Charles Krauthammer: Psychic Genius
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer engaged in a bit of media criticism back in August of 2002, having noticed that certain media outlets were actually going so far as to print material which could be construed as contradicting the case that Krauthammer and others were then making in favor of war. As he began:
Not since William Randolph Hearst famously cabled his correspondent in Cuba, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war,” has a newspaper so blatantly devoted its front pages to editorializing about a coming American war as has Howell Raines’s New York Times. Hearst was for the Spanish-American War. Raines (for those who have been incommunicado for the last year) opposes war with Iraq.
Of course, Krauthammer has no way of knowing if this is true, having obviously not familiarized himself with the front pages of every American newspaper as they appeared in 1914-1917, 1938-1941, 1949-1950, 1963-1968, 1990-1991, 1998-1999, and 2001; it is not very likely for that matter that he had taken any real tally of what was going into the front pages of newspapers in 2002-2003, and even less so that he would be honest or even perceptive enough to note any front-page editorializing in favor of the Iraq War on the part of, say, The Wall Street Journal or The New York Sun. What we have here, then, is a transparently false assertion to the effect that whatever war-related slant may have been detectable on the part of Raine’s New York Times is some huge aberration from how newspapers generally go about such things.
Krauthammer continues by listing the various front-page stories that had recently appeared in The Times which would seem to support the columnist’s thesis. One such item noted that an Iraqi opposition leader had failed to show up to a meeting; Krauthammer retorts, not unreasonably, that there are a dozen more where that came from. Less reasonably, he goes on to note the following:
A previous above-the-fold front-page story revealed – stop the presses! – that the war might be financially costly.
Though I’m unable to locate the particular story to which Krauthammer is here referring, I’m going to go ahead and assume that the article in question did not so much hinge on any revelation “that the war might be financially costly” as it did on the strong possibility that the war could end up being far more costly than was being admitted by its backers, many of whom famously quoted figures well below the $100 billion mark and some of whom even proposed that the whole thing would pay for itself in the oil revenue that grateful Iraqis would be happy to pay us in the aftermath, assuming they had any money left over after buying flowers to toss at our troops. Perhaps we ought not to ascribe to mendacity what could be more readily ascribed to competent reporting. Or perhaps we ought:
Then there are the constant references to growing opposition to war with Iraq – in fact, the polls are unchanged since January – culminating on Aug. 16 with the lead front-page headline: “Top Republicans Break with Bush on Iraq Strategy.” The amusing part was including among these Republican foreign policy luminaries Dick Armey, a man not often cited by the Times for his sagacity, a man who just a few weeks ago made a spectacle of himself by publicly advocating the removal of the Palestinians from the West Bank. Yesterday, he was a buffoon. Today, he is a statesman.
Krauthammer does not bother to cite any instances in which the Times had contradicted any polling data regarding the public take on war, and so we may assume that he is being disingenuous, particularly seeing as how his subsequent take on the August 16th piece is exceedingly disingenuous and it is of course difficult to go from non-disingenuous to exceedingly disingenuous in the space of two sentences, just as acceleration takes time in even the finest of sports cars. Because Krauthammer in this instance has actually given us a means to check his work, I have been able to find the article in question, in which it is noted that Dick Armey has expressed some opposition to the strategy being proposed by Bush – hence the title, “Top Republicans Break With Bush on Iraq Strategy.” Through the use of loaded terms and false restatements of Timessentiment, though, Krauthammer here seeks to give the impression that there is something contradictory in citing some notable thing that Armey has said and with which liberals might happen to agree after having previously cited some notable thing that Armey has said and with which liberals might happen to disagree. The Times, of course, never referred to Armey as a “buffoon” nor as a “statesman;” had it done so, then we would indeed have here some contradiction, and Krauthammer would be right in pointing this out. But those characterizations are Krauthammer’s – and he makes those characterizations and then attributes them to The Times because he has nothing substantial with which to make his non-case that the Times is being hypocritical in this matter.
Krauthammer comes closer to hitting upon a legitimate objection in pointing out the overreach on the part of The Times in including Henry Kissinger among those who had made some “Break with Bush on Iraq Strategy;” though the former foreign policy kingpin did indeed write an op-ed noting his concerns regarding whether or not the U.S. was willing to follow through after any invasion, Kissinger had at the same time agreed with the administration that such an invasion was wholly necessary to the future safety of the West. The Times later ran a correction in which it was explained that Kissinger’s expressed views on the subject had been more nuanced than one might have gathered from the piece. If Krauthammer has ever admitted to having given off a partly false impression, I am unaware of it. He does, however, sum up Harold Raines’ misdeeds thusly:
It is one thing to give your front page to a crusade against war with Iraq. That’s partisan journalism, and that’s what Raines’ Times does for a living. It’s another thing to include Henry Kissinger in your crusade. That’s just stupid. After all, it’s checkable.
What’s really stupid is characterizing a newspaper as doing something “for a living.” Does The New York Times bring his paycheck home to his little wife every other Friday and give her a great big kiss? Are the two of them rather poor but nonetheless very much in love? In the days leading up to Christmas, did The New York Times sell his father’s pocket watch in order to buy her some tortoiseshell combs with which to arrange her luxurious head of hair, and did she meanwhile sell that same hair in order to buy a nifty chain for his now-sold pocket watch? Is it too much to ask that a Pulitzer winner learn how to parse a fucking sentence? These are all important questions, sort of.
