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Paul O'Neill Backpedals, But CBS and ABC Pretend He Didn't --1/14/2004


1. Paul O'Neill Backpedals, But CBS and ABC Pretend He Didn't
Tuesday morning on NBC's Today, Paul O'Neill backtracked from some of his more incendiary comments as recited by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind in a new book. But while the NBC Nightly News, as well as CNN and FNC picked up on O'Neill's backpedaling, neither ABC or CBS did so on Tuesday night. CNN's King highlighted how "others in those early national security meetings took issue with suggestions Mr. Bush was predisposed to war," but ABC's Peter Jennings ignored what O'Neill said on Today and cited how an "official in the meetings," whom Jennings did not identify, "confirmed Mr. O'Neill's account" of how "getting Saddam" was a Bush priority well before 9/11. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who showcased the anti-Bush ranting of far-left columnist Paul Krugman, focused his wrath on the speed of the probe of O'Neill for possibly releasing secret documents compared to the slowness of the look into the Joe Wilson matter.

2. Couric: O'Neill Candid, But Stephanopoulos Was "Turncoat"
What a difference the target makes. Five years ago, when George Stephanopoulos wrote a book with critical insider accounts of President Clinton's White House, NBC's Katie Couric asserted the book "has many wondering whether he's a traitor or man of integrity," stressed how "a lot of people" see Stephanopoulos' book as "creepy" and she told him that they view him "as a turncoat, a Linda Tripp type." She was also upset by the timing: "Why now George? Couldn't this have waited until the President was out of office?" But this week, in introducing a segment with Paul O'Neill, Couric wasn't upset that O'Neill issued his charges in an election year as she recalled how "President Bush once praised Secretary O'Neill for his candor. He was called a straight shooter," but "today O'Neill is under investigation for a tell-all book that raises serious questions about the Bush administration."

3. "Top Ten Signs You've Been on the Campaign Trail Too Long"
As presented by Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, Letterman's "Top Ten Signs You've Been on the Campaign Trail Too Long."


Paul O'Neill Backpedals, But CBS and
ABC Pretend He Didn't

Tuesday morning on NBC's Today, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill backtracked from some of his more incendiary, widely-quoted comments as recited by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind in a new book out this week. But while the NBC Nightly News, as well as CNN and FNC picked up on O'Neill's backpedaling, neither ABC or CBS did so on Tuesday night.

During the Today interview with Katie Couric, O'Neill noted how "people are trying to make a case that I said the President was planning war in Iraq early in the administration," but argued that was simply "a continuation of work that had been going on in the Clinton administration with a notion that there needed to be regime change in Iraq." Picking up on how O'Neill said he didn't see any evidence on WMD in Iraq, Couric contended: "An intelligent person would draw the conclusion that those charges were being trumped up by the administration as a rationale for the invasion." O'Neill countered: "No, that's not what I've said." As for denigrating Bush as a "blind man in a room full of deaf people," backtracked: "I used some vivid language that if I could take it back, I'd take that back." And, despite it all, O'Neill maintained that he expects to vote for Bush this fall. (See item #2 below for the full quotes from O'Neill.)

Tuesday's NBC Nightly News reflected O'Neill's tone as anchor Tom Brokaw referred to how on Today he had "tempered his remarks" before David Gregory noted how he "appeared to backpedal." Gregory ran through O'Neill's Today comments on how there was nothing wrong with planning for contingencies on Iraq, he wishes he hadn't given Suskind the "blind man" remark and plans to vote for Bush. FNC's Bret Baier related the same backtracking and, on CNN's NewsNight, John King relayed all but how O'Neill would vote for Bush.

But while CNN's King highlighted how former Joint Chiefs Chairman Hugh Shelton saw no difference in how the Bush team approached Iraq than did the Clinton administration, "as others in those early national security meetings took issue with suggestions Mr. Bush was predisposed to war," ABC's Peter Jennings ignored what O'Neill said on Today and cited how an "official in the meetings," whom Jennings did not identify, "confirmed Mr. O'Neill's account" of how "it was clear in meetings from the time Mr. Bush got to the White House that 'getting Saddam,' as he put it, was the administration's focus."

