It's quite amazing what spurious nonsense a politician can get away with saying in Washington -- if there's a "D" next to his or her name. Rep. Jim Moran can claim the Iraq war's all the fault of the Jewish lobby. Rep. Marcy Kaptur can compare Osama bin Laden to Ethan Allen and the Founding Fathers (religious nuts all, apparently). The most powerful Democrats can make outrageous, spit-take gaffes or drop-dead serious insults, and do so with abandon, knowing the press will let them get away with it.
On Monday, March 17, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle spoke softly, then whacked George W. Bush in the face with a big stick: "I'm saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war, saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country."
Republicans were furious. They sent e-mails around noting Daschle's remarks from last September, when he suggested the looming war should not be a political football for Karl Rove and other GOP strategists because we "ought not politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death."
But the network news stars suggested this was a sad and regrettable moment ... for Republicans! The TV spin did not center on how Daschle showed breathtakingly stupid political judgment, coupled with dazzling mean-spiritedness, for blaming any imminent combat deaths on President Bush on the brink of war. Instead, the ridiculous media spin was that censorious Republicans won't allow anyone to raise questions of any kind about Bush. When the anchormen finally arrived on Daschle's death talk on Tuesday night, more than 24 hours (a media lifetime) after the offending remarks, their coverage looked as if it was being directed by James Carville. All squinty eyes of disdain were ordered to be shot at the GOP.
ABC's Peter Jennings reported Republicans were "going after" Daschle for "criticizing President Bush's war plans." Over at NBC, Tom Brokaw found all the harshness at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: "At the White House today there were lots of harsh words directed at Democrats on Capitol Hill. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in particular." NBC reporter Campbell Brown relayed the talking points from the DNC: It was a pre-emptive strike, orchestrated by the White House, to try to intimidate Democratic dissent before war even started.
CBS reporter Bill Plante at least suggested the news story began with Daschle, whose remarks "caused a stir." Yet CBS (and NBC, too) cut Daschle's remarks in half, editing out the second half of the sentence about soldiers giving up their lives because President Bush wasn't nice enough to the French. (NBC repeated the Daschle-enabling edit the next morning on "Today." ) The Republicans were underlining that friendly-fire fragment in their e-mails as the most outrageous part, yet still the networks left it on their cutting room floors. So who was really censoring Daschle for political reasons at a tender time?
When Daschle made the rounds of the morning interview shows on Friday morning, he received more kid-gloves treatment. On CBS, Harry Smith referred to how Daschle merely "talked about the failure of diplomacy," and for that, "Republicans were actually questioning your patriotism?" This allowed Daschle to lecture that it's sad that as we fight for democracy abroad, "there are some in this country who would squelch it."
NBC's Katie Couric finally showed the more complete Daschle quote, but immediately followed up with a more supportive Daschle quote from later in the week and asked simply "why the change of heart?" Daschle announced, "this is the time for us to unite."
But Democrats continue having trouble uniting behind the president they hate. As House leaders moved a resolution praising President Bush for his courage and leadership, 11 Democrats voted no, and another 21 voted "present" on the resolution supporting the troops and the commander-in-chief in the midst of war. Eight of the 11 naysayers and 15 of the 21 "present"-voting protesters were members of the Congressional Black Caucus. One hopes our fighting black soldiers remember this when they return home.
But none of this qualified as news in TV-land, even as Peter Jennings was complaining out loud on Friday night that the Bush administration suffers from a "tendency" to "pretend" protests aren't happening. It's just another example of an unspoken rule: The liberals in charge of ABC, CBS and NBC believe that anything that could qualify as Republican talking points about Democratic behavior will not be defined as "news." Democrats, on the other hand, are genetically incapable of making gaffes. And when they go over the top or into the sewer, it is not to be reported. Such is the science of "news" at the broadcast networks.