Quaqmire World

Bush has a tougher campaign ahead than many pundits seem ready to imagine.

| Mon Feb. 23, 2004 4:00 AM EST

The Washington Consensus (of one)

"The Bush administration makes no secret that it sees the Iraq war as the prototype for future conflicts... Pre-emption remains the Bush doctrine. Witness Donald Rumsfeld's revealing remarks in Munich last week. Asked whether America is bound by any international system, legal framework or code of conduct, the US defense secretary replied: 'I honestly believe that every country ought to do what it wants to do ... It either is proud of itself afterwards, or it is less proud of itself.' Translation: the US can do what it likes -- including making war on countries that have made no attack on it."
- Jonathan Freedland, This war is not yet over, The Guardian

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[Protestors demonstrating at a Karl Rove speech recently chanted sardonically: "Four more wars! Four more wars!"]

The Washington Consensus (of energy companies)

Or how to apportion "responsibility" worldwide, especially in the impoverished, landlocked African country of Chad where a new Exxonmobil oil field and a new oil pipeline, means paying the locals minimum "wages" in the form of excessively modest "compensation packages" and oil royalties.

"That, said Ron Royal, president of the ExxonMobil subsidiary Esso Exploration and Production Chad Inc., has not stopped [Chadian] government representatives from beseeching the oil company for more: one asked for electricity, another an off-road vehicle. The president, a northerner, asked for a school in the north.

Mr. Royal declined. 'What you have to get your mind around is having to say no to people and then explain why,' he said. 'They see we have so much. "Why can't you give a little?" Because there's a principle here. You've got this responsibility. We've got this responsibility.'

World Bank officials say the pipeline represents a singular opportunity for Chad to become a viable state, if not a wealthy one. Mr. Chevallier, the bank's project manager, said the people of Chad's oil country have indeed profited from contact with the outside world. Speed limits are now enforced on the red dust roads. Seat belts are compulsory. He called it the 'discipline of the industrial age.'"
- Somini Sengupta, The Making of an African Petrostate, The New York Times

The discipline of the industrial age: Bush-style

Less than two weeks ago, the President's chief economic adviser, Greg Mankiw wrote "that the movement of U.S. jobs overseas due to cheaper labor costs - 'outsourcing' he dubbed it in a remarkable display of political tone deafness - would prove 'a plus for the economy in the long run,' and was simply 'a new way of doing international trade.'" And Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader in the House of Representives, felt called upon to promptly dismiss him from sight: "I understand that Mr. Mankiw is a brilliant economic theorist, but his theory fails a basic test of real economics. An economy suffers when jobs disappear. Outsourcing can be a problem for American workers, and for the American economy. We can't have a healthy economy unless we have more jobs here in America."

But this week the President's economic team was back for more, predicting massively unrealistic job gains in the Economic Report of the President to Congress. According to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post:

"President Bush distanced himself yesterday from a forecast made by his economic advisers predicting that the U.S. economy will add 2.6 million jobs this year. A Feb. 9 report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers predicted that payrolls would grow to an average of 132.7 million in 2004 from 130.1 million in 2003, an exceptionally rapid employment gain for an economy that has shed 2.3 million jobs during Bush's tenure. Facing the prospect that Democrats would make a campaign issue of Bush's failure to meet his own projections, Bush and top administration officials declined to endorse the 2.6 million jobs forecast."

Twice in a week, the vaunted Bush team stumbled on the most basic economic issue, the one that reaches deepest and rings most bells in this country: Jobs. But don't think this administration has no answers on either job outsourcing or job creation.

How to gain manufacturing jobs

In a piece on "new economics" in The New York Times' business section this week, David Cay Johnson suggested one way out of the outsourcing bind, taken from the same Economic Report of the President:

"Is cooking a hamburger patty and inserting the meat, lettuce and ketchup inside a bun a manufacturing job, like assembling automobiles? That question is posed in the new... thick annual compendium... on the health of the United States economy. The latest edition... questions whether fast-food restaurants should continue to be counted as part of the service sector or should be reclassified as manufacturers. No answers were offered.

