually, and with regard to the underlying economic climate but the opposition to Sen. Obama's tax plan from Republicans has been the same with or without a looming or ongoing recession.


RoyFan: You must have run out of real ideas. Comparing the Berlin airlift to the Baghdad occupation is like comparing anything at all to anything at all. Let's compare Baghdad to the British occupation of New York, shall we? In truth, Baghdad would be a peaceful and prosperous city if Bush had not been put in office. A million more Iraqis would be alive today and many millions more still would be in their homes if Bush, McCain, Cheney and the rest of their ilk had been denied the levers of power.

Ruth Marcus: Peaceful and prosperous? Ask the victims of Saddam Hussein how they would feel about that. Whether or not you think the war was a good idea, I don't think pre-war Iraq was this paradise of your suggestions.


Berlin: History Channel is all right sometimes, but there's too much Nazi stuff and stupid nonhistory on it, like the conspiracy/entertainment rubbish about JFK. Considering how appallingly ignorant so many Americans are about their own history -- many think that slavery was abolished in the '30's, and maybe half can name more than ten presidents -- this would seem to be a lost opportunity. PBS, with "The American Experience," does a far better job.

Ruth Marcus: Okay, can't win here. I do watch a lot of PBS.


Crestwood, N.Y.: This may be an uncomfortable subject for some, but its relevant: How does McCain get away with endorsing coverage for Viagra, but not for birth control? I have several tasteless remarks that fit here, but you get the point. Why isn't this a huge, huge story? His is not a responsible or defensible position, and it gives ammunition to those who say that the former maverick is now a craven politician who has caved in to the religious right. (Although the Viagra angle makes it utterly bizarre.) How could any woman covering this campaign allow this to be, in effect, covered up by the media?

Ruth Marcus: I don't think you have characterized McCain's position correctly. I happened to be at the breakfast with Carly Fiorina, his co-chairman, which triggered all of that. She actually, and probably foolishly, raised the Viagra/birth control analogy on her own. Her point, which has been lost in the mostly ill-informed uproar, was not that insurance companies should be required to cover one and not the other, but that health care consumers should be free to shop among plans that fit their needs rather than having insurance companies mandated to cover certain sets of services. McCain, asked to comment on her remarks, flubbed his answer. However, he did not endorse coverage for Viagra but not birth control.


Washington: I asked Anne Kornblut this question, but she didn't respond, so please let me emphasize that I'm not being snarky or snide: I want to know if you and your colleagues are at all disturbed by the Rasmussen Report's finding than just under half of the public think that the media are cheerleading for Obama (my phrase, not theirs). Regardless of the truth of this perception, the mere fact that the public thinks this would give some pause to the media, I'd think. Your thoughts?

Ruth Marcus: I can only speak for myself. I do think we all -- especially my colleagues back over in the news side, where I spent most of my career -- need to be very attentive to whether we are ... to use a dangerous phrase ... fair and balanced in our reporting. But I also think that people will find whatever bias fits into their preconception. For instance, I get e-mails and comments from Republicans calling me a biased knee-jerked liberal, and emails and comments from Democrats calling me a biased knee-jerk neo-con.


Atlanta: Since you have mentioned and quote today's Post editorial, can you tell us if you had a hand in writing it?

Ruth Marcus: Fair question. The policy of the editorial board is not to say who wrote what editorial. I think it's an interesting question in the current day and age whether we should be willing to step out a little bit from behind the editorial curtain, but that's the current policy.


Washington: Iraq has a good portion of the world's oil reserves, but it's in Iraq, not here. The U.S. has more coal reserves than any other nation, mostly in the Rocky Mountains. If America insists on burning the fossil fuels until those fuels are gone, Americans should first burn their own fossil fuels before they attempt to steal someone else's fuel.

The Union Pacific railroad has added a fourth rail line in the Powder River basin in an attempt to meet the demand for coal. Americans want to destroy someone else's land before they destroy their own. That is why the Iraq war is so distasteful and immoral. Maybe it's time to supplement the history education of The Washington Post's reporting staff. Also, fire Fred Hiatt!

