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2003-12-09

A Look At Wesley Clark and the Media’s "Shameful" Coverage of Bush’s Trip to Iraq

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Matt Taibbi, New York Press columnist and contributing writer at The Nation, discusses Wesley Clark’s "unrepentant" support for the Vietnam war and his current position on Iraq and we look at the treatment of the media at Bush’s Thanksgiving trip to Iraq. [Includes transcript]

Former Vice President Al Gore is announcing today he is endorsing Howard Dean for president in a move that surprised many campaign observers. The Washington Post says that Gore’s move gives "the insurgent candidate the establishment backing his campaign has been lacking."

Gore’s decision is being viewed as a major blow to Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who ran as Gore’s running mate in 2000. Earlier, Lieberman appearing on the Today show said of Gore’s announcement, "I was caught completely off guard."

Lieberman went on to say, "What really bothers me is that Al is supporting a candidate who is so fundamentally opposed to the basic transform that Bill Clinton brought to the party in 1992."

Tonight, Dean will join most of the democratic candidates for a debate in New Hampshire where the first primary takes place January 27.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by Matt Taibbi who writes for New York Press and The Nation magazine and is on the campaign trail. Welcome to "Democracy Now!" Matt Taibbi.

MATT TAIBBI: Hi.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Your thoughts on Dean, and also I want to talk you to about going undercover in General Wesley Clark’s campaign.

MATT TAIBBI: Yes. The Dean announcement with Gore, I mean — I don’t see how Lieberman could have been all that surprised by that. I mean, you know, he — his position on the war is so completely opposite to Gore’s that, you know, I cannot imagine that he actually expected Gore to come out and publicly support him, especially given that he’s doing so badly in the polls now. That doesn’t make any sense. So, I’m sure when he says he’s surprised, he’s just posturing, I imagine.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your experience with General Wesley Clark’s campaign, and also a lot of what you have written about Clark is new. I don’t think people really understand his history the way you have described it.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, you know, a lot of the stuff that I wrote about with Clark, it’s actually out there. I found it through reading old articles and some other biographies of him. But it’s just not widely circulated. It’s also not discussed in the context of what he’s actually saying about Iraq, which is to me what the important thing is. I mean, he — Clark has a history going back to when he was a student at Oxford when he was a Rhodes Scholar. He actually took time out from his studies to give speeches around England in support of the Vietnam War effort. This just goes hand in hand with a lot of little factoids about his biography. He voted for Nixon in 1968. He was a speechwriter for Al Hague in the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Command in Europe, which is called SHAPE. Sorry, Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe, SHAPE. He worked for Hague in Europe. He was a speechwriter for Hague. He also worked in the Ford White House as a military adviser.

But he is really an unrepentant supporter of the Vietnam War effort, which is interesting when you look at his position on the war in Iraq. Most people think of Clark as really an anti-war candidate. What he does on the campaign trail when he gives his speeches, he really does say a lot of things that would suggest that he’s against the war and we shouldn’t have gone in. He says that openly, fairly often now that it was an elective war and we shouldn’t have gone, and that was a mistake. This is really a big applause line for him on the campaign, but then he also says a lot of other things that are much less reported. I was at one press conference of his where he said this really cryptic thing. He said, "The legacy of the Vietnam War will be put to rest by the legacy of Iraq."

I was in a crowd of reporters, and everybody was kind of looking at each other saying, "Well, what does that mean?" Afterwards, I talked to his press guy, Bill Buck, and it turns out that what he means by that is, you know, Buck says that the legacy of Vietnam is that Vietnam was a war that we went into without a strategy for successful conclusion, whereas Iraq is a situation where we can go in and be successful. I said, the success means winning the war, right, not withdrawing or somewhat or — somehow or other way, concluding this whole thing. So he says, "Absolutely. Success means winning. He has never made a secret about that."

So, I think if you look closely at what Clark is saying about Iraq, what he really believes is that it’s not that different from the Bush position or any of the other candidates, really. He believes that we have to go in and somehow win this thing and to quote Joseph Heller, "Win what? What do we win?" That’s — that was my big question about Clark.