In a speech to Washington economists Tuesday, N. Gregory Mankiw... said that properly classifying such workers was 'an important consideration' in setting economic policy. Counting jobs at McDonald's, Burger King and other fast-food enterprises alongside those at industrial companies like General Motors and Eastman Kodak might seem like a stretch... But the presidential report points out that the current system for classifying jobs 'is not straightforward.' The White House drew a box around the section so it would stand out among the 417 pages of statistics. 'When a fast-food restaurant sells a hamburger, for example, is it providing a "service" or is it combining inputs to "manufacture" a product?' "

Economic tip: Do the White House reelection campaign a favor -- stop in at McDonald's today and help America rebuild as a mighty manufacturing nation.

Have blue will travel

Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin reports on another method available to a White House election team eager to give a sunnier look to the job market before November and return hope even to those unable to get manufacturing jobs in the hamburger sector of the economy:

"This White House is known for going to great lengths to create meticulously crafted, visually resonant backdrops for the president when he's traveling -- backdrops that telegraph the message of the day even if you're not paying attention to the words. For instance, when Bush went to a window and door factory in Tampa on Monday, Mike Allen noted in The Washington Post that the White House actually brought its own windows. 'Strengthening America's Economy' was emblazoned on two fake windows that revealed an inviting blue sky."

Quagmire world

The question is whether, with $150-plus million in campaign money already available to the Bush team and the president's ads sure to begin flooding the airwaves within weeks, those blue-sky windows can be put up fast enough? My own guess is that this may prove harder than most pundits now imagine.

Let's start with the example of the Dean campaign. Among the various candidates for the Democratic nomination, his campaign alone had a prodigious amount of money to spend on ads. Once things began to unravel, however, advertising offered remarkably little traction.

Let's add in another factor: the Bush team is used to being in control. Running a campaign in a state of discontrol is not likely to play to their strengths. And here's something new for the Democrats, a reasonably well-oiled machine, so far at least, actually capable of striking back, and fast at Bush administration claims and smears, as Martin Siebert of The Associated Press tells us:

"Something has happened the likes of which have never before been seen during this residency: George W. Bush and Karl Rove are on the defensive against the lean and hungry new John Kerry attack machine, and they do not know what to do about it.

"In the past nine days alone, the president proudly unveiled his long-crafted new campaign strategy for the fall election campaign, only to scrap it within days. This is not the smooth-running Bush-Rove White House juggernaut we have gotten to know so well...

"[T]o a degree that even the political media has not commented upon yet..., [Kerry strategist Mary Beth] Cahill and her team have emulated James Carville on the 1992 Clinton campaign and set up their own 'war room.' The Kerry counterblasts against everything the president says and does are coming out fast and furious -- very furious -- and they are penetrating the media mainstream. They even managed to maul him over attending the NASCAR Daytona 500 race in Florida Sunday. As a result, Bush and Rove are now on the defensive. They have already been driven off their planned main theme of 'the war president.' Now they have been forced back to 'running on the record.'"

It's a new world when our Nascar Dad becomes Nascar Dud in the course of an hour or two; and now, when George dons anything that looks faintly like a flight suit or a uniform, even a racing jacket, something, I think, feels just a little off.

A word should be said as well about what Dean did for Kerry and the Democrats. He had a simple insight that no other major Democratic candidate had -- or more accurately, that no other major Democrat candidate had the nerve to have. About a year ago I heard him assure a small group that no Democrat could beat the President by "being Bush Lite." That was totally on target and, I believe, after a painful two years of Democratic quailing and cowardice -- leaving aside a few figures like Dean, Robert Byrd, Dennis Kucinich, Barbara Lee, and Ted Kennedy who spoke out loud and clear -- the lesson has perhaps been learned, at least for now. Or rather, put more crudely, the Democrats have smelled the blood in the water; they have finally convinced themselves that this administration is as riddled with vulnerabilities as the President's National Guard record is with holes.

Gary Younge of the British Guardian has summarized what Dean taught the Democrats, even in defeat, this way:

"His defeat indicates that even when the challenge does not succeed at the polls, it can, nonetheless, have a crucial effect on the entire political culture and enhance the electoral prospects of the centre-left as a whole. For as soon as Dean's candidacy proved viable it shifted the centre of political gravity considerably to the left, prompting a far more strident tone among all the candidates. By snatching the initiative away from the right, his candidacy made John Kerry look moderate and Bush look extreme.

"By changing the terms of the debate, Dean forced all the candidates to address the kind of questions Democratic voters were asking and for which president Bush had no answers. By the time the polls opened, it was Kerry and Dick Gephardt who had to clarify why they supported the war, rather than Dean explaining why he opposed it."

