Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
On Valentine's Day, the Senate banking committee held a hearing with the nation's top financial regulators. As a junior member, freshman Democrat Elizabeth Warren had to cool her heels waiting for a turn. But when it came, she made better use of the few available minutes than most of her colleagues: "Can you identify when you last took the Wall Street banks to trial?" she demanded.
Flummoxed, the officials tried to sidestep the question. Then the Massachusetts senator brought down the hammer: "There are district attorneys and United States attorneys out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds and taking them to trial in order to make an example, as they put it. I'm really concerned that 'too big to fail' has become 'too big for trial.'"
Ka-boom. More than a million people ended up watching viral videos of the exchange. Wall Streeters were ticked off. Warren had achieved what veteran legislators crave to do: shape the national discourse while winning attention—all in her quiet but forceful, law-school-prof way. And wittingly or not, she had accomplished another difficult task: establishing a path forward for herself within the clubby, tradition-bound upper chamber.
Basically, there are two ways for a newbie senator to start her tenure: with bombast or with reserve. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have been recent examples of the former, each roaring into the Senate looking to establish himself as the tea party senator. Two decades earlier, Paul Wellstone, the former professor and community organizer, hit the Senate as a progressive firebrand. He held a press conference at the Vietnam War memorial to argue against war in the Middle East and cornered George H.W. Bush at a reception, causing the president to ask, "Who is this chickenshit?"
Last year, we noted that HBO's hit show Game of Thrones—which features dragons, sword fights, and zombie armies—is at its core a tale of intense political intrigue. Alliances are forged and broken; backroom deals are cut; principles are sacrificed. It's a dirty game—and not just because there's no indoor plumbing. And we imagined what might happen if super-PACs and dark-money outfits existed in the Seven Kingdoms. The result: political attack ads that went viral. With the third season starting this week—and the show (according to our spies) becoming even bleaker—here are those ads once again. They remain a fitting commentary, for as in the real world, politics in Westeros is not getting any less sleazy.
One of the hot jobs in the US government—chairman of the Federal Communications Commission—is about to become vacant, and President Barack Obama's pick for this position will say much about his priorities and what it takes to win a job within his administration.
The current chairman, Julius Genachowski, was a Harvard Law classmate of Obama and longtime Washington denizen with several stints in the private sector, and last week he announced he's splitting after four years in the post. Genachowski has had a rollicking tenure at the more-important-than-ever agency. His FCC approved the controversial NBC/Comcast merger, but it killed AT&T's $39 billion bid for T-Mobile. He developed a national broadband plan, while pushing for universal broadband access and contending with spectrum crunch. He's had to navigate the knotty issue of net neutrality (at one point angering both Verizon and public interest advocates). His tenure has vividly demonstrated that the FCC chairman's office is a node for cutting-edge policy issues related to economic development, technology, education, and media.
The past week has brought about a 10-years-after review of the Iraq war—particularly an examination of how the Bush-Cheney administration sold the war prior to the invasion launched on March 19, 2003. Pundits and politicians have relived those days—and somberly reconsidered the run-up to the war, the role of the media in enabling the swindle, and the consequences of that military action. MSNBC has aired a documentary based on the book I cowrote with Michael Isikoff, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War. Showtime featured a documentary on Dick Cheney that centered on the war. The Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University released a study noting that the war cost US taxpayers $2.2 trillion and consumed the lives of 4,488 members of the US armed services and at least 123,000 to 134,000 Iraqi civilians.
One of the most shocking reactions to the anniversary came—perhaps no surprise—from one of the leading neoconservative drum majors for the war, Richard Perle. As a member of the Defense Policy Board advisory committee, Perle, who had been a hawk's-hawk assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan years, began calling for war in Iraq nanoseconds after September 11. He told CNN, "Even if we cannot prove to the standard that we enjoy in our own civil society they are involved, we do know, for example, that Saddam Hussein has ties to Osama bin Laden. That can be documented." In 2002, he suggested a war against Iraq would be a cakewalk: "It isn't going to be over in 24 hours, but it isn't going to be months either." He asserted Saddam was "working feverishly to acquire nuclear weapons." He claimed the post-invasion reconstruction in Iraq would be self-financing. He got everything wrong.
