Friday, March 28, 2003

Stand Down

Our nation is at war and the conditions on the battlefield are constantly in flux. It is difficult to gather and process the information needed for a meaningful situation analysis. Therefore, it is almost impossible to provide informed opinions and assessments at his early stage of the conflict.

Punditwatch is not going to grasp at the ether of pundit speculation and opinion on this war until enough time has passed to make it informed speculation and opinion. I trust David Brooks and Mark Shields to tell me who's up and who's down in the political arena. I don't trust them to tell me where a war is and where it's going after only 10 days.

Punditwatch will return when the fog of war lifts.

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Pundits Grapple With Breaking War News

The Sunday pundits normally look back at events of the past week, providing interpretation and analysis with the benefit of days or hours to prepare before going on camera.

With war in Iraq raging, this weekend’s pundit shows became almost indistinguishable from 24/7 coverage as they moved to “expanded” editions. Events that broke as the shows aired were uniformly negative: a friendly fire incident, a soldier being detained for attacking his leadership, fierce pockets of Iraqi resistance, and reports of American taken as POWs and then executed.

There was little evidence of a “long view” on military operations from non-military pundits.

A somber Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was the lead guest on Meet the Press and Face the Nation. He appeared tired, as one would expect of a leader in his position. He only occasionally showed flashes of his combative style and likely did not have as much confirmation on the breaking events as he would have liked, so he appeared terse and almost dismissive at times.

General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the lead guest on Fox News Sunday and This Week. He, too, appeared tired, but maintained his composure well. He likely wished he was back at his command post, gathering details on the latest news from the battlefield rather than responding to questions.

Rumsfeld’s interview with Meet the Press host Tim Russert began with photos of Iraqis gathered near the Tigris River, searching for Americans who allegedly parachuted into the city. Russert’s questions implied that American troops were having difficulty, but Fox’s Brit Hume was heartened by the scene, calling it a “comic opera” that proved, “If Baghdad were being bombed in the way some people have alleged, you wouldn’t see this.”

Hume, who has pulled long hours of duty as Fox’s anchor during war coverage, was easily the most passionate pundit. His comment during the panel discussion that America was conducting the war under a “standard unprecedented in history” led NPR’s Mara Liasson to remark,

I think, this administration has accepted the standards to which it is being held and those standards got a lot higher because of the way we got into this war. We don’t have wide international backing. We don’t have the international backing we sought.

Liasson’s comment led the panel to familiar arguments about the nature of the coalition, Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, and anti-war protests. Among other declarations, Hume said, “Bill Clinton did the right thing in Kosovo,” the anti-war demonstrations are “rooted in demonstrable lies,” and European fear of unrivaled American power is “tiresome.” The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol saw some foreign criticism as “ludicrous, cartoonish views,” while NPR’s Juan Williams attempted to place the protests in a positive context.

On Meet the Press, Time’s Michael Elliott called the Iraq campaign “hard slugging.” Just two days earlier, The Weekly Standard’s David Brooks summarized the war this way: “We have the secretary of defense negotiating surrender terms before we even engage the enemy. We have a military that is trying to scare the enemy troops but not kill them.” There will likely be more swings of the pendulum before next week’s shows.

“We Missed”

Secretary Rumsfeld’s explanation on Meet the Press for why the Iraq Defense Ministry is still intact. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, citing negotiations with the Iraqi military, said failing to take out the Defense Ministry was “not an accident.”

Quiet Dogs of War

The one positive theme to emerge from the Sunday shows was the failure of several gloomy scenarios, such as the use of chemical or biological weapons. “The dogs that haven’t barked is pretty good news,” said Bill Kristol on Fox.

“Tom Daschle is a Friend of Mine”

With that preface on Fox, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo, said of the Minority Leader’s comments, “I don’t agree with his view. We have to support our troops.” Gephardt manage to squeeze in criticism of the President’s budget proposals while continuing to favor the military action against Iraq.

Changing the Nature of War

David Brooks on The News Hour: “Formerly you had psychological weapons used for military purposes. Now have you military purposes used for psychological ends. To me it is a scary thing and uncertain thing.”

Jim Lehrer on BloggingWhen David Brooks mentioned that he was reading posts from a blogger in Bagdhad, News Hour host Jim Lehrer helpfully explained the definition of a blogger: "People who do things on the Internet."

Alliteration of the Week

Juan Williams, on Fox: “People talk about shock and awe. I watched that tape with dread and dismay.”

Sunday, March 16, 2003

“Cheney Rations” Issued on Sunday Shows

As President Bush flew off for a final round of diplomacy in the Azores, Vice-President Dick Cheney reprised his rare, but critical role as the Administration’s ultimate “go to guy.”