Recent polls reflect this. In a couple of them, Kerry and Edwards outpace the President in a mock election by double digits and, to cite but one recent finding, "Asked whether Bush is a leader they can trust, a stunning 61% of independent voters said they had 'doubts and reservations' in a Feb. 5-6 CNN-Time poll". That, of course, was two weeks ago, and since then the President's figures have generally continued to droop. The Washington Post, for instance, pointed out that, in a new Pew survey, "Bush's job-approval rating has dropped to 48 percent, the first time in [Pew's measurement of] his presidency that it has fallen below 50 percent."

Of course, as we all know, both Dukakis and Gore at some point in their election runs led their Republican foes by double-digit figures. We also know that all polls are but wobbly snapshots of a second in political time. More important than any poll is the situation this administration now finds itself in -- and the look of the year ahead. During the Iraq war -- the invasion of Iraq, that is, rather than the low-level but bedeviling guerrilla war that has followed -- critics (and even worried supporters as well as various military types) first raised the Vietnam-era image of "quagmire."

As the war concluded successfully ("mission accomplished" and all that), Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and others mocked the very idea that Iraq was a quagmire mission. (Though I seldom pat myself on the back this way, I did at the time urge Democrats to save those "mission accomplished" photos. I knew that the doll-like vision of our President crossing the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, with those Navy men in color-coded Day-Glo suits saluting, and that ridiculous banner fluttering overhead on a ship that had actually been held back from its homeport to allow George his G.I. Joe landing would take on a more painful look sooner or later.)

Now, we've visibly arrived at the Quagmire moment. And its source remains Iraq. We've just minted the 53rd card in our most-wanted deck for a Jordanian terrorist named Musab al-Zarqawi, but nothing can explain away the mess that is now Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani continues to insist upon fast elections; our viceroy L. Paul Bremer proclaims such elections at least 12-15 months away; the carnage in Sunni Iraq escalates; the UN vacillates; Germany and France are now talking about the need for a new UN resolution for any future mission there ("Bush administration officials said they feared that a debate over a new resolution could drag on long enough to force a postponement of the hand-over to a transitional Iraqi government. They also worry that it could provide the U.N. with enough leverage to force an overhaul of major infrastructure projects in the country, such as those for power plants and oil field redevelopment."); and no transitional government is yet in sight to turn over power to on June 30th. And that only begins the list of problems there. Iraq, already a wreck, looks like a train wreck ready to happen.

As elsewhere, the Bush administration is simply intent in Iraq on somehow making it past the November election with - somehow - an "Iraqi face" put on American power there. Talk about a state of discontrol. Now, George's guys find themselves knee deep in the Big Muddy, not just in Iraq but in Washington (the two might as well be right next door for all the administration can do about it). It looks like, barring a stroke or two of remarkable luck, they may have entered a quagmire world for the duration, which just might be January of next year.

That was the year that will be

Think about it a moment. What exactly does this administration have to look forward to in the next 8 months? They've already pumped what short-term money they could into the economy. Though they might hope to stagger through to November, the economy is now basically out of their hands. Expect higher gas prices this summer. Expect no staggering job gains. Expect a vast and embarrassing supplemental bill for Iraq/Afghanistan that will have to go through Congress (linked to ever more corporate scandals). So what conceivably looms on the horizon, other than grand juries, possible indictments, investigations, uncomfortable commissions, an unending disaster in Iraq, a vote that may not happen in forlorn Afghanistan and a score of other potential problems?

I hear speculation about a new war before the election, but I don't consider it likely. My guess is that our overstretched military would simply balk. I can think of only three obvious things that might help check or turn the administration's slipping fortunes (other, of course, than those vast campaign funds from the seemingly bottomless pockets of Bush "pioneers" and "rangers" or computer vote fraud) -- and how the first of them might play out is dicey at best. Another significant terrorist attack on the United States would certainly be a free pass to the unknown. Who knows how Americans would respond to it politically. Would the President be seen as the only man standing between us and further disaster or as the man who had not held up his end of the Homeland Security bargain?

The second would be successfully putting an "Iraqi face" on the occupation and somehow shutting down the insurgency in Central Iraq. However, the only path open to this administration guaranteed to make a political difference would be the capture of Osama bin Laden. We already know from Saddam's capture that, though such a success might be unlikely to reduce the global terror quotient significantly, it would certainly provide a month or more long "bounce" in the polls for the President and give him war-on-terror bragging rights in the fall.