AMY GOODMAN: I have to say that I was shocked not when he threw his helmet in the ring, but when the media described him as an "anti-war warrior." He has been a CNN consultant throughout the invasion and before, and in his daily columns in the Times of London, this was a man who was definitely cheerleading for war, repeatedly. If he was against it, it was very deep, deep, deep in his heart. He was not letting on to his viewers.

MATT TAIBBI: That’s another thing that I really had a hard time understanding about Clark. I wrote a little bit about this. If you really thought that the war was wrong, I mean, the last thing that you would want to do is get up on national television and talk about how wonderfully this or that weapon system was battering Iraqi defenses. It would really — you know, I can understand that he has a lot of admiration for the way our army and our weapons systems work, but if they’re being used for the wrong end, it’s no longer, you know, a glorious military exercise. It’s wrongful killing, it’s murder, and it’s all of these things. He didn’t seem too troubled by that. I don’t know. I always thought that it was a little strange and there was something a little bit pathological in the way that a lot of people in the Democratic party seem want to leap on the bandwagon with him as an anti-war candidate.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, you have also written about President Bush’s trip to Iraq. There is a lot that is coming out that doesn’t make it mainly to television, and that’s where most people get their news. The fact that he went at 5:35 in the morning, waking up the troops for Thanksgiving dinner, then the whole story of the turkey that is the famous picture of him, and yet, here is the turkey that was not actually served to the troops.

MATT TAIBBI: It was a plastic turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: Was it actually plastic?

MATT TAIBBI: Yes. Apparently it was a plastic turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: It was plastic?

MATT TAIBBI: Yes. That was actually reported in the — in another part of The Nation, in the daily outrage column online. But, yeah it was a plastic turkey, apparently. Which is even funnier. The famous shot where he’s holding the big turkey, apparently that’s a plastic turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk a little more about this trip, as you have talked about it in "Stuffed on Thanksgiving in Baghdad. The Fourth Estate Buys the Fake."

MATT TAIBBI: I think the thing that’s funny about this whole trip is the way that the media responded to a lot of high-handed tactics that the White House was using. This is an ongoing thing that wasn’t just a one-off event that happened on Thanksgiving. This has been going on, going back for about a year now.

There have been a number of reporters who have had some problems with the White House when they ask questions or write articles that the White House doesn’t like. There have been retaliation by the White House. For instance, the Washington Post last year published an article just before the famous press conference that he gave just before the war that was called "Taking Liberties with the Truth." That was a double by-line by Dana Millbank and Mike Allen.

Traditionally, the White House calls on the Washington Post at some point during a press conference. They sit in the front row, but in the pre-Iraq presser, Bush just looked straight past Millbank and Allen. It was widely accepted this was a retaliation for having written some nasty things about the Bush administration. Then there were some other reporters that had some problems. Then earlier this spring, as the White House came out and openly said that it had concerns about the way the press was covering the Iraq war and that it wanted to eliminate the filter between the White House and the American people by taking its case directly to the local affiliates. So, it gave a series of eight interviews to local affiliates or companies that owned local television affiliates, just bypassing the major TV networks.

This was — CBS called it "the public relations equivalent of a declaration of war." There was some tension going on even before the Baghdad trip between the White House and press corps. And so what does Bush do on Thanksgiving? He literally kidnaps a few reporters, takes them on the plane, flies them to Iraq, tells them that they cannot make a call to their editor, or else. He makes the sign of cutting his throat to the reporters in the plane. Then everybody else: he just leaves out of it and expects them to give them the coverage that everybody else is going to give. Instead of fighting back in this instance. For instance, the "New York Times" was completely left out of this whole scenario...

AMY GOODMAN: Matt, we are have ten seconds.

MATT TAIBBI: Instead of fighting back, they rolled over and gave them everything that he wanted: the big photo op and all of that. I just thought it was a shameful performance.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess concerned about future access. What we here at "Democracy Now!" call the "Access of Evil."

MATT TAIBBI: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, thanks for joining us. We hope to talk you to again on the campaign trail.

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