Limitless wrongness

The media narrative about the Petraeus/MoveOn week was wrong in every respect.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published September 18, 2007 3:13PM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Here is a review of what we learned last week from the right-wing noise machine and their enabling media puppets: Americans trust Gen. Petraeus and do not want his credibility questioned. The week was a big win for President Bush and his Iraq policy. The MoveOn newspaper ad, like 9/11, was Going to Change Everything -- it was a devastating event for Democrats, a transformative moment that would embolden Republicans and revitalize support for the war.

A new CBS poll, comparing the views of Americans Before Petraues (B.P.) and After Petraeus (A.P.), demonstrates that all of that was completely wrong:

Most Americans continue to want troops to start coming home from Iraq, and most say the plan President Bush announced last week for troop reductions doesn't go far enough, according to a CBS News poll released Monday. . . .

Sixty-eight percent of Americans say that U.S. troop levels in Iraq should either be reduced or that all troops should be removed - similar numbers to those before Mr. Bush's speech.

In fact, it is even worse than that, since the percentage of Americans who believe we should either maintain or increase our current troops levels in Iraq was higher B.P. (30%) than it is A.P. (27%). Conversely, the percentage of Americans who want a troop reduction or complete withdrawal increased after the Petraeus Week (from 65% to 68%).

More revealingly still, only a small minority of Americans -- the depressingly familiar Bush dead-enders -- actually believe Gen. Petraeus' claims that "the surge has made things in Iraq better." A substantial majority of Americans disbelieves the assertions of The General Who Must Not be Challenged:

The poll also found that despite optimistic assessments of the U.S. troop surge by Mr. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Americans are unconvinced that the surge is working.

Only about one in three (31 percent) said the surge has made things in Iraq better, while more than half (51 percent) say it's had no impact. Eleven percent [11 percent] say it's made things worse.

Rudy Giuliani, Sean Hannity and much of the chattering class insisted all week that it was "despicable" for Senators such as Hillary Clinton to suggest that The General's claims of Progress were not believable. Yet most Americans are similarly "despicable," as they appear to share that sentiment. A despicable 62% do not believe Gen. Petraeus' sunny claims about Progress.

In military dictatorships, War Generals have the right to demand that their claims about war be blindly accepted and believed, and that is the unquestioning mentality which Rudy Giuliani embraces and believes we should accord Gen. Petraeus (even in the face of a long history of highly dubious and inaccurate claims about the war) -- "Hillary Clinton has no right to be attacking the integrity of an American general who has put his life at risk for this country," Giuliani decreed. But most Americans, rather obviously, subject the claims of our military leaders to skepticism and scrutiny -- the only rational course of action after being told for four straight years that the most disastrous war in American history was going swimmingly.

Finally, there is this:

Overall, Americans remain pessimistic about the war. Just 34 percent think things are going well for the U.S. in Iraq, while 63 percent say things are going badly - about the same as before the president's speech.

More than half of Americans (55 percent) believe that success in Iraq is unlikely, and nearly two-thirds (65 percent) think Mr. Bush's assessments of the situation there are too rosy.

Put another way, the reality is exactly the opposite of what most of the American media spent all week claiming. They premised everything they said on their groundless assumption that "Americans would trust what Gen. Petraeus says," even though polls uniformly showed that Americans expected exaggerated optimism from Petraeus. As always, they just ignored that reality and supplanted it with their own fringe perspective, in which highly revered Beltway figures are entitled to blind faith.

As but one highly illustrative example, let us revel in the Triumph of Petraeus from the Chris Matthews Show last Wednesday night:

JERRY DELLA FEMINA, ADVERTISING EXECUTIVE: Well, they're doing a good job of it this week. Let me tell you, they couldn't find anyone better than Petraeus. I mean, you just can't beat a man in full uniform speaking to -- well, I'll give you Ollie North facing the Congress. You know, you stand up there, and he's wearing a uniform. And boy, you can't take a guy in uniform versus six overweight senators. . . .

I think the biggest mistake that was made was the anti -- the "Petraeus Betray us" that ran just before that. I mean, what a setup that was. Snow could get up and say, Gee, this is a hero. How could we treat this man this way?

So if I was -- you know, if this was a dirty tricks game, someone would say, Let's put an ad in making fun of this war hero, and then let's knock him down and show -- so it was a terrible mistake...


DELLA FEMINA: ... and it really set the week off on the wrong note for people who were against the surge. . . .

[DANA] MILBANK [THE WASHINGTON POST]: Bush had a terrible August down on the ranch and then has explosive Septembers. And I think he's won this battle already.


MILBANK: Petraeus --it's no accident he had a Latin name. It looked like he was the Roman general returning to the republic in his gold and purple toga, and they were celebrating him and slaying white bulls. They could not get enough of this man. And anybody's who's even critical of the war wouldn't dare criticize...


MILBANK: ... except in the most polite way, General Petraeus because then you appear to be criticizing the troops. I think it's game, set and match here.

Most of the media still believes -- based in part on how they have been trained and in part on their hopes -- that the Bush movement, any day now, will re-discover its glory and magic and get the country back on its side with regard to the war. It took them a long time to accept the reality that the country had abandoned the Leader and the War, and ever since then, they have continuously been predicting a reversal.