It looks to me as if the administration is finally focusing on bin Laden's capture in a big way. CIA director George Tenet himself was recently spotted in Pakistan evidently making arrangements, as Syed Saleem Shahzad reported in the Asia Times on-line. Of that visit and the upcoming U.S. spring offensive, he wrote:

"Unlike in the past... when operations have focused on limited targets and been of short duration, the current offensive is all-embracing and has as its ultimate goal the destruction of the Afghan resistance (with the cherry on the top being bin Laden's capture). NATO forces have already occupied key places in Afghanistan in an attempt to block off the border and to wait for fugitives flushed out from Pakistan. The anvil is almost in place on one side of the border. Now it is up to the Pakistanis to do their bit on the other side.

"And the United States is not taking any chances. US Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet visited Islamabad recently on an unofficial trip. His team stayed in a local hotel, while Tenet was accommodated at the US Embassy. He secretly met with several high-profile Pakistani officials, including his counterpart, the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence. Sources familiar with the meetings told Asia Times Online that a roadmap was sketched for the region, including a 'full-scale war' if necessary to smoke out bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Pakistan's commitment in this was sought."

Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe fills in the picture -- one in which American troops now seem to have been granted the right to enter the tribal areas of Pakistan where bin Laden is believed to be hiding on "forays":

"Pakistan has dramatically stepped up its assistance to the US-led campaign to capture Osama bin Laden, deploying thousands of troops into its lawless northwestern frontier, pressuring tribal elders, and allowing American soldiers from neighboring Afghanistan to make forays across the border, according to senior Pentagon and Pakistani officials.... Now, however, Pentagon officials say that cross-border US patrols are more frequent and that Pakistan often allows the US forces to pursue suspects into its territory. US raiding parties enter the country almost every week, according to US military officials and military reports viewed by the Globe, although the Pakistani government officially denies it."

This is an administration -- the American one as well as the Pakistani one - that suddenly feels it's fighting for its political life and Osama would be its biggest catch. The need to get bin Laden helps explain, as Bender comments, our government's "only token protests of [Pakistani leader] Musharraf's pardon of scientist A. Q. Khan," nuclear proliferator par excellence.

In the meantime here at home, the administration is being badly harried by cross-border raids by its various domestic foes, while even among the President's top advisers, tempers are reputedly fraying and splits widening as Howard LaFranchi of the Christian Science Monitor recently reported.

"The continuing differences have only added to President Bush's woes as the White House has grappled with questions of whether what the administration knew about Iraq justified a war. But the bigger issue, some experts say, is what the differences suggest about the administration's ability to confront continuing problems, like North Korea and Iran, especially as Bush enters a battle for reelection."

The other day I wrote a dispatch, 'Justice à l'Orange', in which I laid out a list of the scandals, investigations, grand juries, possible indictments, commissions and the like that this administration was dragging behind it. Almost no time has passed and yet new problems are already piling up. So consider this a little addition to my list. I have the feeling that others will quickly follow:

The courts

How about, for instance, the federal prosecutor from Detroit who's just instituted a whistle-blower suit against John Ashcroft?

"A federal prosecutor in a major terrorism case in Detroit has taken the rare step of suing Attorney General John Ashcroft, alleging the Justice Department interfered with the case, compromised a confidential informant and exaggerated results in the war on terrorism.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino of Detroit accused the Justice Department of 'gross mismanagement' of the war on terrorism in a whistleblower lawsuit filed late Friday in federal court in Washington.... Convertino came under internal investigation last fall after providing information to a Senate committee about his concerns about the war on terror. His testimony came just months after he helped convict some members of an alleged terrorism cell in Detroit... Convertino is seeking damages under the First Amendment and Privacy Act, alleging he has been subjected to an internal investigation as retaliation for his cooperation with the Senate and that information from the internal probe was wrongly leaked to news media."

Retaliation? Doesn't that have a familiarly outing-Plame-ish ring to it?

In the meantime, the Supreme Court has just agreed to add the Jose Padilla case, another war-on-terror case that this administration once hoped to shield from all judicial review, to its already loaded docket. It will clearly now decide the limits of what this administration can do "legally," of whom it can hold and under what conditions, in the name of fighting terrorism:

"The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether the Constitution forbids the Bush administration from holding U.S. citizens indefinitely and without access to lawyers or courts when they are suspected of being 'enemy combatants'... The Padilla case is a companion to another terrorism case the court was already set to hear this spring. Together, the Yaser Esam Hamdi and Padilla cases will allow the high court to take its most comprehensive look so far at the constitutional and legal rights of Americans caught up in the global war on terror."

