Given that Tom Daschle occupies the lofty position as the most visible Democratic leader in Washington, you would think he would be one of the most well-informed. Throughout the war on terrorism, he's been regularly briefed by the administration and has breakfast regularly with the president. So why did he have to stoop to launching hysterical tirades based on sloppy reporting in the Washington Post?
Post reporter Dana Milbank, never one to miss throwing an elbow at the president, put the word "Democrats" in front of Bush's quote that some are "not interested in the security of the American people." Then Daschle, wearing glasses to keep his eyeballs in his head, poured out hot rhetoric like a volcano, actually accusing the president of impugning the service of disabled veteran Democrats Daniel Inouye and Max Cleland. Accuracy and documentation wasn't the point for the Democratic leader, or the Post.
So what did Bush actually say? The record is crystal clear and anyone can find the president's remarks, word for word, on the White House web site (www.whitehouse.gov). And you can see how the Post (and its biggest fan Daschle) was making a partisan hash of things. While Milbank's story left the impression Bush was talking about Iraq, he was clearly talking about the politicization of the homeland security bill. "The House responded, but the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people." Milbank's editing was sleazy, designed for cheap outrage. Two sentences later, Bush added "And people are working hard in Washington...both Republicans and Democrats. See, this isn't a partisan issue. This is an American issue."
Milbank later left this out - and for good reason. Had he put it in, there would have been no controversy.
There was a reason Bush did not say "Democrats" are uninterested in national security. Almost half the House Democratic caucus voted for a homeland security bill he likes. He would like a fair amount of Senate Democrats to support it, too. But Tom Daschle and Joe Lieberman are squashing the House bill. Nowhere in his story did Milbank address the president's point: Democratic leaders in the Senate appear more interested in pandering to their union base - giving the president no power to fire incompetent morons and extending Davis-Bacon top-wage privileges through more government agencies - than making the country fast, flexible, and efficient in response to potential attacks.
When asked about his story on CNN, Milbank thought the whole uproar was funny, making jokes about getting bonuses from the Post as Senate Democrats brandished his newspaper on TV. But why was the story so sloppy? Milbank justified tying Bush's remarks to Iraq because "whatever the context is, the only thing any of us is discussing right now is Iraq. So it has to have some reverberation."
So a news reporter's goal is . . . reverberation?
Well, reverberate it did. The TV news brigade quickly followed, capturing Tom Daschle's meltdown, but it was a case study for Americans in which networks behave like (somewhat) neutral observers, and which ones are hopeless hacks for the Daschle spin factory. ABC echoed Milbank's twisted "reverberation" that Bush was speaking on Iraq. At CBS, Bob Schieffer milked Daschle's hoary points about the patriotism of Senate Democrats, and how Sen. Daniel Inouye "lost an arm to the Nazis."
Of the Big Three, only NBC looked like they did more than two minutes of preparation, adding context and skepticism. Tom Brokaw noted that Bush was speaking about homeland security, Lisa Myers explained the Senate fights over union wishes, and Tim Russert added that Daschle might have been responding to Al Gore's fierce pitch for the "peace wing" of the party. (On cable, CNN and Fox also suggested the Daschle-Post attacks were a little loose on the facts.)
Daschle's Senate floor meltdown was another strange variant on the recent tendency of Democratic leaders to justify their attacks on President Bush based on liberal news media attacks. In May, House leader Dick Gephardt came under fire for suggesting President Bush needed to be grilled about what he knew about September 11 and when he knew it - as if the al-Qaeda surprise attack was a Watergate scandal complete with exploding airplanes. Gephardt aides later explained that their leader was only merely mimicking the Bush-baiting rhetoric of....NBC "Today" host Katie Couric.
Clearly, there's something wrong when leftwing media attacks become talking points for the leadership of the Democratic Party. What Daschle did was reprehensible party politics. No less deplorable was the action of the Washington Post in setting him up.