Bush critics: still evil, crazy extremists

Joe Klein's bizarre beach outburst reveals much about how Beltway mavens continue to think.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Update II)

Time‘s Joe Klein was at a beach party last weekend and was confronted about his recent, vague statement that “there are Democrats who are so solicitous of civil liberties that they would undermine legitimate covert intelligence collection.”  The person doing the confronting was Aimai of NoMoreMisterNiceBlog — who also happens to be the granddaughter of I.F. Stone (which ends up being relevant to the confrontation) — and she masterfully recounts the revealing and hilarious Klein outburst that ensued, during which, among other things, he accused me of being “evil,” a “crazy civil liberties absolutist”  and “crazily anti-national security.” 

Much of this is just standard Klein.  He’s been “accusing” me for years of being what he calls a “civil liberties extremist” or “monomaniacal on the subject of civil liberties” — as though that’s some type of insult, when I view it as being exactly the opposite.  For reasons I recently explained — in response to to Michael Massing’s Chuck-Todd-echoing accusation in The New York Review of Books that I fail to take into account ”practical considerations” when advocating various views — it’s impossible to believe in constitutional principles and the rule of law without being “extremist” and even ”absolute” because that is the nature of those guarantees.  

But the more significant aspect of Klein’s outburst is its relationship to the lesson revealed by Marc Ambinder’s similar outburst earlier this week, in which Ambinder insisted that those who were right about Bush extremism and criminality nonetheless deserved to be ignored and marginalized because they were such hate-driven extremists (Politico‘s Mike Allen, on right-wing radio, similarly called such people “left-wing haters”).  Paul Krugman aptly summarized the meaning of the Ambinder episode:

It was clear from any serious analysis of that record that the Bush people consistently relied on lies and misinformation to sell their policies, consistently abused power for political gain. . . . [I]t’s really sad that those who missed the obvious, who failed to see what was right in front of their noses, still consider themselves superior to those who got it right.

Just think about this:  Joe Klein is someone who went on Meet the Press in February, 2003 and urged that the U.S. invade Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings.  Once the war went bad, he lied and claimed he never supported itIn February, 2002, he bitterly mocked Europeans for complaining about torture at Guantanamo; insisted the U.S. would never do any such thing; and said Gitmo detainees should “be dressed in pink tutus, to give them an appreciation of the freedoms accorded western ballerinas.”  In 2006, he went on national television and grotesquely said we should consider a first-strike nuclear attack on Iran, and then apologized the next week only because his phraseology was ”a technical violation of a long-standing [diplomatic] protocol” for how such ideas should be expressed — as though rules for how government officials speak bind him as a “journalist.”  And when George Bush got caught breaking the law by spying on Americans with no warrants, Klein immediately demanded that Democrats do nothing to oppose it and then even infamously proclaimed that he supports the spying program even though he has virtually no idea what the program does.

Yet someone with that record — the U.S. is not torturing!; put Gitmo detainees in tu-tus; start a pointless war that slaughters hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings; incinerate Iran with nuclear weapons; Bush has the right to break the law — can and does still parade around, and be treated, as the Serious responsible centrist.  Conversely, those who opposed all of that are — to use Klein’s words — Evil Extremists and Crazy Absolutists.  And Klein is hardly unique in that regard.  Much of the Beltway political and media establishment supported all of those same things and yet still considers itself the sane, responsible centrists — as Atrios recently said, nobody lost their job over any of this (other than the war-and-media-criticizing Ashiegh Banfield).  The overriding Beltway dogma, still, is that the true irresponsible extremists are the “leftists” who stood in opposition to all of that (as I detail in the post below from earlier today, exactly the same thing is happening now in the health care debate, as the conventional Beltway wisdom has ossified that it is the childish, petulant ideological Left that, as always, is to blame for the intractable health care dispute).

Speaking of Chuck Todd and his “30,000 feet” mentality, the superb journalist Jeremy Scahill was on Bill Maher’s HBO show on Friday night — along with Todd, Jay Leno, and Rep. Jan Schakoswky — to talk about Blackwater (about which Scahill wrote the definitive book), but Scahill used the opportunity to take Todd to task for, among other things, the comments he made in his interview with me dismissing criminal investigations as pie-in-the-sky Leftist naïveté .  The first part of the discussion can be seen here, but the Scahill-Todd exchange begins with this clip [Video clip blocked by You Tube at HBO's request; a snippet of the video can be seen here]:

Todd’s condescending responses illustrate the same point as the above episodes with Klein and Ambinder:  in the eyes of Beltway mavens, those who warned about and worked against the radicalism and lawbreaking of the Bush administration are the fringe, crazed, out-of-touch radicals.  While Todd was fiddling around with pretty colored maps and fun polling games, Scahill was courageously investigating one of the most corrupt, dangerous and lethal private corporations in the world, yet it’s Todd who understands and must solemnly explain the hardened realities of politics to Scahill, the confused and silly Leftist.

There’s little question that when people look back at this period in American history, it will be difficult to comprehend what happened in the Bush era — and especially how we blithely started a devastating war over complete fiction, while simultaneously instituting a criminal torture regime and breaking whatever laws we wanted.  But far more remarkable still will be the fact that, other than a handful of low-level sacrificial lambs, those responsible — both in politics and the establishment media — not only suffered no consequences, but continued to wield exactly the same power, with exactly the same level of pompous self-regard, as they did before all of that happened.  Looking back several decades or more from now, who will possibly be able to understand how that happened:  the almost perfect inverse relationship between one’s culpability and the price they paid for what they unleashed?


UPDATE:  According to Scahill (via email), Todd approached him after the Maher show and the following occurred:

Right as we walked off stage, he said to me “that was a cheap shot.” I said “what are you talking about?” and he said “you know it.” I then said that I monitor msm coverage very closely and asked him what was not true that I said on the show. He then replied: ”that’s not the point. You sullied my reputation on TV.”

Media stars are so unaccustomed to being held accountable for the impact of their behavior — especially when they’re on television — that they consider it a grievous assault on their entitlement when it happens.


UPDATE II:  An HBO complaint apparently caused YouTube to remove the clip posted above (several minutes of video of a political argument involving NBC’s White House Correspondent is not fair use?), but a fairly representative snippet of the Scahill-Todd exchange can be seen here.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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