During today’s White House press briefing, Scott McClellan took a comment by President Bush out of context, and in doing so may have created a rallying cry for conservatives.
McClellan was answering a question regarding Vice President Dick Cheney’s speech today before the conservative-friendly American Enterprise Institute, during which Cheney defended the Iraq War as being a necessary part of the war on terror, and not something that “stirred up a hornet’s nest” of terrorism.
From the press conference:
Q “We weren’t in Iraq on September 11th and the terrorists hit us anyway.” Would you not agree that there’s some linkage there?
McCLELLAN: No, I think he’s making the point that the president made last week, that those who suggest that if we weren’t in Iraq, that the terrorists would just be idle. That’s an absurd allegation, because the terrorists are determined to spread their fear and chaos and violence throughout the civilized world. They attacked us well before we were in Iraq; they attacked other countries well before any decisions were made to go into Iraq.
I read the comments, and couldn’t think of a single Democrat who had made the “absurd allegation” that if we weren’t in Iraq, the terrorists would be idle. (The White House press corps apparently didn’t come to the same conclusion, letting McClellan’s comment go by unchallenged.)
After all, the Democrats had universally supported the war in Afghanistan and the effort to hunt down Osama Bin Laden, and to dismantle Al Qaeda. What Democrat would suggest the equivalent of closing our eyes and hoping terrorism goes away? None.
McClellan’s comment seemed so “absurd,” I had to wonder why President Bush would make such an “absurd allegation.”
Funny thing. He didn’t.
During his Nov. 30 speech in Annapolis, MD, during which Bush offered the Orwellian-themed “Plan For Victory,” this is what he actually said:
BUSH: This is an enemy without conscience — and they cannot be appeased. If we were not fighting and destroying this enemy in Iraq, they would not be idle. They would be plotting and killing Americans across the world and within our own borders. By fighting these terrorists in Iraq, Americans in uniform are defeating a direct threat to the American people.
No dig against war critics. Just a straightforward defense of the war, which McClellan took out of context.
Let’s hope that the conservative noise machine isn’t paying attention, because McClellan’s version of Bush’s comment — in the hands of a Rush or Sean or Bill — is gold. It’s a rallying cry for conservatives who may be questioning the growing cost — financial and human — of fighting this war.
Words are a funny thing. You change them ever so slightly, and you can create a completely new meaning.
McClellan’s subtle revision of Bush’s comments may have been inadvertent. We won’t know unless someone in the White House press corps asks.
But minor changes in phrasing have greatly benefitted conseratives in the past. The most classic example of this came in 1999, when conservatives created, then preached the canard that Vice President Al Gore claimed to “invent the Internet.” Within days, the fake quote had been accepted by the mainstream media as fact.
Don’t believe it? On March 9, 1999, Gore was interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
BLITZER: I want to get to some of the substance of domestic and international issues in a minute, but let’s just wrap up a little bit of the politics right now.Why should Democrats, looking at the Democratic nomination process, support you instead of Bill Bradley, a friend of yours, a former colleague in the Senate? What do you have to bring to this that he doesn’t necessarily bring to this process?
GORE: Well, I will be offering — I’ll be offering my vision when my campaign begins. And it will be comprehensive and sweeping. And I hope that it will be compelling enough to draw people toward it. I feel that it will be.But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I’ve traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives …
Blitzer didn’t skip a beat during the interview. Why? Because it was well-established fact that within his role in Congress, Gore had championed funding the transformation of the Arpanet – a government-only vehicle – into the Internet, something the public could use. There are literally dozens of Internet experts who have been interviewed confirming this, and even Gore’s colleagues, including the likes of Newt Gingrich, agreed that Gore was a leader on the issue.
The Washington Post, the Washington Times, Hotline and the Associated Press covered the interview, but none mentioned the Internet remark.
But then someone decided the truth wasn’t good enough, and subtly took Gore’s comments out of context, so as to make them sound absurd. That person was Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX). On March 11, he issued a press release in which he mocked Gore with his revisionist phrasing: “If the vice president created the Internet then I created the Interstate highway system.”
That same day, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) jumped on the bandwagon with a separate press release, in which he mocked Gore, saying: “I had no idea my friend Al Gore created the Internet.”
The conservative noise machine kept pushing the storyline, and by March 15, the mainstream media was repeating it. USA Today wrote an editorial titled “Inventing the Internet.” Al Kamen used the phrase in his Washington Post column. Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball mocked Gore for saying he “invented the Internet.” Judy Woodruff, hosting CNN’s Inside Politics, chided Gore as “inventor of the Internet.” The embellished phrase reached the Los Angeles Times on March 18, the Boston Globe on March 20 and the AP on March 22.
Conservatives then needed to take Gore out of context to create a straw man they could knock down. Once the out-of-context “quote” had taken hold, it was much easier for conservatives to spin that Gore was a liar.
Could the same thing happen now with McClellan’s out-of-context variation of Bush’s words? Stranger things have happened.
This item first appeared at Journalists Against Bush’s B.S.