King reported on Tuesday's NewsNight: "O'Neill's softer tone came as others in those early national security meetings took issue with suggestions Mr. Bush was predisposed to war. Retired Army General Hugh Shelton, the military's top officer at the time, tells CNN he 'saw nothing in the first six months of the Bush administration that would lead me to believe we were any closer to attacking Iraq than we had been in the previous administration.'"

ABC's World News Tonight held its O'Neill update to this item read by Peter Jennings: "In Washington today, the debate continued about when President Bush decided to go into Iraq. His former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill says in a book that it was clear in meetings from the time Mr. Bush got to the White House that 'getting Saddam,' as he put it, was the administration's focus. The Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said today he didn't know what meetings Mr. O'Neill could have been in, but another official in the meetings confirmed Mr. O'Neill's account. The President, this official told ABC's John Cochran, ordered the Pentagon to explore the possibility of a ground invasion well before the U.S. was attacked on 9/11."

On Monday night's CBS Evening News, Bill Plante recounted how on 60 Minutes the night before O'Neill had charged "that the President was already planning to get rid of Saddam Hussein long before 9/11" and that O'Neill described "a White House in which politics was the driving force. He likened the President at Cabinet meets to a blind man in a room full of deaf people."

But on Tuesday night, Plante ignored O'Neill's backpedaling comments on the Today show, and instead, noting an investigation of whether O'Neill improperly released secret documents, asked: "Was this instant payback from the reputed masters of political hardball in the Bush administration?"

John Roberts set up the January 13 CBS Evening News story, as taken down by MRC analyst Brad Wilmouth: "More fallout today from Sunday's 60 Minutes interview with a former member of the Bush Cabinet faced now with a possible government inquiry. Paul O'Neill denied revealing classified material in the interview and in a book critical of the Bush White House. Bill Plante has more from Monterrey, Mexico, where the President attended a trade summit today."

Plante began: "Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill criticizes President Bush's policies and leadership style on 60 Minutes. And one day later, the Treasury Department says it's looking into O'Neil's actions because 60 Minutes showed this document marked 'Secret' which O'Neill had supplied. Was this instant payback from the reputed masters of political hardball in the Bush administration? O'Neill said today that he got the documents from the Treasury Department's own lawyer."
O'Neill on Today: "Under the law, he's not supposed to send me anything that isn't unclassified."
Plante: "Treasury sources say Department lawyers simply asked for an inquiry, not an investigation, after seeing the document on TV, and only informed the White House after the fact. They say it wasn't payback, and O'Neill today agreed."
O'Neill: "I don't think so. As I said, if I were Secretary of the Treasury, and these circumstances occurred, I would have asked the Inspector General to take a look at this."
Plante: "But it's no surprise that some suspect payback. This White House has a reputation for getting even with those who cross it. Former diplomat Joseph Wilson, whose wife's CIA cover was blown to a reporter after he questioned the President's State of the Union claim that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium. Former Budget Director Larry Lindsey, who dared guess in advance that the Iraq war would be very costly -- publicly rebuffed, then fired. And with O'Neill already long gone, policy analyst Paul Light says this time the White House is clearly sending a message."
Paul Light, New York University: "This particular investigation is clearly designed to send a signal to anybody else who talks with the press that they're up for the fight of their lives if they do so."
Plante concluded: "It's always been the policy of this White House to let no slight go unanswered and no criticism unchallenged. The message, this president demands total loyalty -- and when he doesn't get it, there's a price to be paid. Bill Plante, CBS News, with the President in Monterrey, Mexico."

