Howard Fineman Wanders Off The Reservation
(Thanks to the tips from Aladdin Sane and Jim Faith)
As some of you have noted today, perhaps the most notable media development surrounding Bush’s recent troubles has been the defection of two of his most ardent apologists over the last three years. As you can see from this piece, Newsweek’s chief political columnist and cable chat-fest regular Howard Fineman has wandered off of the Bush reservation, exacerbated by the Rice testimony today.
A self-proclaimed expert at understanding “structural” change in large institutions, Rice wasn’t aware—may still not be aware—that the nature of her job had changed by the time she took over as national-security adviser in January 2001. Reared in the cold war era, she saw herself following in the footsteps of Henry Kissinger. “National security” was largely a matter of global state-to-state diplomacy.
Asked at the hearing why she hadn’t pressed the FBI more closely about what it knew, or didn’t know, about domestic terrorist threats, Rice acted as though the question was an odd one: it wasn’t her job. Well, in retrospect, it was and now certainly is.
Rice identified the chief “structural” problem—that the CIA and FBI don’t share information—in a speech she gave in October 2000. She even said that the problem could result in a disastrous domestic terrorist attack. And yet, based on her own testimony, she did little or nothing before 9/11 to break down those walls. The student of bureaucratic change didn’t really attempt to foment any, at least not with the kind of urgency we know she needed to have.
Fineman then nails one of the essential issues about the lack of attention by Bush and Rice in the months leading up to 9/11:
Rice, in the end, is just a cog in a machine. The real political question is: how did her testimony enrich in the narrative of what the president did—or didn’t—know and do about terrorism before September 11? In an interview with Bob Woodward, Bush admitted two years ago that he didn’t have a sense of “urgency” about Al Qaeda. He said he wasn’t “on point”—wasn’t locked on a target in hunting-dog fashion.
That admission caused few ripples when it was published. But voters now may wish to revisit the remark. Why? Because it’s now clear that the president may have had urgent reason to be “on point.” Rice was told about Al Qaeda cells by Richard Clarke in February 2001. When, if ever, did she tell the president about them? Bush was given the now-famous presidential daily briefing (PDB) of Aug. 6, 2001, which suggested not only that Osama Bin Laden was “determined “ to attack inside the United States but that the FBI had picked up a pattern that suggested the possibility of hijackings here. Did Bush follow up with the FBI? What did he do in the days immediately after getting the document? Rice may insist that it wasn’t a “warning,” but we’ll see soon enough when it’s released to the public, as it almost surely will in the days ahead.
Remember the picture of the president in the classroom, being told of the attack by chief of staff Andy Card? The American people thought they were seeing a man suddenly thrust into a grave challenge no one could have anticipated. That won him enormous sympathy and patience from the voters. But what if he was literally on vacation—at the ranch in Crawford—when he should have been making sure that someone was ringing alarm bells throughout the bureaucracy?
Already on the defensive for his leadership in the post-9/11 world—the war in Iraq grows less popular by the day—Bush now finds himself with questions to answer about his pre-9/11 leadership. He says he’s running for re-election as a “war president.” But by Rice’s own standards, the war was well underway by the time he took office. He was a “war president” the moment he took the oath. But did he act like one? The election may hinge on the answer.
As for Rice, aside from the continual bombardment we here at the Left Coaster have heaved upon her for the utter incompetence she has demonstrated, Laura Flanders writes in Tom Paine from her own book that this isn't the first time Rice has been terribly wrong and out of date in her thinking.
Returning to Newsweek, in another piece that addresses the larger and longer-term issue for this election, Michael Hirsh reminds us of the point that Dick Clarke was trying to raise before the media and the White House steered the debate into “he said, she said.” With Iraq on the brink thanks to Iranian and some Al Qaeda instigation, and Al Qaeda cells multiplying around the globe like rabbits, Bush has blown the war on terror.
Those of you watching Hardball today saw Chris Matthews wander off the Bush reservation. I wonder how long it will be before other media or chatfest heavyweights will do the same. For a man who lived off of the glowing and near-sighted media he got in 2000, you wonder if the same media may be Bush's undoing in 2004.