Their Dean, David Broder, in the wake of a standard Bush Press Conference on Iraq last February, infamously declared, in his column entitled "Bush Regains his Footing," that "President Bush is poised for a political comeback" and that "Bush now shows signs of renewed energy and is regaining the initiative on several fronts."

Most absurdly of all, Dean Broder -- just weeks after the President announced he would escalate the war in Iraq despite overwhelming public opposition -- wrote in the same column: "With the public eager for some bipartisan progress on all these fronts, Bush is signaling that he, at least, is ready to try." The press corps has the Dean they deserve. The reason they are endlessly wrong is because their whole narrative is an insular Beltway narrative that could not have anything less to do with the country as a whole.

In their world, the Republicans are always ascendent, Bush is always the Strong Leader, Democrats are always the sorry losers captive to their destructive Leftist extremists, and Americans are aching to support the War. They have been predicting endlessly that, any day now, all of this will be true again.

They actually thought that a newspaper ad was going to transform deeply entrenched views about the Republicans and the War because their friends Ed Gillispie and Tony Snow and Sean Hannity told them it would. The Rise of Petraeus the Good and the unmasking of the Evil MoveOn Left was going to change everything, back to its rightful place. It changed nothing, including the media itself, which will seize on some other event a few weeks from now to declare yet again the latest surging comeback for the President, the war and the right-wing faction which has followed him.

UPDATE: Right-wing cliches masquerading as sophisticated political insight -- the hallmark of our media elite:

Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray, The Washington Post (h/t Atrios): " provided Republicans a life raft when it ran a full-page newspaper advertisement Monday taunting Petraeus as 'General Betray Us.'"

Time's Joe Klein (h/t emaydon): "It seems clear the President has won this round. An optimistic general will trump a skeptical politician anytime."

Joe Klein, Time Magazine: ">

Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard: "For Democrats, Petraeus Week was a wrenching ordeal. . . . The New York Times ad by trashing Petraeus as a liar backfired badly. . . . The prospect of a return engagement by Petraeus can only fill Democrats with a feeling of dread."

Mitch McConnell: "I assure you, we're going to continue to press Democrats both collectively and individually to denounce this ad. I think this organization is ruining the reputation of the Democratic Party."

Time's Joe Klein: "I remain convinced that the MoveOn 'Betrayus' ad was not only deeply stupid and an unconscionable slur against an honorable man, but also potentially very damaging to Democratic candidates running across the country."

Fox News favorite Susan Estrich: "The Democrats, especially the Democrats running for president, have a problem, and his name is Petraeus."

The New Republic's Jason Zengerle: "I think this is a pretty politically tone-deaf ad . . . . When U.S. military commanders are the only people a majority of Americans trust to end the war -- as this new NYT/CBS poll makes clear -- attacking America's most prominent military commander doesn't seem like a very smart move. . . ."

"Joe Klein makes the essential point about Bush and Petraeus in a much more cogent fashion . . . . Maybe the next time Bush sends Petraeus to the Hill, Democrats--to say nothing of MoveOn--will take a different approach to dealing with him."

UPDATE II: By way of comparison to the media establishment's immediately solidified (and completely wrong) conventional wisdom, this is what Markos Moulitsas said when asked by Chris Matthews about the MoveOn ad during Petraeus Week:

MATTHEWS: Let me go to Markos Moulitsas.

Sir, what did you make of the testimony today and the ad that ran in "The Times" this morning by your colleague here, Mr. Pariser?

MARKOS MOULITSAS, DAILY KOS: Well, to me, you know, way out in California, it's -- it's almost amusing to see how, in Washington, D.C., everyone is all up in arms over an ad.

You know, we are in the middle of this bloody war, almost 4,000 dead, half-a-trillion dollars spent. And people are going to talk about how inappropriate an ad is? I think it‘s patently ridiculous.

And most people outside of the sort of beltway environment really don't care about an ad. They want to see our men and women coming home safe and sound to their families.

That is all just so transparently true, and yet our Beltway commentators are incapable of realizing it. Instead, the same revered pundits who cheered on Bush's war in the first place are still babbling about this petty sideshow more than a week later. They haven't been this in awe of anyone as they are of Gen. Petraeus since Oliver North proudly justified his lawbreaking, nor as outraged as they are over the MoveOn ad since Bill Clinton had oral sex.

If only they had managed to muster even a small fraction of the outrage and offense over the war itself, or the radicalism and lawlessness of this administration. But that would have proven how Unserious they are. It is much more rewarding to show that they are the Serious, Responsible establishment members who lavish the General with the honor and reverence he deserves while scorning the insufficiently respectful leftist radicals.

UPDATE III: Thank you to Greg VA in comments for noting the most amazing media pronouncement of all -- this one from David Broder in his Washington Post chat from last Friday: "I think the MoveOn ad on Gen. Petraeus was disgraceful, and it probably did serious damage to the effort to shorten the Iraq war."

Just look at the two Broder claims cited in this post -- his announcement in February that Bush was making a comeback because of how bipartisan he was being, and his argument last week that MoveOn's ad would be so significant that, by itself, "it probably did serious damage to the effort to shorten the Iraq war." Now compare actual polling data with Broder's claims.

It would be hard to be more wrong about such basic political matters even if one's goal were to achieve maximum wrongness, yet this is the person held in the highest esteem by our press corps, and they reserve special reverence when they talk about how in touch he is with the American Heartland Voter. That all just speaks for itself -- so, so loudly.

Glenn Greenwald

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