Keith Olbermann, on MSNBC's Countdown, noted the backpedal, but focused his wrath on speed of the probe of O'Neill for possibly releasing secret documents compared to the slowness of the look into the Joe Wilson matter

Olbermann set up a Tuesday night segment with far-left New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, as caught by the MRC's Brad Wilmouth:
"More on the backpedal in a moment. First, if the rapidity with which the Treasury Department opened its investigation of O'Neill strikes you as contrasting with the measured pace the Justice Department used in opening its investigation of the leak about the CIA status of Ambassador Joe Wilson's wife, you are not alone. Columnist Paul Krugman noted the same thing today in his column in the New York Times, and he joins us now."

Olbermann proposed: "You observed today that thus far, administration officials have attacked Mr. O'Neill's character but haven't refuted any of his facts. Do you suppose that explains the same-day service on investigating what he did or did not do wrong?"
Krugman: "Well, I'm not sure what it is exactly that they're, they're, whether it's the absence of a fact challenge. I'm not amazed. I think just on political grounds this was stupid. There's no possible way that they can improve their case by going after him on this, but it is kind of amazing, right? In what conceivable way did flashing a, the cover page of a secret document on TV endanger national security? There's something very wrong with these people."
Olbermann: "Certainly, Mr. O'Neill has now distanced himself, almost as quickly as the investigation started, from these headlines that the war in Iraq was essentially planned before Mr. Bush's inaugural address was over. Did he back away? Was he pushed or did the media just blow the original story out of proportion?"
Krugman: "Some of all of those. I mean, the story was not actually as clear-cut. I mean, it, even at the, I think that CBS picked the wrong thing. It's actually, the book is a damning indictment of the administration. But it's primarily about the dominance of politics over substantive policy, and there are a lot of places where he basically calls people liars, but he did not, the business about Iraq was more of an atmosphere thing than it is a specific charge that they were concocting the war as of January 2001."
Olbermann prompted Krugman to expand his attack: "So in focusing on that headline about Iraq, you think that the rest of us have essentially missed the thrust of the book and the focus of the criticism of the administration?"
Krugman: "Yeah, I mean there are killer quotes in there. There is Dick Cheney at the very same time that he's in public saying, 'I am a deficit hawk,' saying in private, 'Deficits don't matter.' There is George Bush saying in public that the vast majority of my tax cuts go to the bottom end of the spectrum and in private worrying in front of his advisors that, 'We've given everything to rich people, shouldn't we do something for the middle?' So those are the things that really should have been focused on, and Iraq, that the story about Iraq is, in the book, is that Iraq was top of the agenda in the very first meeting of the National Security Council under Bush, that Donald Rumsfeld is talking about the wonderful things that regime change in Iraq will do, and not at all about the threat that Iraq poses right from the beginning. That's where you should be going, not with this sort of gotcha stuff."

Couric: O'Neill Candid, But Stephanopoulos
Was "Turncoat"

What a difference the target makes. Five years ago, when George Stephanopoulos wrote a book with critical insider accounts of President Clinton's White House, NBC's Katie Couric asserted the book "has many wondering whether he's a traitor or man of integrity," stressed how "a lot of people" see Stephanopoulos' book as "creepy" and she told him that they view him "as a turncoat, a Linda Tripp type." She was also upset by the timing: "Why now George? Couldn't this have waited until the President was out of office?"

But nearly five years later, in introducing a segment with Paul O'Neill, Couric wasn't upset that O'Neill issued his charges in an election year as she recalled how "President Bush once praised Secretary O'Neill for his candor. He was called a straight shooter," but "today O'Neill is under investigation for a tell-all book that raises serious questions about the Bush administration."

Couric plugged the interview: "Does Mr. O'Neill think the administration's threat of investigation is payback for his so-called honesty? We'll talk about that and some other things."

Ron Suskind's book And setting up her session with the author of the book which features O'Neill's claims, Ron Suskind, Couric gushed about how O'Neill "had an unbelievable amount of documentation to back up some of his claims. He took copious notes, journal entries of almost every single meeting he had." Couric didn't question the appropriateness of the book, as she prompted Suskind to expound on "the bombshells here."

Tim Graham, the MRC's Director of Media Analysis, recalled how Couric treated Stephanopoulos and saw the contrast.

