Obviously, one of the bigger stories of the day is Gerald Ford telling Bob Woodward that he wouldn't have supported going to war in Iraq
. Ford's other comments, particularly about Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger, are very enlightening, and sound more like the reflections of a blogger than a Washington elder statesman.
"He was an excellent chief of staff. First class," Ford said. "But I think Cheney has become much more pugnacious" as vice president. He said he agreed with former secretary of state Colin L. Powell's assertion that Cheney developed a "fever" about the threat of terrorism and Iraq. "I think that's probably true." [...]
Most challenging of all, as Ford recalled, was Henry A. Kissinger, who was both secretary of state and national security adviser and had what Ford said was "the thinnest skin of any public figure I ever knew."
"I think he was a super secretary of state," Ford said, "but Henry in his mind never made a mistake, so whatever policies there were that he implemented, in retrospect he would defend."
In 1975, Ford decided to relieve Kissinger of his national security title. "Why Nixon gave Henry both secretary of state and head of the NSC, I never understood," Ford said. "Except he was a great supporter of Kissinger. Period." But Ford viewed Kissinger's dual roles as a conflict of interest that weakened the administration's ability to fully air policy debates. "They were supposed to check on one another." [...]
Kissinger remained a challenge for Ford. He regularly threatened to resign, the former president recalled. "Over the weekend, any one of 50 weekends, the press would be all over him, giving him unshirted hell. Monday morning he would come in and say, 'I'm offering my resignation.' Just between Henry and me. And I would literally hold his hand. 'Now, Henry, you've got the nation's future in your hands and you can't leave us now.' Henry publicly was a gruff, hard-nosed, German-born diplomat, but he had the thinnest skin of any public figure I ever knew."
From this description, Cheney and Kissinger sound like every conservative and neoconservative I've ever had a conversation with. Dishonest, thin-skinned, convinced of their own brilliance, never wrong, meddling... it's all there.
But I agree with those who've said that the importance of the story is not that Ford disagreed on Iraq (the war would not have suddenly stopped because of the 38th President's disapproval), but that Ford asked for the interview to be embargoed until after his death, and more important, that Woodward AGREED to it. Exactly what else does Bob Woodward know that he's not telling the public? How does that fulfill Woodward's obligation to inform and educate his readers?
But while you can take issue with the hagiographer-in-chief for concealing his reporting for a book payday, you can at least understand it. What I think is far more reflective of the change in the media from the 70s to today is the signature moment from the 2nd Presidential debate in 1976 between Ford and Jimmy Carter. Given how we've understood the media in the era of W, it's a shocking exchange that seems like it must have happened in another country. And in a way, it did.
Gerald Ford was rebounding from a 30-point deficit in the polls to pull almost even with Carter at the time of the 2nd Presidential debate. This surge (an apt word) would be halted by a comment made by Ford during the debate, that became powerful evidence that he was either out of touch or a liar when it came to the Soviet Union. But it wasn't Jimmy Carter or his political spinmeisters that made hay of this. In fact, it was the questioner, Max Frankel, an associate editor of The New York Times, who immediately challenged Ford for the remark. It's important to give full context for this.
MS. FREDERICK: Mr. Frankel, a question for President Ford.
MR. FRANKEL: Mr. President, I'd like to explore a little more deeply our relationship with the Russians. They used to brag back in Khrushchev's day that because of their greater patience and because of our greed for - for business deals that they would sooner or later get the better of us. Is it possible that despite some setbacks in the Middle East, they've proved their point? Our allies in France and Italy are now flirting with Communism. We've recognized the permanent Communist regime in East Germany. We've virtually signed, in Helsinki, an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe. We've bailed out Soviet agriculture with our huge grain sales. We've given them large loans, access to our best technology and if the Senate hadn't interfered with the Jackson Amendment, maybe we - you would've given them even larger loans. Is that what you call a two-way street of traffic in Europe?
