It was stunning, and yet it was eerily reminiscent of the extraordinary discipline of Team Clinton. Days before the ABC miniseries "The Path to 9/11" was to air, they determined the network fudged in its commitment to follow faithfully the facts in the 9/11 Commission report. A scene or two in the otherwise remarkable presentation was false.
And this was the angle Team Clinton needed in order to pounce. The Clinton campaign kicked into high gear in the days before it aired, with the ex-president and his lawyering aides and Democrats in Congress all pressuring ABC to dump the film.
It's important to understand that Team Clinton didn't demand the film be edited for accuracy. They wanted everything - including all the accurate criticisms and findings - thrown in the garbage. Clinton had his usual cleanup squad write letters to ABC chief Bob Iger demanding the $40 million movie be deep-sixed: "We expect that you will make the responsible decision to not air this film."
The usual lowlight was Bill Clinton himself, claiming he was the guardian of truth: "I just want people to tell the truth, you know, and not pretend it's something it's not." Other Clinton players were equally shameless.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewed Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger, who wanted it killed. "I don't think this is just a question of fixing something around the edges, Wolf. My impression is that this is a misleading film to the core. And it seems to me the only appropriate thing at this point is for ABC to withdraw the series." Blitzer didn't note, maybe to avoid audience laughter, that Berger's last prominent act around the 9/11 Commission was illegally hiding documents on himself to prepare Clinton for his (almost unnoticed) testimony.
Liberals across America cried foul, citing CBS's decision in 2003 to cancel their TV-movie called "The Reagans" in the wake of conservative pressure. They suggested conservatives were hypocrites to support pulling that film while defending this one. But there are significant differences between the two projects.
1. Most obviously, "The Reagans" had at its center a dangerously doltish Ronald Reagan and a witchy Nancy Reagan. By contrast, "The Path to 9/11" was not designed as a deeply personal attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton. There was no actor playing Bill Clinton in the ABC movie. He only appeared in the ABC movie in news clips, which were hardly fictional. Hillary Clinton made no appearance of any kind.
2. It's also obvious that Bill Clinton is alert and healthy and able to defend himself against whatever the ABC movie would suggest. At the time CBS prepared to air "The Reagans," Ronald Reagan was unable to defend himself, deep under the veil of Alzheimer's disease and just months away from death. A docudrama that created a sense that Reagan's policies were failures would have been debatable, but a movie cartooning him on his deathbed as stupid and evil was beyond the border of good taste. No such similarity existed with "The Path to 9/11."
3. During the fuss over the Reagan movie, the liberal media were beside themselves denouncing that dastardly thing called censorship. The New York Times even editorialized that conservatives "helped create the Soviet-style chill embedded in the idea that we, as a nation, will not allow critical portrayals of one of our own recent leaders."
So where was the Times - and everyone else - finding Soviet-style censorship in Team Clinton's demands that the ABC film be pulled? Instead, they sympathized with Clinton, editorializing: "One suggestion: when attempting to recreate real events on screen, you do not show real people doing things they never did." For the record, the Times was utterly silent when CBS planned to feature Ronald Reagan declaring people deserved to die of AIDS.
It should be precisely explained that in 2003, the Media Research Center sent letters to advertisers asking them simply to review the script before associating themselves with the anti-Reagan film. For a liberal, that is Soviet-style censorship.
ABC ultimately aired its "Path to 9/11" movie, editing out a minute or so out of scenes in the movie that were not historically accurate. This was the correct solution. But the full-court press from the Clintonistas clearly had an effect, too. ABC claimed the film would roll "without interruption," but broke in several times for disclaimers - not to mention that in Washington, the local ABC affiliate ran its own disavowals.
Both segments were also followed by ABC News programs for more context (and some Clinton-pleasing spin). In the final analysis, ABC showed that it listened to both sides, and stuck with its film, with added caveats. It's just too bad that Team Clinton seemed to have more rhetorical fire for ABC now than they had in their day for Osama bin Laden.