Ruth Marcus: Fire Fred Hiatt? It's much more likely (and maybe possible after this chat!) that Fred Hiatt would fire me. He's my boss.


Prescott, Ariz.: One of the McCain campaign's themes has been that "government-run" health care is no good. McCain's dad was military, meaning that he was on "government-run" health care from birth. McCain went on to join the military, and then Congress. By my estimate, McCain has thus been on "government-run" health care his entire life. Has he ever discussed what in his experience with his own health care has turned him off so much (and why has he stuck with it if it is so lousy)? And I guess this brings up a side point: If he has had lousy health care his entire life, how healthy could he really be? Should his lack of good health care his entire life raise any red flags?

Ruth Marcus: I could be forgetting some rhetoric, but I think that the McCain campaign has been much lighter on the government-run health care theme than, say, the Giuliani campaign, with all the silly talk about socialized medicine.


Richmond, Va.: No, you are wrong that Obama hasn't made any mistakes on this trip. You are simply unwilling to see how he is letting the Iraqi government help him win the election while conveniently forgetting how the Republican surge policy put him in a position so favorable to a timetable in the first place. The media need to call him out on this, but they are clearly in the tank for Obama! Obama simply is playing president before he has won.

Ruth Marcus: I meant no mistake as a short-hand. No mistakes that are costing him in the press. To which you will respond, I suspect, that the press is so in love with him that they would not leap on any mistakes. I would disagree with that -- a good flub would be good copy, presswise. I will say that I was puzzled about Obama's decision to give a speech before Iraq, rather than after, and disappointed that he is so churlish in acknowledging the positive effects of the surge.


Saddam was not a nice guy: The world is truly better off without Hussein, but the facts are that he was executed for crimes in which Reagan and Rumsfeld were complicit -- for example, gassing the Kurds. It's also a fact that the U.S. embargo in the 1990s against the Iraqis killed many more innocent people than Hussein ever did, with the exception of the reckless unprovoked war against the Iranians, which we were not totally uninvolved in either.

But because your editorial page says we really only care about their oil anyway, it didn't matter what kind of guy Hussein was -- we're there for our own interests, not for those of the ordinary people. Ten years from now, they'll all be getting murdered and exploited by the Sunni/Shiite/Kurd leadership of the region that they happen to find themselves in, no matter what future we think we'll be able to impose on them. And like the Vietnamese today, they'll be much better off without us, though hardly in Nirvana.

Ruth Marcus: You left out a piece of the editorial's point -- that Iraq "lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East."


annetta3: My former husband was not born American, and while he admired many things about America he often commented that we were quick to either tell other countries how to live or pressure them to do what we think is right. He also said that Americans then tend to move on to some new challenge, and leave the people of the country we pressured to live the way we thought they should to learn to live with the chaos and challenges that we caused.

I fear that after disrupting Iraq with our invasion we are on the verge of dusting our hands and saying to them, "deal with any insurrection created by our interference; learn to live without electricity and utilities that you had before we came; rebuild the hospitals and shops destroyed in our efforts to save you and raise your children to not emulate those who we have given reason to hate us." It's a heck of a lot easier to smash a society than it is to pick up the pieces and help set them on course again. Too bad we don't remember that before we go in, or when we pack up and go home.

Ruth Marcus: A good reminder of the Pottery Barn rule.


Arlington, Va.: I do not agree with The Post's editorial today regarding Sen. Obama's position on the need to concentrate on Afghanistan, and I am reminded that the Post's editorials regarding the Iraq war and other issues haven't always proven to be "spot on." Because you answered a question by directing the poster to that same editorial, does that mean you agree with the editorial?

Ruth Marcus: I think that is a fair question, but I think I'm going to give you an evasive answer, and then explain why. I did send the poster to the editorial, because the question was why the press was hiding this point of view. That did open the door to ask me what my view is.

