As the news bubbled up on early Sunday morning that Saddam Hussein had been captured, the White House publicity line was crystal clear. It was "a no-gloat zone," they reported on TV. That's smart politics -- humility in triumph, generosity with your opponents, moderation on a new international obstacle course -- but it's completely unsatisfying to hooting, cheering war supporters.
Many Americans who've had their fill of the media and their perpetually overflowing cup of negativity stumbled to the TV set in their pajamas and erupted with delight at the left's plight: Take that, Peter Jennings! What are you going to put on the cover now, Time magazine -- "Mission STILL Not Accomplished"? When will these thinly disguised DNC publicists make Howard Dean eat his Ben and Jerry's tub of Dovish Crow?
For his part, Howard Dean tried to appear diplomatic, suggesting Bush should have "his day" on Sunday. But some reporters weren't even willing to give him even that much. On the whole, the anchors and reporters made no effort to disrupt such a glorious day, but there were some ridiculous exceptions.
The worst moment on Sunday came from ABC's Peter Jennings, blatantly raining on the Saddam-capture parade. Typically, Peter went looking for Bush-hating stick figures to dance around in his TelePrompter for his nebulous "many people say" declarations. "People have suggested to us today, there's not a good deal for Iraqis to be happy about at the moment. ... In some respects, Iraqis keep telling us life is not as stable for them as it was when Saddam Hussein was in power."
Maybe last week, and maybe next week, an objective person could say that life is still hard for the Iraqi people. But to peer into a camera on the day that Saddam Hussein is captured and foolishly mouth the words that there's not much for Iraqis to "be happy about at this moment"? Let's be blunt: Peter Jennings is underlining himself in Hi-Liter Yellow as so hopelessly, knee-jerkingly anti-war -- if not anti-American -- that he can't see the Iraqi crowds joyously waving red flags in the streets. They must be delusional, not him.
The other extreme groaning moment of Sunday night came on CBS, where Lesley Stahl landed an interview with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Unaware she was drawing herself as a cartoon, she worried about the hospitality Saddam would receive: "Let me raise the whole question, for lack of a better term, (of) torture. Let's say he's not forthcoming. Would we deprive him of sleep, would we make it very cold where he is or very hot? Are there any restrictions on the way we treat him to get him to cooperate more than he has been?"
Anti-Saddam viewers were itching for Rumsfeld to unload, and he quickly expressed the right note of disbelief that anyone would use the word "torture" to describe the temperature in Saddam's cell: "We don't torture people. And here's a man who has tortured to death tens of thousands of people, conducted rape and brutality the likes of which it would be difficult to find a more vicious and brutal dictator in our adult lifetimes."
They really ought to assemble a focus group, like political consultants do for candidates, so Jennings, Stahl & Co. can watch the people meters head quickly for the basement when they say idiotic things like these. Don't they know they're digging themselves a Saddam-size hole?
Luckily, these examples of foolishness did not overwhelm the warm feelings coast to coast and did not represent the grudgingly positive, hard-to-dismiss "We Got Him" coverage that dominated the day. The capture of Saddam Hussein had a dramatic effect on the gloomy prognosticators of the Quagmire Corps. Not only had the supposedly incompetent armed forces found a vicious tyrant in a spider hole in a country the size of California. Suddenly, they rediscovered that, you know what, Saddam is a rather bad fellow. Suddenly, the quagmire talk was replaced by a rediscovery of torture chambers, chemical gassings and mass graves.
A Saddam trial could have the salutary educational benefit of pounding these points home, so Saddam could appear to be at least as much of a criminal as Scott Peterson and the other favorite cable-media murder cases. But if Saddam starts to take the stand of a trial to spout the Ramsey Clark lines -- President Bush made all this stuff up to get my oil wells -- don't count out the media to be a willing public-relations echo chamber, just as they were for the Clark camp before the war.
So Saddam-slamming gloaters, gloat while you can. The happy news won't stay happy. The wait won't be long for the partisan media negativity to return, trying to turn the American public back around to the "colossal mistake" mantra of most of the Democratic primary field.