Cheney sat for the full hour on Meet the Press and for a shorter stint on Face the Nation. It was his first Sunday appearance since September 8, 2002. His profile has been so low that even jokes about his “undisclosed location” have disappeared.

It’s easy to see why Cheney rations his appearances. Granting rare interviews increases the chance that the interviewer will be less confrontational and decrease the amount of material an interviewer has to find inconsistencies. Meet the Press host Tim Russert had to go back to a campaign interview in 2000 to find a Cheney quote regarding the first Gulf War that seemed to conflict with the Administration’s current diplomatic strategy.

The Vice-President also has the rare quality of not allowing his facial expression to betray any discomfort with a question, abetted by questioning that is more respectful than that used with lesser officials. He turned aside criticism from former colleague Brent Scowcroft: “He is occasionally wrong and this one those instances.” He deftly sidestepped a question about President Bush’s “show their cards” formulation for the UN Security Council: “It has a certain appeal.”

Little news was made in Cheney’s two appearances. “We are in the final stages of diplomacy” and “close to the end of diplomatic efforts,” he said, echoing a refrain that pundits have been using for weeks. He predicted any war with Iraq would end “relatively quickly,” defining that as “weeks, not months.”

Cheney attributed unfavorable world opinion about the US and its diplomacy to “new and unique circumstances.” “The rest of the world hasn’t come to grips with the post 9/11 world.”

Matter-of-factly, Cheney criticized the French by reviewing their diplomatic history on Iraq. He took pains to point out that before President Bush’s response to 9/11, there had been “no credible response” to terror attacks. He denied that President Bush was a “cowboy,” instead praising the President’s “great capability to cut to the heart of the issue.”

Asked by Russert why there was no pre-emptive strike planned on North Korea, Cheney answered, “I didn’t come to announce any new military ventures or to take any off the table.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell made surprise appearances on Fox News Sunday and This Week; he was not scheduled as of Friday. There was little daylight between his position and that of Cheney. In fact, in response to a question by This Week host George Stephanopolous, Powell denied accounts of dissension, saying “we went as a team” to the UN. Powell also denied as "not accurate" that he had objected to General Tommy Franks' war plan.

Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, on This Week, did confirm that Spain was not pleased with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s recent comments. After praising Powell and the State Department, she said pointedly, “Some comments from other departments have not helped us.”

Friedman’s Assessment

Tom Friedman of the New York Times, on Face the Nation, after Cheney’s appearance: “Diplomacy is over. The President may address the country as early as tomorrow. This is the biggest shake of the dice by a President in my lifetime. I think we’re going in.”

Hunt’s Assessment

Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal, on Capital Gang: “I still think this administration's ineptitude over the last couple months has been stunning. Somehow around the world there's a moral equivalency with this murderous thug Saddam Hussein.”

Tony’s Quotes

Fox host Tony Snow displayed two November quotes from French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin that surprisingly seemed to support the current US understanding of UN Resolution 1441. Colin Powell called them “excellent quotes” and Fox panelist Brit Hume called them “deftly chosen.”

Bill and Juan, Together at Last

On Fox, a clip of former President Clinton saying, “This war’s going to be over in a flash,” was shown. The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol called the remarks “appalling,” “flip and glib,” and “totally irresponsible.”

NPR’s Juan Williams, not normally an ally, said Kristol was “absolutely right on.”

Best Case Iraq Scenario

According to David Brooks of The Weekly Standard, on The News Hour, “If this goes well for the president, he comes back in triumph, the Senate and the House are bowing before him as he walks down the aisle. Anything he mentions passes. He hands out stray pieces of paper and people are signing them.”

Let Bygones be Bygones

Should the US allow France to participate in post-war Iraq? “We should stun France by our gratitude,” according to Newsweek’s Fahreed Zakaria on This Week. On Fox, Sen. John Warner, R-VA, said there should be “no recriminations.”

Cheney on Fries

Tim Russert asked Vice-President Cheney, “French fries or freedom fries?” Cheney may have made a political statement by saying, “I stay away from French fries.”

Quip of the Week

David Brooks, on The News Hour: “Some Republicans think the UN is just an atrocious institution and then there are others who really hate it.”

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Administration Heavyweights Complete President’s Press Conference

Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice hit the talk shows to amplify President Bush’s terse answers at his Thursday night press conference.

When all was said and done, little was added to the President’s words.

Secretary Powell, although non-committal, said he thought the US had “a strong chance” of gathering nine votes in the Security Council for a new resolution. On Meet the Press, Powell addressed questions the President avoided at his press conference, such as why public opinion was against the Administration. “War is always unpopular,” replied the Secretary. “We are getting the kind of support we need.”