Though we have no way of knowing how the court will act on this, it's a pre-election confrontation the Bush men did not want. They truly imagined themselves beyond the law in their self-described apocalyptic World War IV. So keep an eye out for Rumsfeld v. Padilla, 03-1027. It will be in the docket and in the news.

Investigations

Despite being controlled by the President's own party, the Senate Intelligence Committee, investigating prewar intelligence failures, recently decided to expand its investigation to include the administration's creation, use, and abuse of intelligence. Now, Democratic Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher is threatening to force a similar investigation in the House.

"Two Pentagon offices that critics say twisted intelligence to bolster the case for war with Iraq are facing fresh scrutiny... At issue are the activities of the Office of Special Plans and the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, which operated under the auspices of Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defence for policy and a leading Pentagon hawk...

'What is deeply troubling is that this was an administration that was hell-bent on using force,' said Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat who says these Pentagon operations 'cherry picked' intelligence to amplify bad news and nullify caveats. Ms Tauscher has introduced a bill to create a special House of Representatives panel to examine Iraq intelligence, including whether the Office of Special Plans competed with or undercut established intelligence agencies."

Of course, as the Republicans control the House, this might seem an unlikely possibility. The same, however, could have been said only weeks ago of the Senate investigation's new focus. It's but another small thing for this administration to worry about.

Into the quagmire of Iraqi contracts

The ever-widening Halliburton and Bechtel contract-awarding scandals in Iraq now may have a sprightly new neighbor, one that threatens to alienate key allies in the "coalition." According to T. Christian Miller of the Los Angeles Times:

"The award of a major contract to equip the new Iraqi army has triggered an uproar in staunch U.S. allies Poland and Spain, where officials are questioning why their nations' experienced arms firms lost out to an American company with little history in such projects. The $327-million contract to supply everything from canteens to AK-47s was awarded in January to Nour USA, a Virginia-based company whose president is A. Huda Farouki. Farouki is a close friend of Ahmad Chalabi, a controversial member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council who has close ties with some Pentagon officials...

The controversy over the contract has generated headlines in Poland, whose military is now commanding 10,000 multinational troops in Iraq. Political leaders all but promised voters the country's participation with the U.S. in Iraq would lead to contracts, and both President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Leszek Miller lobbied the Bush administration heavily in favor of Bumar."

Ahmed Chalabi. Don't the same few names just pop up over and over and over again? As it happens, Poland has now lodged an official protest about this contract in Washington, "throwing into doubt one of the United States' largest and most prominent nation-building projects... The protest, filed with the General Accounting Office, could delay the equipping of the planned 40,000-man Iraqi army, which the coalition authority is training in preparation for the planned hand-over of sovereignty to Iraq this summer."

Doesn't it just get curiouser and curiouser?

And what of our docile media?

Nothing could be worse for this administration than the fact that, at this crucial moment, its stranglehold on the media seems to be slipping badly. Let's be blunt here. These last two years have been inglorious ones for the media, if measured by general timidity and docility in the face of what will someday be seen as the most radical government in our history, one which launched simultaneous assaults on the economy, the well-being of Americans, the environment, and the world. Facing an administration thinking in the largest, most imperial, most utopian (or dystopian) terms, the media simply, shamefully, demobilized, leaving most Americans in remarkable ignorance about what was being done in their names -- and to them.

That the media recently sensed vulnerability in Washington and, like the Democrats, turned on a dime should not exactly qualify as a profile in courage. After all, pack journalism is, as we've seen these last two years, also pack-it-in journalism. As Timothy M. Phelps, Newsday's Washington bureau chief, wrote recently:

"Suddenly, the frequently docile White House press corps seemed to smell blood. The questions Tuesday about the president's National Guard service were hard, persistent, almost rude. Scott McClellan, the presidential spokesman, was squirming like a worm on the hook. It was a far cry from the days when his predecessor, Ari Fleischer, would slough off reporters' probing with a quick barb and a sweet smile.

