When Bill Clinton announced he was taking a swing at Osama bin Laden with cruise-missile attacks on targets in Sudan and Afghanistan just three days after admitting an affair with Monica Lewinsky, some within the Republican camp questioned the timing. An ABC poll found 30 percent of the public guessed it was a "Wag the Dog" strategy, a cynical military ploy to divert attention from all the presidential pawing and parsing.
Others refused to believe it. "I have to assume there is a sense of embarrassment among all of us," Ted Koppel announced from his "Nightline" perch. "I have a sense of embarrassment that we are even raising questions like this, at a time like this." He concluded, "This, the President tells us, is one of these few exceptions, one of America's rare opportunities to fight back. To doubt his word on this occasion may cross our minds but is, in the final analysis, unthinkable."
Fast forward four years, and guess what's not unthinkable: the outrageous, insulting notion that President Bush knew about an incoming terrorist attack on American targets and did nothing but let it happen.
On May 15, CBS reporter David Martin, a straight shooter of a journalist, first reported that President Bush had received intelligence reports of a potential al-Qaeda hijacking last August. He calmly put this scoop into the context of larger intelligence failures, lamenting it was "as close as U.S. intelligence came to alerting the President to an airliner attack."
But then, like that childhood game where you sit in a circle, whisper something to the person next to you and he repeats it quickly to the next one, the process continuing until, at the end the statement is thoroughly distorted - the media pounced on the Martin story.
Hours later, CNN's Judy Woodruff transformed it into a declarative statement about how "President Bush knew that al Qaeda was planning to hijack a U.S. airliner." The following morning, NBC's Katie Couric led with the dramatic question "What did he know and when did he know it?" On ABC, Charlie Gibson echoed that and topped it. He wondered out loud if President Bush was "really surprised" when chief of staff Andy Card told about the World Trade Center bombing.
By nightfall, CNN took the hyperbole to a new low, reporting an instant poll: "Did the Bush administration act on 9/11 warnings the proper way? Forty-one percent said yes, 52 percent said no." There was a better question for CNN's poll respondents: "Do you think you have the amazing brain power to determine, twelve hours after a story is reported, exactly how well the President did in sifting through eight months of intelligence reports from across the federal government on terrorist threats from around the globe?"
Weekly magazine reporters, with time to reflect, should have shown more sobriety. But they didn't. In U.S. News, reporter Kenneth Walsh compared Bush's intelligence briefings to "Richard Nixon with Watergate, Ronald Reagan with Iran-Contra, and Bill Clinton with the Whitewater affair. What did he know and when did he know it?"
This is National Enquirer journalism. If we're going to invoke Richard Nixon, than I want to be perfectly clear about something here. The scandal stories involving Watergate, or Whitewater, or Iran-Contra were noteworthy because in each case the president (or his administration) was accused of willfully engaging in illegal activity to achieve a goal. By tying Bush's intelligence briefings to these scandals, reporters like Walsh are suggesting far more than the preposterous idea that Bush did something illegal. They are suggesting he willfully chose to follow a path that led to the murder of thousands of Americans.
With all these less-than-subtle media suggestions that the president is either an incompetent slacker or an evil conspirator on September 11, Dan Rather looked more than a little silly in a BBC interview suggesting the press is being too soft on the president. He worried about how "patriotism run amok" might destroy solid journalism, where the news might look supportive enough to resemble a totalitarian state, where "they produce films about how great the Great Leader is, and how he's getting greater in every way every day." Rather and others have shown great sensitivity and patriotic impulses at times with George W. Bush, but to think he's getting the Kim Jong Il treatment on the network news is ludicrous.
The media should investigate and report on the seriously flawed intelligence apparatus that could have, and possibly should have prevented 9/11 from happening. But to suggest, to hint that the President (Bush or Clinton, doesn't matter) allowed it to happen is an outrage of the highest order.