Rice faced tougher questioning than Powell in her two appearances. The usually unflappable Rice almost appeared to bristle at questioning and interruptions by the New York Times’ Tom Friedman on Face the Nation. Friedman proclaimed he had traveled around the world seven times with Secretary of State Jim Baker before the first Gulf War and wanted to know why members of this Bush Administration had not traveled as widely. Rice replied, “It’s not as if Secretary Powell and others have spent insufficient time with their colleagues.”

This Week host George Stephanopolous also aggressively questioned Rice, but did not raise her hackles, even when he demanded to know why heads of state should not travel to the UN for the vote on a new resolution. Rice said that idea “made no sense.” She declined to speculate for Stephanopolous whether the US had nine votes, or what the US would do if Saddam Hussein closed Iraqi airports to block UN weapon inspectors from leaving before hostilities commenced.

Last week, Stephanopolous interviewed the French foreign minister; his guest this week was the Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien. Chretien advocated a version of the late Senator George Aiken’s Vietnam withdrawal formulation: the US has already won against Saddam.

On The News Hour, The Weekly Standard’s David Brooks declared that there was “legitimate” Democratic criticism of Bush, but no “counter policy.” Fox’s Tony Snow claimed that Democratic leaders, with a few exceptions, were ducking the Sunday talk shows and refusing to debate the war publicly.

Into that breach stepped former Vermont Governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean. He was grilled on Iraq and other issues by Tim Russert on Meet the Press, although an inordinate amount of time was spent on the meaning of “unilateral.” Dean’s defended calling the Bush policy unilateral because Tom Friedman had used the word, but conceded it was not completely accurate. Dean’s counter policy appeared to be tripling inspectors, keeping the troops in place, and lowering the rhetoric. He believes Saddam Hussein is contained and noted that the Soviet Union was contained for 50 years.

Asked what he would do when war breaks out, Dean replied, "support the troops," although he admitted, "I haven't thought that far ahead."

Dean continued to maintain that North Korea was a greater threat to the US. He called for bilateral talks with the North Koreans. They had to agree to freeze their nuclear program and the US would agree not to attack.

A Crusade?

Amidst recent coverage of President Bush’s Christian faith, Tom Friedman’s choice of words to describe another UN resolution was fraught with implication: “A ‘come to Jesus’ vote.”

Quip of the Week

Joe Klein, Time, on This Week: “It’s a great time to be Guinean.”

UN Bashing

George Will, Washington Post, on This Week: “The United Nations is not a good idea, badly executed. It’s a bad idea.”

Brit Hume, Fox: “The United Nations record is a catalog of complete and utter failure.”

Acknowledged Overstatement of the Week

David Brooks on The News Hour: “Suppose the U.S. effort succeeds, the U.N. is tainted permanently. Suppose the U.S. effort fails, unilateral action is tainted permanently. Kofi Annan becomes president of the world. I'm overstating things a little.”

Kristol Clear

Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard, on Fox: “Teddy Kennedy is now the foreign policy leader of the Senate. Democrats are slightly more hostile to the President than the French.”

Juan’s Worry

NPR’s Juan Williams, on Fox: I’m worried about the fact that that some people are willing to demonize anybody who questions this war effort as if they’re stupid.”

Unholy Alliances

In the cats mating with dogs department, Bob Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times and Time’s Margaret Carlson sided with FBI Agent Coleen Rowley on Capital Gang, going against the National Review’s Kate O’Beirne. O’Beirne called Rowley an “idiot” for suggesting David Koresh-type negotiations with Saddam Hussein. Novak also aligned with the Wall Street’s Journal’s Al Hunt in panning President Bush’s press conference performance. Hunt called it "positively dreary."

Hume on Helen

Brit Hume tackled the issue of long-time correspondent Helen Thomas being denied a front row seat and a question at the President’s press conference. After praising her “sheer indefatigability,” Hume said “she is the nutty aunt in the attic.”

Great Moments in Political Positioning

After being shown several controversial quotes from the past, Howard Dean played the McCain card: “I don’t often think about the political consequences of what I say.”

Great Moments in Punditry

On Capital Gang, speaking of Bill Clinton’s deal to debate Bob Dole on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Bob Novak uttered one of the most telling self-assessments ever: “Never before has a former president of the United States descended to my level.”

Sunday, March 02, 2003

Anti-War Side Wins 'Most Improved' Award

Last week’s Sunday shows featured anti-war Hollywood activists and a marginal presidential candidate. The reviews were decidedly mixed, so this week’s anti-war guests were a more serious lot and the debates proved more illuminating.

Gone were actress Susan Sarandon, comedienne Janeane Garafolo, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich. In their place were Win Without War Director Tom Andrews, presidential candidate Gov. Howard Dean, and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Actor Mike Farrell made the cut, returning for a second week.

