Indignation, Full of Holes
By Craig Crawford
It’s a given that presidents relish leaks to the news media when it serves their purposes, and that they act outraged at leaks that do not make them look good. But George W. Bush’s relativism on this score is like watching a roller coaster on acid.
The lesson here is that we should not take White House complaints against the news media at face value. These tirades tend to be more about politics than national security. It is, after all, red-state planting season on Capitol Hill. Republican leaders are preparing for the November harvest of voters in the midterm election with an array of goodies aimed at stirring up their conservative base, from targeting flag burners to protecting the institution of marriage.
And when you base your media attacks on the argument that news leaks aid the enemy in wartime, there’s a good chance of finding an audience beyond the ultra-conservative base. Or perhaps Bush is such an instinctive attack dog that he just goes after the media whenever the Democrats or some other prey are not readily available.
Still, the latest revelation reconfirming that Bush’s political right hand, Karl Rove, is one of the flapping tongues in the CIA leak case again spotlights the subjectivity of the White House on this front. In finally identifying Rove as one of his confirming sources for the undercover identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, columnist Robert Novak belied Bush’s tough talk nearly two-and-a-half years ago when he vowed to punish the leakers once they were identified. Instead, the president steadfastly refuses to let Rove go.
Contrast White House tolerance in the CIA leak case with how the president went ballistic in the wake of leaks not directed by his administration. He denounced last year’s New York Times disclosure of his domestic eavesdropping program as a “shameful act.” When the same newspaper and others recently detailed administration monitoring of international banking transactions, Bush called it “disgraceful.”
The Bush roller coaster on leaks took another turn recently as the administration heralded the capture of a terrorist leader accused of plotting to blow up the Holland Tunnel in New York City. Despite noting that it was an “ongoing investigation” with potential suspects at large around the globe, the administration was only too happy to provide the media with details. Had the case been reported without permission, no doubt the White House would be accusing journalists of aiding those terrorists still on the loose.
Now matter how phony or hypocritical it might be to deplore leaks unless you are the one leaking, it has been an effective political tool for this administration. For starters, it serves as a distraction from the substance of the story you do not want out.
Thanks to White House provocation, there probably was more public debate about the propriety of the bank-monitoring stories than about what was being reported. And this media squabble dovetailed neatly into the GOP agenda on Capitol Hill, as party leaders were just beginning to tease up a series of votes on hot-button campaign issues designed to excite the faithful.
Priming the Pump
Armed with a House resolution condemning the stories and congressional hearings into their consequences, Republican candidates have all they need to keep the echo chamber of talk radio and cable television well-fed with fresh meat against the media.
A more subtle effect of this episode could further benefit the administration’s political standing. By arguing that The New York Times and others are seeking to undermine the war on terror, or at least the war in Iraq, the White House prepared the ground for seeding doubt whenever a negative report on the war emerges. It should barely require a wink and a nod to friendly pundits to engulf bad news with a lightning round of attacks on those who report it.
Even those voters who are not particularly receptive to blaming the media are more likely to consider it once the accusation is repeated often enough. And the best part about keeping the anti-media weapon in your campaign tool box is that there are few advocates on the scene rushing to the media’s defense, even against the most bogus attacks. While The New York Times published a powerfully worded statement from the editor defending its bank-monitoring coverage, the newspaper’s foes had the run of television and radio venues for blistering charges that went largely unanswered.
Once again, the Bush political squad is well armed for another campaign season of batting away news coverage that does not fit into its agenda. And the more the media pile on the president, the easier it is for him to play the martyr — which quite possibly contributed in some part to his recent uptick in the polls.
It seems as though nothing much is likely to get in the way of this president bashing the media, except when a story comes along that his team wants to plant.
Contributing Editor Craig Crawford is a news analyst for MSNBC, CNBC and “The Early Show” on CBS. He can be reached at email@example.com. This column is scheduled to appear in the July 17 issue of CQ Weekly. For more information about CQ Weekly, please visit CQ.com.