Here's why I don't think it's a good idea to answer: No one who's a member of a thoughtful editorial board -- and I know I'm going to incur the wrath of the blogosphere on that self-description, but I'm standing by it -- possibly could agree with every editorial that is written. You wouldn't want an editorial board whose members all think exactly alike. I wouldn't, anyway, and I don't work for one that works that way. We have a variety of views that we are encouraged to express around the table. However, if I say I agree with Editorial A, then you are free to ask me if I agree with Editorial B. And then, what if I don't? I think it's better to keep whatever disagreements there are within the family, so to speak.


Re: Prescott: McCain backed way, way off his criticism of government-run health care after Elizabeth Edwards pointed out that neither he nor she ever could obtain health care on the private market, one having cancer and the other having had cancer. His response essentially was to say he would create some government-run health care plans.

Ruth Marcus: I think his big argument has been that it is important to have competition in the health care marketplace, transparency, and skin in the game for consumers in order to get costs under control. Elizabeth Edwards's fair point was that McCain has been awfully unspecific about how his approach would ensure coverage for high-risk and otherwise uninsurable individuals.


Warrenton, Va.: Where's the outrage? Obama is so slick, it is easy to see why the Republicans can't seem to get a grip on him lately. Can't people see that Maliki's government is trying to help Obama win the election and that Obama conveniently is forgetting how he got to the Iraq withdrawal timetable position he now advocates (namely, ignoring the successful Bush and McCain surge that made all this possible). The Republicans really need to call him on that. Obama will shape-shift shamelessly in order to win. Hopefully the Republicans will put out a TV ad blitz in the fall to expose Obama's now-evident character flaws.

Ruth Marcus: I think you can be assured of a TV ad blitz, and earlier than the fall.


McCain and Birth Control:"However, he did not endorse coverage for Viagra but not birth control." Yes, he did. He did it the way senators endorse things -- he voted against having birth control covered. Whatever he says is irrelevant when he has a record of voting against women's health issues.

Ruth Marcus: He voted against requiring insurance companies to cover contraception. I am all in favor of contraception. I am all in favor of insurance companies covering contraception. But I think that is a different issue than requiring them to do so, even though I think I would come out on the opposite side of Sen. McCain on that one.


Re: Evasive Answer to Arlington: Decent attempt to respond without answering. My take on blogosphere's criticism of the media is that the media often tells us that it is monolithic, and that we don't need to "pay attention to the people behind the curtain," whereas bloggers have learned to pay close attention to those people behind the curtain. But at least you acknowledged that this was a group decision and have accepted responsibility, in part, for the group's decision.

Ruth Marcus: My problem with the bloggers -- and now I can feel that torrent of e-mails coming -- is that they are so willing to impute ill and evil motives, and in the alternative, complete and utter stupidity, to the folks behind the curtain. People, even editorial writers, can get things wrong without being either venal or stupid. People can come out on a different side of the issue from whatever side you might be one without being either venal or stupid. But the blogosphere -- and I think the left side of the blogosphere is worse on this than the right -- does not accommodate that kind of thinking.


St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Ruth -- Thank you for taking my question. I enjoyed seeing you filling in on the NewsHour a while back. As a journalist, what do you think about Diane Sawyer not correcting Sen. McCain on his geography gaffe (Iraq and Pakistan are neighbors), and CBS news editing out his misstatements about the surge that are in the news today? Is it the job of journalists to point those mistakes out and correct them at the time they're made, or to just let them hang there for others to comment on? While I can see Sawyer not bothering to jump in, I'm really troubled by Couric and company taking it on themselves to shape his answers. Who's biased against whom?

Ruth Marcus: Thanks -- I really enjoy being on the NewsHour because it's a forum for intelligent discussion. Certainly, it's the job of journalists to correct misstatements, politely. I need to look more closely at the Couric editing issue -- I got some other questions about it today -- but I am completely, totally in favor of posting full transcripts, tapes, underlying documents and everything else on the web so people can make judgments for themselves. I think that's one of the many wonderful aspects of the Internet. And on that cheery note, see you in a few weeks!


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