I don’t sleep all that well, nor do I have a clean conscience, but my words and actions before the Iraq War are not implicated in either problem.
I opposed going into Iraq. I did so in my newspaper column, and I did so — with my partner Bruce Stevens — on WTIC-AM, for many months preceding the invasion.
Judis’s piece gets at what it was like. But it was one thing to oppose the war in writing, and another to do it on talk radio and yet another thing to do it on a talk station which — except for one’s own show — skews almost entirely conservative. I was called, on the air, by the listeners, a traitor and many worse things. The phone calls to management were, if anything, more severe. They came in massive waves every day, and they demanded my immediate removal. To the credit of the people who ran the place — who are the people who still run the place — nobody ever even hinted we should stop.
One of the criticisms leveled on the left — you see it in Judis’s piece — is that the press wimped out and didn’t ask hard questions. By March 19, 2003, I think that had become true. The rah-rah tone of the invasion coverage was disturbing. It’s one thing to support our troops. Another to suspend all critical judgment. The coverage that followed the invasion was simplistic and celebratory to a fault.
But in the run-up, there were plenty of journalists exploring the fallacies behind the Bush administration’s push toward Iraq. I know this because every day I had to get ready for those shows, and it wasn’t that hard to find reporting and analysis that would help me prepare.
What there wasn’t was a booming market for the truth. Americans were so freaked out, still, by 9/11 that the fear-mongering by the Bush administration was very effective. The public wanted two things: security and revenge. The Iraq invasion would provide neither, but it was packaged that way. If you told people the truth: that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11 and that even now he posed no credible threat to us, people got mad at you. If you tried to explain the complex religious and political situation in Iraq, if you asked them to think about what exactly we would do in Iraq after the first round of battles, they became enraged. They didn’t want to think about how difficult it would be to assemble a stable government out of thin air. They wanted to think about kicking somebody’s ass really hard as payback for all the fear and effrontery of the preceding 18 months.
You could see it reflected in the 2002 political campaigns in Connecticut. Iraq just wasn’t an issue, because so many Democrats saw opposition to a war as a political loser. Both of our senators voters for authorization. It was more surprising in Dodd’s case, but he had presidential aspirations and was afraid of having an “unpatriotic” vote on his record. In the second district, incumbent Rob Simmons had for a time adopted the sensible position — that Saddam was weak and that we should keep our focus on Al Qaeda. He dropped that and voted for authorization. His opponent, Joe Courtney, agreed with him. The informal name for this strategy was “hug the president.”
The only politicians who could afford to tell the truth were people with safe seats. John Larson emerged as a leading war opponent in Congress.
Politicians should lead. Journalists should ask hard questions about big policy changes. You could argue that both groups failed pretty badly ten years ago (assuming you think the Iraq invasion was a bad idea). But sometimes it’s impossible to give the citizenry a politics and a journalism that they just don’t want. I could be wrong about this. My perspective is imperfect. But I believe the biggest culprits in the misleading of the American people in 2002-2003 were the American people themselves.
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