White House Watched
Today's column is my last for The Washington Post. And the first thing I want to say is thank you. Thank you to all you readers, e-mailers, commenters, questioners, Facebook friends and Twitterers for spending your time with me and engaging with me over the years. And thank you for the recent outpouring of support. It was extraordinarily uplifting, and I'm deeply grateful. If I ever had any doubt, your words have further inspired me to continue doing accountability journalism. My plan is to take a few weeks off before embarking upon my next endeavor -- but when I do, I hope you'll join me.
It's hard to summarize the past five and a half years. But I'll try.
I started my column in January 2004, and one dominant theme quickly emerged: That George W. Bush was truly the proverbial emperor with no clothes. In the days and weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks, the nation, including the media, vested him with abilities he didn't have and credibility he didn't deserve. As it happens, it was on the day of my very first column that we also got the first insider look at the Bush White House, via Ron Suskind's book, The Price of Loyalty. In it, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill described a disengaged president "like a blind man in a room full of deaf people", encircled by "a Praetorian guard,” intently looking for a way to overthrow Saddam Hussein long before 9/11. The ensuing five years and 1,088 columns really just fleshed out that portrait, describing a president who was oblivious, embubbled and untrustworthy.
When I look back on the Bush years, I think of the lies. There were so many. Lies about the war and lies to cover up the lies about the war. Lies about torture and surveillance. Lies about Valerie Plame. Vice President Dick Cheney's lies, criminally prosecutable but for his chief of staff Scooter Libby's lies. I also think about the extraordinary and fundamentally cancerous expansion of executive power that led to violations of our laws and our principles.
And while this wasn't as readily apparent until President Obama took office, it's now very clear that the Bush years were all about kicking the can down the road – either ignoring problems or, even worse, creating them and not solving them. This was true of a huge range of issues including the economy, energy, health care, global warming – and of course Iraq and Afghanistan.
How did the media cover it all? Not well. Reading pretty much everything that was written about Bush on a daily basis, as I did, one could certainly see the major themes emerging. But by and large, mainstream-media journalism missed the real Bush story for way too long. The handful of people who did exceptional investigative reporting during this era really deserve our gratitude: People such as Ron Suskind, Seymour Hersh, Jane Mayer, Murray Waas, Michael Massing, Mark Danner, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau (better late than never), Dana Priest, Walter Pincus, Charlie Savage and Philippe Sands; there was also some fine investigative blogging over at Talking Points Memo and by Marcy Wheeler. Notably not on this list: The likes of Bob Woodward and Tim Russert. Hopefully, the next time the nation faces a grave national security crisis, we will listen to the people who were right, not the people who were wrong, and heed those who reported the truth, not those who served as stenographers to liars.
It's also worth keeping in mind that there is so very much about the Bush era that we still don't know.
Now, a little over five months after Bush left office, Barack Obama's presidency is shaping up to be in large part about coming to terms with the Bush era, and fixing all the things that were broken. In most cases, Obama is approaching this task enthusiastically – although in some cases, he is doing so only under great pressure, and in a few cases, not at all . I think part of Obama's abiding popularity with the public stems from what a contrast he is from his predecessor -- and in particular his willingness to take on problems. But he certainly has a lot of balls in the air at one time. And I predict that his growing penchant for secrecy – especially but not only when it comes to the Bush legacy of torture and lawbreaking – will end up serving him poorly, unless he renounces it soon.
Obama is nowhere in Bush's league when it comes to issues of credibility, but his every action nevertheless needs to be carefully scrutinized by the media, and he must be held accountable. We should be holding him to the highest standards – and there are plenty of places where we should be pushing back. Just for starters, there are a lot of hugely important but unanswered questions about his Afghanistan policy, his financial rescue plans, and his turnaround on transparency.
So now I'm off. I wish The Washington Post well. I'm proud to have been associated with it for 12 years (I was a producer and editor at the Web site before starting the column.) I remain a big believer in the “traditional media,” especially when it sticks to traditional journalistic values. The Post was, is and will always be a great newspaper, and I have confidence that it will rise to the challenges ahead.