# Couric on March 12, 1999, the Friday morning in which she interviewed Stephanopoulos about his book, All Too Human. She announced at the top of the broadcast: "Good morning. He was once one of the President's most trusted aides, but his new book about his years on the inside has many wondering whether he's a traitor or man of integrity."

Couric's first three questions to Stephanopoulos during the 7:30am half hour:

-- "A lot of people, George, think that this is just kinda creepy, that you've done this. They see you as a turncoat, a Linda Tripp type, if you will, who sort of ingratiated himself with the people inside the White House. They made you who you became and now all of a sudden, you're telling, you're airing all the dirty laundry and some people just think that's sorta gross."

-- "But aren't some situations off limits? I mean you talk very candidly about the President's relationship with Mrs. Clinton. You had entree to situations that most people wouldn't. I mean you were sitting there -- or standing there -- once when the President was in his boxer shorts and Hillary came in and they kissed and you witnessed conversations. It seems to me that, I mean is nothing sacred?"

-- "Why now George? Couldn't this have waited until the President was out of office?"

For more on this Today and how the networks treated Stephanopoulos in 1999, see these three CyberAlerts: www.mrc.org
And: www.mrc.org
As well as: www.mrc.org

# Couric, January 12, 2004, the morning she interviewed former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind about his book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill. Couric's questions reflected little doubt about the appropriateness or accuracy of Suskind's claims as she simply sought to draw him out:

-- "How did this book, Ron, come about in the first place?" "He had an unbelievable amount of documentation to back up some of his claims. He took copious notes, journal entries of almost every single meeting he had, correct?"

-- "Who else did you talk to for this book, a number of other White House officials and employees?"

-- "Did they give the same kind of impressions and portrayal of President Bush as Mr. O'Neill has?"

-- "What in your view are the bombshells here? I mean we've heard splatterings throughout the weekend that President Bush has been off-quoted like a blind man in a room full of deaf people. Tell me, if you had to say in a nutshell how President Bush is portrayed in this book, what would you say?"

-- "Well, perhaps he was a good listener as some might say."

-- "And there was apparently, according to your book, no debate in the White House, or no debate on any clear issues. It was all based on ideology or sort of political expediency."

-- "Do you think that possibly Mr. O'Neill is naive or even arrogant as some have suggested? And I know that he served in the White House under the Ford and Nixon administrations but perhaps he didn't, wasn't ready for the rough and tumble world of politics as it exists today?"

-- "Two key areas, Ron, weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein. You contend as Paul O'Neill contends that from day one, actually ten days after the inauguration Saddam Hussein was pretty much public enemy number one, prior to September 11th. Why? You talk about this being at the top of the agenda, but what was the motivation for it according to the Bush administration or Paul O'Neill's interpretation?"

-- "A top administration official says in Time magazine this week, that information was on a need to know basis. He wouldn't have been in a position to see it."

# Couric, January 13, 2004, setting up a session with O'Neill during the 7:30am half hour, the same time slot she spent with Stephanopoulos. MRC analyst Brian Boyd took down how, over video from 2001, Couric announced:
"That is Paul O'Neill being sworn in as Secretary of the Treasury just about two years ago, January 30th of 2001. President Bush once praised Secretary O'Neill for his candor. He was called a straight shooter. Today O'Neill is under investigation for a tell-all book that raises serious questions about the Bush administration."

Couric added: "Coming up we're going to be talking with Paul O'Neill and the author of the book that has caused so much controversy, Ron Suskind. Does Mr. O'Neill think the administration's threat of investigation is payback for his so-called honesty? We'll talk about that and some other things."

Couric's questions to O'Neill initially focused on the investigation of whether he released secret documents and then she moved on to drawing him out with no substantive challenge to the accuracy, timing or appropriateness of his claims. Also below, O'Neill's backpedaling answers which were highlighted in today's CyberAlert item #1 above:

-- "Secretary O'Neill and Ron Suskind, good morning. Nice to have you both. Alright, let me ask you about the news of the morning. What do you think about this investigation being launched by the Department of Treasury that somehow you took classified documents and they were used in fact in the writing of this book?"