On Wednesday morning, NPR's Renee Montagne interviewed Perle. It wasn't a grilling. Perle was allowed to explain his Iraq war fever, noting that "we had intelligence assessments" indicating Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. He pleaded his case by remarking that after 9/11, "You ask yourself what could happen next, you do the obvious thing….[The Bush administration] made a list of potential threats and on that list the single most important potential threat was another attack with a weapon of mass destruction. So then you make a list of who has weapons of mass destruction and who might be motivated either to attack or enable someone else to attack the US. And Iraq was clearly on that list." Perle then offhandedly observed, "It's easy a decade later to say, well, it turned out this fact or that presumption was wrong." He insisted that the biggest "blunder" with Iraq was the post-invasion occupation.
This is all standard fare for a neocon who won't let go. But the final exchange of the interview was a chilling driveway moment:
Montagne: Ten years later, nearly 5,000 American troops dead, thousands more with wounds, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead or wounded. When you think about this, was it worth it?
Perle: I've got to say I think that is not a reasonable question. What we did at the time was done with the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation. You can't a decade later go back and say we shouldn't have done that.
That was cold. In the Showtime documentary, Cheney predictably expresses no regrets, saying, "I did what I did. It’s all on the public record, and I feel very good about it. If I had it to do over again, I'd do it in a minute." Yet here is Perle going beyond no regrets to deny it is even worthwhile to consider the human costs of the war when assessing the decision to invade Iraq. His comment is modern-day Strangelove and yet another reason he deserves the nickname he earned in the 1980s: the Prince of Darkness. What transpires within Perle's soul, ultimately, is not all that important. The true tragedy is that anyone would seek—let alone heed—the advice of a man so averse to considering a basic (and moral) calculation.
President Bush announcing the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.
One night, more than a decade ago, I was a guest on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show along with Bill Kristol, the godfather (or son-of-the-godfather) of the neoconservative movement. The subject: What to do about Iraq? The Bush administration had begun pounding the drums for war, claiming, as Vice President Dick Cheney had put it, that there was "no doubt" tyrant Saddam Hussein was "amassing" weapons of mass destruction "to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." As one of the few political analysts on television to question the rush to war, I noted that WMD inspections in Iraq could be useful in preventing Saddam from reaching the "finish line" in developing nuclear weapons. Kristol responded by exclaiming, "He's past that finish line! He's past the finish line!"
Saddam wasn't—as it turned out, he wasn't even in the race. He possessed no WMD nor any significant program to develop them. And his repressive regime had no meaningful connections with Al Qaeda. Yet in those dreadful months before the March 19, 2003, invasion of Iraq, the cheerleaders for war inhabited a place of privilege within the media. They could say anything—and get away with it. Kristol could declare—as he did the day before our exchange—that a war in Iraq "could have terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East," face little challenge, and gain plenty of debate-shaping attention.
There was at that time a sort of madness within the political-media world. With the nation still under the shadow of 9/11, prominent journalists had jettisoned the most crucial of traits in our profession: skepticism. At one point, I debated David Brooks, then of the Weekly Standard, over the necessity of launching a war against Iraq. He summed up his support for the endeavor by asking: Don't you believe the people of Iraq desire democracy just as much as we do?
In those dreadful months before the March 19, 2003, invasion of Iraq, the cheerleaders for war inhabited a place of privilege within the media.
I was surprised by his naiveté. I was no expert on Iraq, but it was obvious to me that invading and possibly occupying a nation half a globe away could end up rather messy, and that a universal craving for democracy might not trump all else. It seemed to me that Brooks was relying on fairy tale analysis, projecting simplistic assumptions onto an extremely complicated situation. (Sunni, Shiite—how many advocates for war knew the difference?) Yet this was all Brooks needed to champion a war that would cost the lives of nearly 4,500 US troops, injure 32,000 service members, and add $3 trillion to the national credit card—and leave millions of Iraqi civilians displaced and more than 100,000 dead.
A more disheartening moment came when I was talking to a friend who was working for a major newspaper and whom you can now often spot on television. Weeks before the invasion, he acknowledged to me that he wasn't sure what to make of the Bush administration's case for war. But he was in favor of invading. Why? Because Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, was for it. My friend—an influential voice in the media then and now—had handed Friedman his proxy, and Friedman was all for the war because he believed it would ignite progressive change throughout the Arab/Muslim world.