It says a lot about this presidency that there is so much else going on that the public has almost forgotten that our troops are still fighting two wars.
And yet, there is big trouble on both fronts. In Iraq, where our troops are at least in the process of withdrawing, a recent spate of bloody attacks indicates things may be about to take an ugly turn. Even more disturbingly, in Afghanistan, where Obama has decided to escalate rather than extricate, there is still not even the glimmer of an exit strategy.
Tomorrow will be White House Watch's last day at The Washington Post. One of my many regrets is that I didn't get around to writing more about Obama's Afghanistan policy, its extraordinarily bloody ramifications, how it threatens to sink the nation in a Vietnam-like quagmire -- and, most significantly, how the president has never really made the case for his decision to increase rather than decrease our troop presence there.
There are plenty of authoritative arguments being publicly made by knowledgeable people that Obama is going about things the wrong way. This is way more the case, say, than before former president George W. Bush took the nation to war in Iraq. And yet Obama has never acknowledged or addressed those arguments -- and the press has not forced him to.
Before a president sends troops (or more troops) into harm's way, it seems to me he should be forced not only to explain why he thinks he's right, but why he thinks his critics are wrong. As I thought we'd learned in Iraq, giving the president a pass on this sort of thing is a very bad idea.
Consider just a few of the arguments being made by Obama's critics.Continue reading this post »
Colum Lynch writes in The Washington Post: "The United Nations' top human rights advocate, Navanethem Pillay, on Wednesday appealed to the Obama administration to release Guantanamo Bay inmates or try them in a court of law, and said officials who authorized the use of 'torture' must be held accountable."
From her statement: "As [the Convention Against Torture] makes clear, people who order or inflict torture cannot be exonerated, and the roles of certain lawyers, as well as doctors who have attended torture sessions, should also be scrutinized.... Equally importantly, victims of torture must be helped to recover from one of the worst ordeals that a human being can face.... Victims of torture must be compensated and cared for – for as long as it takes to enable them once again to lead a relatively normal life."
Mother Jones writer Bruce Falconer interviews Spanish attorney Gonzalo Boyé, who "has turned his attention to six former Bush administration figures accused of putting forth specious legal arguments to justify clear violations of the United Nations Convention Against Torture." Says Boyé: "The lawyers who created the legal framework for Guantanamo are the basis for all that happened there. Without the lawyers, the crime would never have been committed, or at least not in that form and with such a degree of impunity."
Jake Tapper and Karen Travers write for ABC News about the ABC town hall on health care at the White House last night: "President Obama struggled to explain today whether his health care reform proposals would force normal Americans to make sacrifices that wealthier, more powerful people -- like the president himself -- wouldn't face.... Dr. Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist and researcher at the New York University Langone Medical Center, .... asked the president pointedly if he would be willing to promise that he wouldn't seek such extraordinary help for his wife or daughters if they became sick and the public plan he's proposing limited the tests or treatment they can get. The president refused to make such a pledge, though he allowed that if 'it's my family member, if it's my wife, if it's my children, if it's my grandmother, I always want them to get the very best care.'"Continue reading this post »
Late Night Humor
Jon Stewart shows a clip of Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer criticizing Obama for his restrained response to the Iranian crackdown. Stewart's response: "You can't believe Obama puts our national security in front of moral outrage?.. You know what I can't believe? That this bothers you -- Charles Krauthammer -- given your views on torture."
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
Rob Rogers on Obama's timidity, Eric Allie on Obama's slow response to Iran, Tim Eagan on how Obama should have handled Iran, Pat Oliphant, Stuart Carlson, Matt Wuerker and Dave Granlund on the health-care debate, Joel Pett on Obama's bad habit, Russell Hodin on Predator drones, and Jimmy Margulies on Cheney's book-signing party.
Obama Withdraws the Open Hand
President Obama's I'll-talk-to-anyone approach to international diplomacy does, it turns out, have exceptions. One is for leaders who are in the middle of brutally repressing anti-government protesters.