Now there's a question that you would never see in the modern era of debates or even press conferences. Instead of basing it on Administration press releases or official sources, Frankel synthesizes what he has actually seen coming out of Europe at the time, and arrives at an analysis that forces the President to explain his position on the Soviet Union (arguably the biggest issue at the time).
And here's Ford's fateful response.
MR. FORD: I believe that we have uh - negotiated with the Soviet Union since I've been president from a position of strength. And let me cite several examples. Shortly after I became president in uh - December of 1974, I met with uh - General Secretary Brezhnev in Vladivostok and we agreed to a mutual cap on the ballistic missile launchers at a ceiling of twenty-four hundred - which means that the Soviet Union, if that becomes a permanent agreement, will have to make a reduction in their launchers that they now have or plan to have. I've negotiated at Vladivostok with uh - Mr. Brezhnev a limitation on the MIRVing of their ballistic missiles at a figure of thirteen-twenty, which is the first time that any president has achieved a cap either on launchers or on MIRVs. It seems to me that we can go from there to uh - the uh - grain sales. The grain sales have been a benefit to American agriculture. We have achieved a five and three quarter year uh - sale of a minimum six million metric tons, which means that they have already bought about four million metric tons this year and are bound to buy another two million metric tons to take the grain and corn and wheat that the American farmers have produced in order to uh - have full production. And these grain sales to the Soviet Union have helped us tremendously in meeting the costs of the additional oil and - the oil that we have bought from overseas. If we turn to Helsinki - I'm glad you raised it, Mr. uh - Frankel. In the case of Helsinki, thirty-five nations signed an agreement, including the secretary of state for the Vatican - I can't under any circumstances believe that the - His Holiness, the Pope would agree by signing that agreement that the thirty-five nations have turned over to the Warsaw Pact nations the domination of the - Eastern Europe. It just isn't true. And if Mr. Carter alleges that His Holiness by signing that has done it, he is totally inaccurate. Now, what has been accomplished by the Helsinki agreement? Number one, we have an agreement where they notify us and we notify them of any uh - military maneuvers that are to be be undertaken. They have done it. In both cases where they've done so, there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.
This was a silly statement. It was clear that the Soviets were dominating Eastern Europe at the time. Now, here is the moment that would literally be impossible and unthinkable in the present day.
MS. FREDERICK: Governor Carter?
MR. FRANKEL: I'm sorry, I - could I just follow - did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying mo- most of the countries there and in - and making sure with their troops that it's a - that it's a Communist zone, whereas on our side of the line the Italians and the French are still flirting with the possibility of Communism?
MR. FORD: I don't believe, uh - Mr. Frankel that uh - the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: it has its own territorial integrity and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia and Rumania to make certain that the people of those countries understood that the president of the United States and the people of the United are dedicated to their independence, their autonomy and their freedom.
Carter gave a nice response afterwards that reiterated how out of touch Ford was ("I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that those countries don't live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain"). But the REPORTER questioned Ford's facts first. Frankel decided to involve himself in the debate on the side of truth. He called Ford on his misleading answer. He performed a primary function of journalism - to be a referee rather than a broadcaster.
And this was not unusual. In fact, if you read the transcript
you'd recognize that it was very common for the questioners, who were actual correspondents at newspapers and national news outlets instead of anchors, to ask follow-up questions and to respond to the candidates' answers. See, at that time there was still such a thing as empirical truth, and the reporters weren't afraid to stand up for it.
You absolutely wouldn't see this today. I could name for you at least a half-dozen instances of outright lying of this sort in the 2004 Presidential and Vice Presidential debates. How about when Dick Cheney claimed that the first time he ever met John Edwards was the night of the debate
, when there was VIDEO FOOTAGE of the two shaking hands at a White House prayer breakfast? How about when Bush claimed Kerry would raise taxes on a million small businesses, when the White House counts any company that makes as little as $1
as a small business, and thus wildly overstated the impact of those tax changes?
