Commentary Magazine


The Two-Faced Media and the U.S. Presidency

According to media reports:

[Former President Jimmy] Carter made similar remarks [to what he said to NBC News] about an event at his presidential center in Atlanta, Georgia, The Associated Press reported Tuesday, pointing to some protesters who have compared Obama to a Nazi. “Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care,” the former president said at the Carter Center, according to AP. “It’s deeper than that.” He grouped [Representative Joe] Wilson’s shout of “You lie!” during Obama’s speech in that category, according to AP. “I think it’s based on racism. There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president,” he said. “The president is not only the head of government, he is the head of state. And no matter who he is or how much we disagree with his policies, the president should be treated with respect.”

Now isn’t that a high-minded idea, that no matter who he is or how much we disagree with his policies, the president should be treated with respect. I happen to agree with that sentiment—and so I wonder why Mr. Carter didn’t follow his own counsel when George W. Bush was president. For example, in a March 22, 2004, interview with Britain’s the Independent, headlined “Carter Savages Blair and Bush: ‘Their War was Based on Lies,’ ” our 39th president said that the war to liberate Iraq was based on “lies and misinterpretations from London to Washington.”

I am also delighted with the newfound interest in civility in public discourse by Democrats and many in the press—and especially the importance of showing respect and civility to our head of state. It was certainly missing during the Bush years. Let us count some of the ways.

Former Vice President Al Gore charged that President Bush “has brought deep dishonor to our country and built a durable reputation as the most dishonest President since Richard Nixon.” Mr. Gore also said that Bush had “betrayed this country,” and called him a “moral coward.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called President Bush a “loser” and a “liar” and said Bush had “betrayed the country.”

In his October 16, 2003, Senate floor speech condemning Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq, Edward Kennedy—among the greatest and most influential senators in American history, as we have been repeatedly told over the past few weeks—said this about the president: “Week after week after week after week we were told lie after lie after lie after lie.”

A month earlier, Kennedy had made the accusation that the case for going to war in Iraq was a “fraud . . . made up in Texas ” because it was “good politically” for the GOP. He also claimed, again without a shred of evidence, that foreign leaders were being bribed by the Bush administration to send troops to Iraq. “My belief is this money [for the postwar reconstruction of Iraq] is being shuffled all around to these political leaders in all parts of the world, bribing them to send in troops,” according to Kennedy.

In December 2003, Senator John Kerry told a New Hampshire newspaper editorial board that Bush had “lied” about his reason for going to war in Iraq. This was a repeat of the charge he made three months earlier, when Kerry said the Bush administration had “lied to us.”

On July 19, 2004, former U.S. Senator Max Cleland said, “[We were] flat-out lied to. By the President, by the Vice President and by the Secretary of Defense. [Colin] Powell was set up, the Congress was set up, all on the false premises to go to war in Iraq. Now, why did Bush go to war in Iraq? Because he concluded that his daddy was a failed president and one of the ways he failed is that he did not take out Saddam Hussein.”

Then Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings charged that President Bush went to war in Iraq to win Jewish votes. “[Bush] came to office imbued with one thought—re-election,” Hollings said. “Bush felt tax cuts would hold his crowd together and spreading democracy in the Mideast to secure Israel would take the Jewish vote from the Democrats.”

On April 22, 2004, Representative Jim McDermott said about President Bush, “You were AWOL for a whole year.” On December 16, 2003, McDermott told a Seattle radio station that the U.S. military could have found Saddam Hussein “a long time ago if they wanted.” Asked if he thought the capture of Saddam was timed to help Bush, McDermott chuckled and said, “Yeah. Oh, yeah.” The Democratic congressman went on to say, “There’s too much by happenstance for it to be just a coincidental thing.”

On the December 1, 2003, edition of NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show, then presidential candidate (and later DNC chairman) Howard Dean was asked why Bush was “suppressing” a report on the attacks on 9/11. “I don’t know,” Dean said. “There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I’ve heard so far—which is nothing more than a theory, it can’t be proved—is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis.”

Former NAACP president and CEO Kweisi Mfume said Bush is “prepared to take us back to the days of Jim Crow segregation and dominance.”

There is much more on the record, but you get the point. There is a huge, glaring double standard that is at play here. It was open season on Bush when he was president—and the press uttered hardly a word of concern about incivility and, especially, about venomous charges directed against a sitting American president. Back then it was just the routine stuff of politics. And to the degree that anyone was responsible for the incivility, it was said to be Bush (who never, in my recollection, called his critics liars, as Obama has). Yet now that Barack Obama is in office, the press—many of whom have a deep, emotional attachment to Obama and his success—are outraged by incivility directed against a sitting American president.

Presidents should hardly be above criticism, and our public debate should be passionate, vigorous, rigorous, and engaged. It’s fine, and it can even be enlightening, to challenge the facts, interpretations, and premises of those with whom you disagree. But there are lines we ought not to cross, especially when it comes to the office of the presidency. It is an institution we Americans should treat with respect and not undermine. I believe that Representative Joe Wilson crossed that line and that what he did was wrong, and I’m glad he apologized. But many Democrats—far more prominent and influential than Joe Wilson—repeatedly crossed that line during the Bush years and went beyond what Wilson said, often in premeditated ways, and in almost every instance no apology was issued afterward. Yet the press did not much care about decorum during the pre-Obama presidency. It does now. I suspect most people understand why. For many, though certainly not all, journalists and commentators, it has little to do with the etiquette of democracy and a lot to do with political preferences and ideological predispositions. The fact that the media was so silent before makes their howls of protest now sound contrived. It is little wonder that the media as an institution is so deeply mistrusted.

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