Most of the talk about yesterday's press conference today is either about Obama's increasingly harsh criticism of the Iranian crackdown or about the hysterical response by some traditional-media journalists to Obama calling on a blogger bearing a question from an actual Iranian.
But the bigger news, it seems to me, is how Obama has now imposed some conditions on what used to be an unconditional offer to talk to Iran's leaders. Here's how Obama put it -- ever so diplomatically:
We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed. But to reiterate, there is a path available to Iran in which their sovereignty is respected, their traditions, their culture, their faith is respected, but one in which they are part of a larger community that has responsibilities and operates according to norms and international rules that are universal.
Continue reading this post »
We don't know how they're going to respond yet, and that's what we're waiting to see.
Public Actually Supportive of Health Plan
How troubled are Americans by President Obama's proposed health-care overhaul? Less than you might think after reading Ceci Connolly and Jon Cohen's story in The Washington Post today. They write:
A majority of Americans see government action as critical to controlling runaway health-care costs, but there is broad public anxiety about the potential impact of reform legislation and conflicting views about the types of fixes being proposed on Capitol Hill, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Most respondents are "very concerned" that health-care reform would lead to higher costs, lower quality, fewer choices, a bigger deficit, diminished insurance coverage and more government bureaucracy. About six in 10 are at least somewhat worried about all of these factors, underscoring the challenges for lawmakers as they attempt to restructure the nation's $2.3 trillion health-care system....
As for the finding in other polls that there is widespread support for a "public plan," which would allow people to purchase insurance from a government-run plan if they weren't happy with the private options, Connolly and Cohen write:
Survey questions that equate the public option approach with the popular, patient-friendly Medicare system tend to get high approval, as do ones that emphasize the prospect of more choices. But when framed with an explicit counterargument, the idea receives a more tepid response. In the new Post-ABC poll, 62 percent support the general concept, but when respondents were told that meant some insurers would go out of business, support dropped sharply, to 37 percent.
But take a close look at the actual poll questions and results, and the numbers tell a somewhat different story.Continue reading this post »
Via thinkprogress.org, Ian Pannell reports for BBC News: "Allegations of abuse and neglect at a US detention facility in Afghanistan have been uncovered by the BBC. Former detainees have alleged they were beaten, deprived of sleep and threatened with dogs at the Bagram military base. The BBC interviewed 27 former inmates of Bagram around the country over a period of two months. The Pentagon has denied the charges and insisted that all inmates in the facility are treated humanely."
I missed this last week, but it's worth a read. Joseph L. Galloway writes in a commentary for McClatchy Newspapers: "There was one thing Obama absolutely had to do, even before tackling an economic meltdown and the Wall Street and big bank rip-offs: He had to reassure Americans that we all live under the rule of law; that no one by virtue of holding the highest offices in the land, or having the biggest bank account, is above the law. It was incumbent on new President Obama to step back and let justice be done. Let the investigators do their job, Not only to let justice be done but let justice be seen to be done. But no. He said he wanted to focus on the future, not revisit the past."
Spencer Ackerman writes in the Washington Independent: "The task force charged with fleshing out President Obama’s ban on torture in interrogations is likely to recommend the creation of small, mixed-agency teams for interviewing the most important terrorist targets. Representing an implicit demotion of the CIA, which currently has responsibility for interrogating high-level terrorists, the teams would report jointly to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence, according to officials familiar with the proposal."Continue reading this post »
Late Night Humor
Stephen Colbert on the GOP demand that Obama ratchet up his Iranian rhetoric: "Exactly! Seeing these protesters struggle and not speaking boldly and loudly is like seeing a drowning man and not standing on the shore shouting: 'Hey, look at me! I'm a lifeguard!'"
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Barack Obama's Response to Iran|
Pat Oliphant on Obama's Iranian tightrope, Donna Barstow on media strategy, Tom Toles on GOP protests, Ken Catalino on rethinking things, Scott Stantis on Obama's garden, Bruce Plante and Steve Kelley on Obama's mixed message on cigarettes, Matt Wuerker and Ann Telnaes on transparency, and Victor Harville on Cheney's memoirs.