Bush's 'Mess,' Clinton's Free Pass

Posted: Oct 29, 2003 12:00 AM

The cover of Newsweek screams from the mailbox and the magazine rack: "BUSH'S $87 BILLION MESS." In case that rhetorical punch isn't strong enough, it adds the promise of uncovering "Waste, Chaos and Cronyism." Today's task for deniers of liberal media bias is set. Please find a Newsweek from the Clinton era with the words "mess" or "cronyism" next to a picture of that president.

Since the Clinton foreign policy team rarely risked top-of-the-news foreign policy initiatives (and certainly never wanted to risk an American casualty), the typical foreign-policy cover story of the second Clinton term read: "Mad About Madeleine: Washington Loves Her. Will the Rest of the World?" Team Clinton's infamous diplomacy-for-donors schedule of foreign trips and its shameless milking of foreign donors for campaign soft money, including cocaine kings and Beijing-connected "businessmen," were never newsworthy enough to be considered cover-story material, apparently, and never mind a "mess."

"Clinton" and "mess" didn't even merge on the Newsweek cover when he made a hash of his presidency with the Monica Lewinsky mess. Instead, the "news" magazine employed headlines like "The Secret Sex Wars." Or, after the April 1998 dismissal of the Paula Jones case, the cover announced: "Clinton Wins a Big One. Now It's Starr's Turn to PUT UP OR SHUT UP." In case you weren't sure how Newsweek felt about Clinton and his opponents, the first edition after the Republicans flopped in the 1998 midterms carried a photo of Newt Gingrich and just these words, bold and taunting: "THE LOSER."

President Clinton could have faced tough questions and embarrassment in October of 2000, after two terrorists in a tiny boat blew up the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. But Newsweek's cover read simply "Target America." Inside, Jonathan Alter had no tough words about a Clinton "mess," that a great power could be so humiliated by a small band of thugs, the way reporters now view the Fedayeen insurgency. He made excuses: "Clinton was no doubt making contingency plans for retaliation" -- which did not materialize. In another story, the magazine sympathetically recounted how Clinton noted the irony to aides that Americans would now have to experience "the same anger, frustration and powerlessness felt by those in the Middle East." There's a campaign slogan for you: Vote for The New Powerlessness.

Now, President Bush has risked his entire political career and dared to endure American casualties overthrowing Saddam Hussein, one of the world's most savage dictators, a tyrant who mocked the entire international community and its half-hearted statements on behalf of peace and non-proliferation, and what does he get? Reporters blowing horns about a "mess" they hope will turn him out of office.

Newsweek's Howard Fineman began the political spin by suggesting that flinty New Hampshire Republican types were shrinking at the irresponsible $87 billion price tag as violating their sense of "Yankee thrift." Hillary Cleveland, who was New Hampshire finance director for George Bush Sr. in 1980, is now leaving the Republican Party so she can vote for Howard Dean. Newsweek is hereby challenged to explain how the words "Yankee thrift" and "Howard Dean" go together in any mathematical way.

Fineman's spin is encapsulated in his quotation of polltaker John Zogby: "The president has handed Democrats a huge issue called '87 billion' ... That much money crystallizes everyone's concerns about the war." He also desperately inflated how Sen. John McCain is now making comparisons between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War, even as the senator attempted not to sound as crazy as media liberals by insisting "I'm not saying the situation in Iraq now is as bad as Vietnam."

In short, Fineman's article reads as if he was given the following instructions from editors: "Please be the wind beneath Howard Dean's wings."

Newsweek is not alone. Time magazine has also carried sassy covers since the war ended. One July cover with a picture of President Bush at January's State of the Union screamed: "UNtruth and Consequences." And how's this for bizarre: In August of 1998, after President Clinton admitted to Kenneth Starr's team that he had lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, the Time cover carried a black and white picture of Clinton with the words "Truth and Consequences."

The snide campaign continued when the Oct. 6 edition echoed that failing-Bush theme with "Mission NOT Accomplished." For the Oct. 13 issue, Time touted "The War Over the Leak," putting Bush-hater Joe Wilson at the center of the cover and its cover story.

Reporters are succeeding in their lobbying campaign to blacken Bush's foreign-policy performance. No one should accept that these magazines are just passive players who respond with added toughness to any president when he appears vulnerable to charges of policy mismanagement. They felt Clinton's pain. Now they administer pain to Bush.