Here's a list from the time
of 28 inaccuracies made by both Bush and Kerry during the 2004 debates.
Now, did any of these cause such an uproar that they stopped one candidate's momentum? Because that's exactly what happened to Ford. Carter and his running mate Walter Mondale shrewdly hammered on that one line for a week. They were given the opening because a respected media figure stepped in to essentially say, "Mr. President, you're wrong, surely you know that." And Ford decided to remain defiant and stand by his statement. The final result of the 1976 election was close enough, that you can reasonably claim that Ford's debate gaffe cost him the election. Many historians have. Maybe it was a different time. Maybe debates were more important because they were novel (only the second Presidential debates ever, and the first since the Kennedy-Nixon ones 16 years prior). But I can't help thinking that this is due to the impact of that member of the media speaking up and calling a spade a spade.
We don't have a media that separates fact from fiction anymore. As good as Jim Lehrer is, he wouldn't think of stopping a Bush-Kerry debate in the middle to say, "Mr. Bush, did you just reference 9-11 as part of an answer about Iraq, when the two had nothing to do with one another?" The presence of an independent voice, in my opinion, is what made Ford's gaffe such a major event. Not only did it become a partisan fight, but the "neutral observer" had to come in on the side of Carter as well. That doesn't happen today. We have a he said-she said media, a group of stenographers that in the interest of balance simply do not enter the debate on the side of the truth.Anonymous Liberal
had an interesting post the other day about how commercial advertising is more highly scrutinized than political advertising. Laws are in place to protect consumers from misstatements and lies about various products, but not to protect voters from misstatements and lies about various candidates. Digby
had the perfect response to this, and it's relevant to this discussion:
But the system is supposed to have a mechanism for dealing with this --- the press. It's protected by the same amendment that protects the politicians and operates on an equal constitutional basis. If jouranlists were doing their job correctly they would function as the political consumer watchdogs and enforcers of truth in advertising.
The thing is, they think they are. They nitpick something ridiculous, like Al Gore's joke that his grandmother sang him a certain lullabye while allowing a huge majority of the country to believe that there was a connection between Saddam and 9/11 --- something which those of us who were paying close attention knew was untrue, by virtue of the administration's cleverly misleading statements [...]
...the Bush administration repeatedly made speeches and statements like that above and suffered virtually no blowback in the media. In his press conferences, the white house press corps failed to properly follow up or make it clear that Bush was being clever when he made these connections and instead laughed and fawned as if they were at a movie star's press junket.
It was their job to sort that rhetoric out, right as it happened, no matter how unpleasant it might have been. The failure to correct that misimpression (along with dozens of others) led many millions of Americans to support the invasion of Iraq who otherwise might not have. Had the press done its job, acted as the public's "political consumer" advocate, and put pressure on the administration to explain its claims, the war would likely have happened anyway --- they were determined to do it come hell or high water --- but Bush would not have won re-election. They made it possible for someone who had lied blatantly to the people in some cases, misled them in others and started a war based upon what turned out to be a completely false premise to hang on long enough to win another term before people belatedly realized they had been taken to the cleaners.
And 30 years ago, they refused to let that happen. They actually got in the middle of the field and threw the yellow flag and made calls. In other words, they did their jobs as journalists.
What has happened in those intervening 30 years, allowing the media to completely give up the function they are supposed to serve in American politics? I have a few ideas, but what's important is that we continue to monitor this and hammer those who refuse to do their job. Blogs are great but the average voter still gets most of their information from a few mainstream media sources. They still play a vital role, and if they abdicate their responsibility, we'll continue to see more and more liars and obfuscators on the national stage, knowing they can get away with their deliberate falsehoods, knowing that there will be no accountability for it.
We need a free press that is bold and challenging and willing to take their job seriously. Those who take up this challenge should be rewarded, those who don't condemned.