-- "So perhaps he's [general counsel] the one who should be investigated?"

-- Couric: "The White House has said it would be irresponsible not to investigate this properly."
O'Neill: "If I were Secretary of the Treasury, I would have done the same."
Couric: "Is this payback? They insist it's not but do you think in a way it is?"
O'Neill: "I don't think so....And another thing, today the book is going to be available and this red meat frenzy that's occurred when people didn't have anything except snippets. As an example, you know people are trying to make a case that I said the President was planning war in Iraq early in the administration. Actually there was a continuation of work that had been going on in the Clinton administration with a notion that there needed to be regime change in Iraq-"
Couric: "So you see nothing wrong with that being at the top of the President's agenda ten days after the inauguration?"
O'Neill: "One of the candidates has said this confirms his worst suspicions. I'm amazed that anyone would think that our government on a continuing basis, across a political administrations doesn't do contingency planning and look at circumstances. Saddam Hussein has been there forever. And so I was surprised, as I've said in the book, that Iraq was given such a high priority but I was not surprised that we were doing a continuation of planning that had been going on and continuing, looking at contingency options during the Clinton administration."

-- Couric: "At the same time though, Mr. O'Neill, you do talk about the fact that you were in National Security Council meetings for 23 months, you saw a variety of documents and no where did you ever see evidence-"
O'Neill: "I think saw everything, unless something was withheld from me that I didn't know about."
Couric: "Well, we'll get to that in a moment. But you say nowhere did you ever see evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Well, an intelligent person would draw the conclusion that those charges were being trumped up by the administration as a rationale for the invasion."
O'Neill: "No, that's not what I've said. I have a very high standard for what represents evidence. If you told me that you put your hands on weapons of mass destruction, I'd probably believe you because you're a public person. If someone that I believed in told me they'd actually seen it, that's evidence for me. But it's possible and certainly there were lots of inferences and circumstantial things that the National Security assessments pulled together in looking at this question of weapons of mass destruction, I'm not denying or game-saying that fact that one could make a case, what I've said is I never saw anything that I considered to be concrete evidence of weapons of mass destruction. And I think the fact that we haven't found them makes the point. That also doesn't make a point that we shouldn't have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein. I'm not making that case. I'm making a really clear case that I know the difference between evidence and what is allusion and assertion and the rest. That's my point."
Couric: "Well do you think an invasion of a country should be based on allusion and assertion?"
O'Neill: "Well, I think, I think one has to look very hard at the apparatus we have of the national intelligence assessments and it's why we have presidents. At the end of the day, there's one person who gets to decide. It's what he considers to be convincing proof, a basis for going to war. And we elected George Bush and he decided it was good enough."

-- Couric: "Well let's talk about some of your assessment of the president and, I guess, his leadership style, for lack of a better term. You do describe him as disengaged. You do describe, I think if I can sort of try to assess your description as policy having no process. Kind of being put together willy-nilly. You do describe him as a blind man in a room full of deaf people. So what are you saying about the way policy is established in this White House?"
O'Neill: "Well, I'd say several things in response to your question. One, in hundreds of hours of conversation with the author one, let me not put this off on general case, I used some vivid language that if I could take it back, I'd take that back. Because it's become the controversial centerpiece and I'm afraid that it will cause people to have an impression without actually reading the book. I hope people will read the book. But having said that, I want to also say this, this is Ron Suskind's book. This is not my book. I have no economic interest in it contrary to the inference in the Wall Street Journal this morning. I hope people will read it because I think it makes a contribution to illuminating especially for young people what I consider to be a bi-partisan, broken political process."
Couric: "What's broken about it?"
O'Neill: "Well, this is a very long story. I'll tell you what's broken about it, Katie. The conversation we have, for example, about the need for fundamental reform of Social Security and our health and medical care system and our tax reform system, which is what I would have written about if this were my book. We probably would have sold 25 copies to my extended family because don't seem to have the interest, television doesn't seem to have the interest in drilling into really consequential issues with any depth...."