Of course, the general thrust of Krauthammer’s column is that, because some articles appeared on the front page of The New York Times that might be construed as contradicting the case for war, someone at the Times must therefore have been waging some covert campaign by which to defuse pro-war sentiment. And perhaps this is really what was going on. After all, here are these articles that might be construed as contradicting the case for war. If the editors of a newspaper are running front-page articles that might be construed as either supporting or contradicting the case for a war, after all, we may perhaps suspect that these editors are operating under some sort of political agenda, and not simply doing their jobs.
Less than a month after Krauthammer wrote his column, The New York Times featured a front-page piece by longtime Middle East correspondent Judy Miller and reporter-turned-author Michael Gordon in which it was alleged that Saddam Hussein had ordered an array of aluminum tubes which were likely intended for use in a nuclear weapons program; her sources turned out to be several administration officials, and the story was in turn trumpeted by several other administration officials on the various Sunday public affairs programs. All of which is to say that, a month after Krauthammer accused the powers-that-be at The New York Times of being blatantly opposed to the war, Dick Cheney was citing The New York Times in the course of making the case for same.
Clearly, The New York Times is schizophrenic! And he’s gone and sold his father’s pocket watch! Life is full of twist endings.
Krauthammer wasn’t done with the Times and its pro/anti-war sentiment quite yet; a few days after the paper ran Miller’s later-discredited article to the effect that Iraq was probably building nuclear weapons that very instant, Krauthammer recapped his own position that, an earlier Times piece to the contrary, there was no real opposition to the administration’s war strategy among top-ranking Republicans. After dismissing the ambiguous statements of Brent Scowcroft and others who had reportedly been concerned about how this all might play out, Krauthammer proceeds to analyze the supposed opinions of the then-secretary of state:
That leaves Colin Powell, supposedly the epicenter of internal opposition to the hard line on Iraq. Well, this is Powell last Sunday on national television: “It’s been the policy of this government to insist that Iraq be disarmed. … And we believe the best way to do that is with a regime change.” Moreover, he added, we are prepared “to act unilaterally to defend ourselves.” When Powell, the most committed multilateralist in the administration, deliberately invokes the incendiary U-word to describe the American position, we have ourselves a consensus.
Unless, of course, Powell was objecting to the strategy in private while toeing the administration line in public – which, as we now know, is exactly what he was doing.
Here’s the pertinent excerpt from the Times piece in question:
At the same time, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who summoned Mr. Kissinger for a meeting on Tuesday, and his advisers have decided that they should focus international discussion on how Iraq would be governed after Mr. Hussein – not only in an effort to assure a democracy but as a way to outflank administration hawks and slow the rush to war, which many in the department oppose.
Again, we now know that this is indeed what was happening at the time, which is to say that the reporting in this case was both solid and relevant – which is to say in turn that, contrary to Krauthammer, we did not actually “have ourselves a consensus” at all.
The tale gets funnier, as such tales often do. Just a few months after haranguing The New York Times for claiming that Powell was somehow objecting to the war strategy,Krauthammerdiscovers a credible report that Powell was not only objecting to the war strategy, but even to the war itself, beginning a January 2003 column with the following:
The single most remarkable passage in Bob Woodward’s “Bush at War” has, to my knowledge, gone unremarked. In early August 2002, Colin Powell decides that the Iraq hawks have gotten to the president, and that he has not weighed in enough to restrain them. He feels remorse: “During the Gulf War, when he had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell had played the role of reluctant warrior, arguing to the first President Bush, perhaps too mildly (emphasis added), that containing Iraq might work, that war might not be necessary. But as the principal military adviser, he hadn’t pressed his arguments that forcefully because they were less military than political.” Now, it is well known that Powell had been against the Gulf War and for “containment.” What was not known was that, if Woodward is to be believed, Powell to this day still believes that sanctions were the right course and that he should have pushed harder for them. This is astonishing.
Very astonishing indeed, particularly if one spent 2002 blindly flailing ones arms in the direction of any reporter with the gall to report that perhaps the unilateralist dove with a penchant for stopping at sanctions was acting like a unilateralist dove with a penchant for stopping at sanctions. Quick, let’s jump into my magical time machine and look atKrauthammer’s original claim:
When Powell, the most committed multilateralist in the administration, deliberately invokes the incendiary U-word to describe the American position, we have ourselves a consensus.
Remember that Krauthammer was basing all of this on what Powell was willing to say on television at such time as he was serving at the pleasure of the president in the run-up to a war.That’s some astute political commentary right there. I wish my magical time machine was a real thing. We could send Krauthammer back to the Byzantine Empire circa 1034 and have him serve as palace affairs correspondent for the Constantinople Times-Courier. “Emperor Romanos III drowned in his bathtub today in a freak accident. Theodora said so on Meet the Scribes.” Get it, Meet the Scribes? Like Meet the Press? Because they had scribes back then. Look, fuck you.
Excerpted from Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of America’s Chattering Class, set for release this fall.
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