Vice President Dick Cheney addressed prewar intelligence and the debate surrounding it yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute. Such a succinct and effective speech ought to warrant very little parsing. Yet leave it to Washington reporters to mold a rather simple event to a predetermined story line. In this case, they reported Cheney as "lashing out" at critics and backing away from administration attacks. Well, which is it? As it turns out, neither.
Unfortunately, some of the parsers need parsing. The who-said-what debate surrounding Rep. Jack Murtha's comments and the ensuing controversy has suffered from confusion and mangled facts. The coverage of Cheney's AEI speech is no different. So let us sort it out:
David Stout of the New York Times took his shots early and often. In his report, he takes issue with Cheney objecting to criticisms that the administration deceived the country. His third paragraph reports that the Vice President welcomes debate on the issues. The fourth paragraph tries to depict Cheney's arguments as contradicting this sentiment:
But moments later, he described as "dishonest and reprehensible" any suggestion that President Bush or anyone in his administration had manipulated intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
"Moments later"? How dramatic! It's as if two Dick Cheneys spoke at AEI yesterday: one who welcomes debate, and one who then actually engages in it!
Stout not only adds drama to this mix, but he skews what Cheney actually said. Stout's version of events sounds more like Downing Street Memo language of "intelligence and facts being fixed around the policy." However, Cheney said it's "dishonest and reprehensible" to suggest the President and his administration "purposely misled" the American public on prewar intelligence. Stout drastically lowers Cheney's threshold for "dishonest and reprehensible," and in so doing, falsely portrays Cheney's standards for unacceptable discourse.
The AP's generic headline is amusing for its color if not its veracity: "Cheney Lashes Out at Bush's Iraq Critics." UPI chimed in, "Cheney takes swipe at Iraq critics." Such a speech sounds violent -- and much more eventful than the one I attended yesterday.
The most misleading aspect of reports of Cheney's speech is their repetition of the conventional wisdom that the White House smeared Jack Murtha after he advocated pulling out of Iraq. Mark Kilmer detailed this faulty reporting at RedState, but it bears repeating. In initial reports, and as still posted at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Associated Press summarized Cheney's AEI remarks thusly, "Cheney backed away from earlier administration characterizations of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., as a coward..."
Which administration official called Murtha a coward? Kilmer points out that the only notable Republican -- not administration -- official on record as using Murtha's name and "coward" in the same sentence is Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio). And she was relating what a Marine colonel said.
The administration's statement, by Press Secretary Scott McClellan, was personally complimentary, but took issue with Murtha's position:
Congressman Murtha is a respected veteran and politician who has a record of supporting a strong America. So it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party. The eve of an historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists. After seeing his statement, we remain baffled -- nowhere does he explain how retreating from Iraq makes America safer.
The Associated Press later revised the Murtha-coward sentence of its dispatch to read, "But Cheney stopped short of joining those Republicans who have questioned the patriotism of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., calling him 'a good man, a Marine, a patriot.'" Even this revision is misleading. If anything Cheney affirmed the need for a healthy debate on the beginning and ongoing conduct of the war. He was warm and respectful, calling Murtha "a friend and former colleague."
Those are just a few articles covering 20 minutes out of the Vice President's day. One can only imagine how much the press gets wrong on this subject alone, on a daily basis, much less over the entire Bush presidency. Don't believe everything you read in the papers.