Meet the Press host Tim Russert demonstrated impressive balance as he first moderated a debate between Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-SC, and Andrews, followed by a debate between Farrell and pro-war actor-turned-Senator-turnedactor Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. Graham was the most entertaining guest, calling the French and Germans “appeasers” and accusing those serving as “human shields” in Iraq of committing an “act of treason.”

Farrell and Andrews stood their ground on continued UN inspections as the best policy. “Hans Blix tells us we are making progress. We are destroying missiles as we speak. No one has to die,” said Andrews. Sen. Thompson was much less effective as a guest than in his televised ad supporting the President.

George Stephanopolous conducted a fair but aggressive interview with de Villepin on This Week, drawing an admiring comment from Sen. John Warner, R-VA: “You pressed him hard and he stonewalled you.” The position of de Villepin was almost indistinguishable from that of US anti-war leaders. “There is an alternative to war—inspectors. How many American boys are going to die in Iraq? Is it worth it?”

The French Foreign Minister refused to say if France would use its veto on another resolution at the UN. Stephanopolous asked what he would say if US troops invaded Iraq and discovered a huge cache of chemical or biological weapons. “We should have given more time to inspectors,” said de Villepin.

Former Vermont Gov. Dean, feeling “the big ‘mo’” as his anti-war message continues to be well-received, appeared on Face the Nation and sounded extremely bellicose on everything but Iraq. He favored more funding to the CIA, agreed with assassinations as long as they were not of heads of state, criticized FBI Director Robert Mueller, and seemed to support unilateral action against North Korea and Iran.

How Big Was It?

Most shows began with a recap of the Khalid Sheik Mohammed capture and guests were asked for their reaction:

Howard Dean, on FTN: “A real coup.”

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan, on Fox: “He’s the big fish, the king fish, he’s the Operations Manager.”

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del, on Fox: “This is a phenomenal development. A significant breakthrough.”

Winner of the hyperbole award, however, is Rep. Porter Goss, R-FL, on This Week: “This is a very huge event, the equivalent of the liberation of Paris in the Second World War.”

Walking and Chewing Gum

Many pundits used the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed to discredit one anti-war argument—that focusing on Iraq limits the War on Terror. Kate O’Beirne of the National Review, on Capital Gang, was the strongest:

It seems to me the administration's case about whether to remove Saddam Hussein got stronger today. The arrest of Khalid Sheik Mohammed was a huge arrest that the CIA, FBI, and Pakistani intelligence cooperated in. Those who've been wondering, Can the United States lead a war to get rid of Saddam Hussein while fighting an effective war against al Qaeda? It seems to me his arrest is an emphatic yes to that question.

Surprisingly, only Fox host Tony Snow pressed a guest on this topic, getting Sen. Biden to suggest that he would have supported 200,000 troops on the Afghanistan—Pakistan border.

Biden Bashes, Warner Rethinks

On Fox, Sen. Biden also accused the French of “grandstanding” and said dismissively, “The French care so much about the Palestinians, but they don’t give a damn about the Iraqis.” Sen. Warner, on This Week, said he considered taking down the Croix de Guerre in his office that his father earned in WWI, but decided against it.

Shameless Promo of the Week

Retired NATO Commander General Joe Ralston was introduced as a guest on Face the Nation and as a new CBS consultant. “You’re moving from one good outfit to another,” said host Bob Scheiffer.

Surreal News Hour

Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, returned to The News Hour to sub for David Brooks. He claimed “I'm really actually pleased that there is an awful lot of debate and discussion about this,” referring to anti-war demonstrations, while syndicated columnist Mark Shields approvingly quoted Roy Cohn, former chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Orange Explanation

Gigot also appeared on the Fox panel and claimed the recent Orange terror alert was related to intelligence that later led to the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

War Reporting

The Capital Gang looked at the Pentagon’s policy of “embedding” the press into military units to cover the possible war with Iraq. Veteran Knight-Ridder reporter Joseph Galloway was asked if this was a good idea: “There's no way to roam, really, independently in a place like Iraq, with tank divisions attacking. And if you've got a lot of journalists running around there loose on their own in SUVs, a lot of them are going to get killed.”

George Knows This Angle

On This Week, ABC’s Michel Martin complained that President Bush gave his speech on the future of Iraq to an “interest group” (the American Enterprise Institute) instead of a more diverse audience, but George Stephanopolous disagreed, praising the White House’s effectiveness in convincing the networks to televise it.

Quips of the Week

Brit Hume, on Fox: “If I die, I’d like to come back as Hans Blix’s son. You’d never be in any trouble. Any effort would be good enough. Grades would never be bad enough to get you in any trouble. It would be great.”

Margaret Carlson, Time, on Capital Gang, speaking of just-declared presidential candidate Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL: “The Democrats, instead of having a smoke- filled room, are having their candidates come by way of an ICU. If he puts his heart into it, he'll be a serious candidate.”