Something changed in Washington last week, and it wasn't the weather. "When the press smells fear, they start acting differently," said one Washington Democrat who has witnessed such carnage before. The change in atmosphere has been building for several weeks. President George W. Bush's performance in his State of the Union address Jan. 20 was panned even by some Republicans. Then David Kay, the person he appointed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, said he had found none and did not expect that to change, directly contradicting the confident predictions of the president and the vice president."

In this sense, important as Kay's statements were nationally, nothing may have been more important to the media than Tim Russert's Meet the Press presidential interview -- or rather George's look of defensiveness, of vulnerability, under polite but more-persistent-than-usual questioning. The impression of weakness it left with the press itself may prove lasting.

Here's just a sample of the sort of questioning of administration spokesman Scott McClellan now taking place regularly in the White House pressroom, the sort of questioning not so long ago left to Helen Thomas and foreign journalists:

"Q But it would appear, though, that people very high up in this administration didn't have a whole lot of faith in the forecast of the [economic] report that went up to Congress just a week ago in terms of the job creation numbers.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Again, it's an annual economic report that is put out by the administration based on the economic modeling and the data that's available at that point in time.

"Q Can you answer the specific question, though? Was this report -- was the prediction of this many jobs, 2.6 million jobs, vetted prior to publication by the entire economic team?

"MR. McCLELLAN: It's an annual report, David. It goes through the usual -- it goes through the usual --

"Q That's not the question. Was it or was it not vetted by the entire economic team?

"MR. McCLELLAN: It's an annual report. It goes through the usual --

"Q So you don't know, or it was, or it wasn't?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Can I get -- can I finish that sentence?

"Q When you answer the question. Let's hear it. What's the answer?

"MR. McCLELLAN: The answer was, it is an annual economic report and it goes through the normal vetting process. And if you would let me get to that, I would answer your question.

"Q -- the full economic team vetted the prediction --

"MR. McCLELLAN: It's an annual economic report. It's the President's Economic Report. But again, the President --

"Q Just say yes or no --

"MR. McCLELLAN: -- it goes through the normal -- it goes through the normal vetting process.

"Q So the answer is, yes. I'm not done yet, I've got another one.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Okay.

"Q Why -- if you're suggesting that people will debate the numbers, that's kind of a backhanded way to say, oh, who cares about the numbers. Well, apparently, the President's top economic advisors do, because that's why they wrote a very large report and sent it to Congress. So why was the prediction made in the first place, if the President and you and his Treasury Secretary were going to just back away from it?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I disagree with the premise of the way you stated that. This is the annual Economic Report of the President and the economic modeling is done this way every year. It's been done this way for 20-some years.

"Q So why not -- why aren't you standing behind it?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think what the President stands behind is the policies that he is implementing, the policies that he is advocating. That's what's important.

"Q That's not in dispute. The number is the question.

"MR. McCLELLAN: I know, but the President's concern is on the number of jobs being created --

"Q My question is, why was the prediction made --

"MR. McCLELLAN: -- and the President's focus is on making sure that people who are hurting because they cannot find work have a job. That's where the President's focus is.

"Q Then why predict a number? Why was the number predicted? Why was the number predicted? You can't get away with not -- just answer the question. Why was that number predicted?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I've been asked this, and I've asked -- I've been asked, and I've answered.

"Q No, you have not answered. And everybody watching knows you haven't answered.

"MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree."

As Robert Kuttner recently commented in a Boston Globe column, "Once a president loses a docile press, he seldom gets it back."

I'll also recommend a grimly amusing piece on the pack news mentality by Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman, who during this period never stowed away his own idiosyncratic voice. ("As recent events have begun to demonstrate, however, our patriotic duty changes the moment that a president slips in popularity, at which point he becomes fair game, and we are obligated under the First Amendment to attack him for even the slightest, most innocent of errors, like a pack of heartless hyenas taking down a crippled zebra."). Finally, I'll call your attention to a piece by William E. Jackson, Jr., from Editor & Publisher magazine on-line, on the way The New York Times, having essentially promoted the administration's WMD policies by reporting trash direct from that man-of-all-seasons Ahmed Chalabi and from the men who brought you the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, has never even bothered to correct the record on the matter.

Since the media will largely write the history of itself, should the Bush administration go down, we'll undoubtedly hear much about intrepid reporters and a bold, independent press. Should it not, there's always that dime, still on the ground, to spin on.

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch, a web-log of The Nation Institute.

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