There is an old Doonesbury from the 1970s, specifically from the Nixon/Ford era, in which the press corps was depicted as ludicrous and undyingly accommodating. A young Dan Rather challenged one or another spokesmen at the White House, got a vapid response, and attempted to reiterate the point only to be shouted down by his fellow journalists. The punch line that sticks out in my memory is, “Don’t be piggy, Dan.”

Dan Froomkin brings us a tale of our contemporary press corps that, while it does not read identically, reminds us at least of what we hoped was a bygone era:

The White House press corps had been remarkably quiet about the new disclosures of White House involvement in the nitty-gritty of interrogation policy. Until the redoubtable Hearst columnist Helen Thomas let loose at yesterday’s press briefing.

Thomas: “The President has said publicly several times, in two consecutive news conferences a few months ago, and you have said over and over again, we do not torture. Now he has admitted that he did sign off on torture, he did know about it. So how do you reconcile this credibility gap?”

Of course, the White House doesn’t use the word torture to define what Bush approved. So spokeswoman Dana Perino replied: “Helen, you’re taking liberties with the what the President said. The United States has not, is not torturing any detainees in the global war on terror.”

They went back and forth for a while:

Thomas: “Are you saying that we did not [torture]?”

Perino: “I am saying we did not, yes.”

Thomas: “How can you when you have photographs and everything else? I mean, how can you say that when he admits that he knew about it?”

Perino: “Helen, I think that you’re — again, I think you’re conflating some issues and you’re misconstruing what the President said.”

Thomas: “I’m asking for the credibility of this country, not just this administration.”

Perino: “And what I’m telling you is we have — torture has not occurred.”

When Perino then moved on — calling on a reporter who raised a different issue entirely — Thomas responded with an audible expression of disgust at her fellow journalists: “Where is everybody?” she said. “For God’s sakes.”

One would think, especially contrasted against early-term accusations of liberal press conspiracies, that the Bush-era White House press corps has been something of a ghostly re-enactment, a parody of a satire, an editorial cartoon about an editorial cartoon. When one of the high points of the establishment media has been to wonder aloud about the hooker asking the softball questions, there are questions to be had about the press itself.

Then again, Newsweek‘s John Barry, in 2004, cut the legs out from under the Swift Boat scandal, and voters didn’t care. Larry Thurlow’s lies carried all the way to the ballot box as if they were true, haunted John Kerry into defeat. So we ought not pretend that, should Helen Thomas or anyone else actually witness one of the greatest rarities of our time, an honest answer from the Bush administration, it will make that much of a difference with the people. November’s election, for instance, could easily lack a proper mandate; we may well see a measure of two entrenched camps. Even in celebrating one or another barrier breaking—Obama as the first black president, or Hillary as the first female to hold the office—we could still wake up on January 21, 2009, with a country split between a vague liberal idea of “change”—which will leave many or most disappointed with what the actual definition amounts to—and a barely-smaller faction aiming toward business as usual.

Because, especially in considering that latter, when the argument that the United States has not engaged in despicable behavior depends on the assertion that, “We don’t call it torture,” we have reached a … proverbially interesting condition.

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