-- Couric: "You do talk about some of the real philosophical differences you did have with this White House or at least some members of the White House vis-a-vi tax cuts."
O'Neill: "I didn't think the third tax cut was a good idea because I was pretty confident with over 40 years worth of experience and looking at the data that in the fourth quarter of 2003 the real growth rate would be 6 percent. It turned out to be 8.2 percent, I think the 2.2 percent came because of the third tax cut. But the price we're going to pay for it is enormous because it reduces are fiscal flexibility to fix Social Security which we desperately need to do."

-- "You talk about after the Republicans won big in the mid-term elections, winning back the U.S. Senate that you sensed a change at the White House, a certain smugness, a sureness. And you said you once again pointed out the danger of rising deficits to Vice President Dick Cheney. But he said 'Reagan proved deficits don't matter. We won the mid-terms, this is our due.' You profess shock at that statement and I'm not an economic expert but isn't there a pretty significant school of economic thought, Keynesian, that deficits are not that damaging to the overall economy? I mean why did you consider this so blasphemes?"

-- "Let me read the Wall Street Journal editorial, today. It says 'the non-Treasury Secretary, Mr. O'Neill cooperated fully with author Ron Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and well known Bush antagonist sharing recollections-"
Suskind: "I disagree with that."
Couric: "-and 19,000 documents as well as fact checking the final manuscript. After reading it we're amazed he wasn't fired sooner. Mr. Bush apparently thought he was getting a smart veteran of the Nixon and Ford administrations, a former CEO recommended by Dick Cheney and Alan Greenspan. The expectation was that Mr. O'Neill would be credible with business and politically astute. Instead he got a policy and political blunder-bus who must not have been paying attention during the 2000 election presidential campaign. Mr. O'Neill in the book reveals that he disagreed with much of the Bush agenda, especially with tax cuts. Three years later the record shows that Mr. Bush was right to ignore Mr. O'Neill's counsel. The Bush tax cuts helped to make the recession one of the mildest on record despite the burst stock market bubble, corporate scandals, September 11, and war. And now the recovery is well underway with third quarter's 8.2 percent growth rate, the fastest since 1984.'"

-- "We're almost out of time, this is television after all. But I was surprised and many other people were when you told Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes, you didn't think this was an unflattering portrayal of President Bush."
O'Neill: "I hope people will read the book, they can draw their own conclusion. You know-"
Couric: "But you insisted, you didn't think you seemed befuddled and most people watching that thought 'are you out of your mind?'"
O'Neill: "Well go read the book, you've read the book."
Couric: "Yes."
O'Neill: "Do you think it is personally critical of the President? It's not my intention to be personally critical of the President or of anyone else, but to cooperate with Ron and try and depict what turned out to be a chronicle of 23 months at the top of the government."
Couric: "Very quickly, will you vote for President Bush in November?"
O'Neill: "Probably. I don't see anybody that strikes me as better prepared and more capable. But I really do think we have a bi-partisan problem of a broken political process and I think the American people need to demand more of people who would be their leaders."

"Top Ten Signs You've Been on the Campaign
Trail Too Long"

From the January 12 Late Show with David Letterman, as presented by Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, the "Top Ten Signs You've Been on the Campaign Trail Too Long." Late Show Web site: www.cbs.com

10. "Every speech begins: 'It's great to be wherever the hell I am today'"

9. "You've hired Pete Rose to manage your campaign funds"

8. "You've been working tirelessly to secure endorsement of your imaginary friend Lester"

7. "You black out while campaigning in Nevada and wake up married to Britney Spears"

6. "You ask yourself, 'What would Schwarzenegger do?'"

5. "Last time you were home, America had 36 states"

4. "More and more debates are ending with you and Joe Lieberman on the floor wrestling"

3. "You actually attempt to show a pie chart on the radio"

2. "Agree to appear on lame late night talk show"

1. "Get caught polling yourself"

NBC's Tim Russert is scheduled to appear tonight, Wednesday, on NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

-- Brent Baker