Fox News' POW slur: How loopy GOP grandstanding is Obama’s secret Bergdahl weapon

As O’Reilly tars the POW’s father while senators diagnose him via video, the right turns a debate into a circus

By Joan Walsh
Published June 5, 2014 4:03PM (EDT)
Bill O'Reilly            (Fox News)
Bill O'Reilly (Fox News)

You’d think the Republicans diagnosing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl as healthy enough to have endured another 30 days in captivity, merely by seeing him in video footage, would remember that the last time they tried to play doctor via video, it didn’t work out so well.

It was nine years ago that Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, among others, looked at video of the brain-damaged Terri Schiavo and decided that contrary to her doctors’ diagnosis, she was not in a “persistent vegetative state,” and thus President Bush and Congress should block her husband’s decision to remove her feeding tube. Bush and his GOP allies tried and failed to do so. The Schiavo backlash was the beginning of tough political times for Bush and the GOP, which lost its congressional majority the next year over concerns that Bush had bungled the Iraq War and the Hurricane Katrina response while Republicans had become the party of the bedroom police. Their loopy Schiavo grandstanding was the first sign of a party out of control.

Now Republicans (and a few wobbly Democrats like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin) are insisting that video footage of Bergdahl, taken last December as well as at his release last weekend, show that he was healthy enough for the president to give Congress 30 days' notice before swapping five Taliban fighters for the captured soldier. “He didn’t look good,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss acknowledged, but then he added: “But that’s not enough to tell me he’s in imminent danger from a health standpoint.” Conservative pundits have made the same point on Twitter and elsewhere.

President Obama knows the GOP’s sad history of playing doctor, too. That’s why the defiant president swatted away a question about the backlash to his Berghdahl deal at his Brussels press conference Thursday. “We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about it and we saw an opportunity and we seized it, and we make no apologies about that,” Obama told reporters.

The president also spoke directly to a tangent of the debate the reporter didn’t ask about: whether it was unseemly for Obama to embrace Bergdahl’s parents, particularly, it seems, his father, the guy with the Phil Robertson beard. Bill O'Reilly has led the charge in slurring Bergdahl for looking like a Muslim.

To take the criticism of Bob Bergdahl more seriously than it deserves: Critics say he didn’t do enough to discourage his son from thoughts of desertion five years ago, and has since done too much to curry favor with the Taliban, including, apparently, learning Arabic and using it to lament the death of Afghan children. (My MSNBC colleagues Joe Scarborough and Chuck Todd got into a hot debate about Scarborough’s criticizing the Bergdahls on “Morning Joe” Thursday; I am Team Todd on this one.)

Obama dismissed that carping, too.

You have a couple of parents whose kids volunteered to fight in a distant land, who hadn’t seen him in five years, who weren’t sure they’d ever see him again. I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents. As commander in chief of the United States armed forces, I am responsible for those kids.

The “responsible middle” of this crazy debate seems to have concluded that details of the deal aside, Obama can be safely faulted for failing to anticipate the backlash to the deal, especially in Congress. (Chuck Todd falls in here.) I’m not sure that’s even true, but if he did, he can probably be forgiven. Only three months ago Sen. John McCain told CNN’s Anderson Cooper he supported the broad outlines of the deal to swap five Taliban fighters for Bergdahl, a deal he now opposes. Just two weeks ago Sen. Kelly Ayotte urged the Defense Department “to do all it can” to rescue Bergdahl.

“All it can” – except execute a prisoner swap that’s been under discussion for at least two years?

There are even worse hypocrites in the blogosphere, folks like Jim Hoft who turned on a dime from bashing Obama for abandoning Bergdahl to bashing him for rescuing him. The invaluable Matt Binder has catalogued conservative Bergdahl flip-flopping here. As Digby notes, even the awful arms-for-hostages architect Oliver North has had the audacity to criticize Obama for "ransoming" Bergdahl.

In his brief remarks Thursday Obama even dismissed the more legitimate complaint (in my opinion) that he failed to give Congress 30 days' notice of the prisoner swap. We had discussed with Congress the possibility that something like this might occur,” he said, presumably referring to the three years of discussions about a deal with the same vague outlines. “But because of the nature of the folks that we were dealing with and the fragile nature of these negotiations, we felt it was important to go ahead and do what we did.”

Greg Sargent observed Thursday morning that the White House is counting on the American people to tune out the Conservative Entertainment Complex on Bergdahl the way it has on Benghazi, Solyndra, the Fast and Furious “scandal,” the New Black Panther Party – or in other words, most of Fox News’ programming over the last six years. If the conventional wisdom is now settling on criticizing Obama for failing to anticipate the insanity of his opponents on the Bergdahl deal, he’s probably going to weather this storm too.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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