Um, what?

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the (in)accuracy of the Bush administration’s pitch for war in Iraq, the media has seized the opportunity to rail against an administration that has bobbed and ducked and weaved its way through a disastrous war that, as many suspected, didn’t have to be. On that note, while the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign is a difficult outcome to argue against—indeed, it may be the only bright spot about the war—it still seems hard to use that fact to justify the war. There are plenty of cruel dictators around the world to knock off pedestals, but we do not pursue them. The Bush administration had to be dragged into the Liberian conflict. Robert Mugabe, as of this date, still holds power in Zimbabwe. And certainly the Burmese junta is a gross detriment to the people of that beleaguered nation. Just to name a few.

But I digress. Sort of. The editorial board of The New York Times sounded off yesterday:

It took just a few months after the United States’ invasion of Iraq for the world to find out that Saddam Hussein had long abandoned his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. He was not training terrorists or colluding with Al Qaeda. The only real threat he posed was to his own countrymen ….

Nobody disputes that the late dictator was a nefarious figure, but among our reasons for not going all the way to Baghdad in 1991—aside from Vice-President Cheney’s 1994 eerily-prophetic explanation that it would have been a disaster—was that this was not the United States’ role. Liberating Kuwait was within the traditional purview of our military endeavors, but deposing Saddam Hussein was beyond the pale. The Iraqi Bush Adventure represents a potential paradigm shift, one that many hope is quashed by the next administration.

What is unsettling, though, about the Times editorial is its conclusion, which strains to give the president even the thinnest veneer of innocence and redemption:

We cannot say with certainty whether Mr. Bush lied about Iraq. But when the president withholds vital information from the public — or leads them to believe things that he knows are not true — to justify the invasion of another country, that is bad enough.

Now, perhaps I am simply being naîve and falling back to the lessons of childhood, but the act of withholding information in order to affect a decision, or the act of leading people to believe what one knows is not true … how is this not lying?


I wouldn’t have noticed, except that you asked

I wasn’t going to touch this one. Really. The “fool me once” gaffe is more sad than it is funny. And my personal favorite–

Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.

–set such a standard that it’s going to take the mother of all gaffes to top it. So I just chuckled at Bush’s gaffe about Mandela last week and intended to let it go.

And then I came across the conservative response. Let us start with the gaffe itself, in its broader context. Or, at least, within its paragraph from the White House transcript:

Part of the reason why there is not this instant democracy in Iraq is because people are still recovering from Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule. I thought an interesting comment was made when somebody said to me, I heard somebody say, where’s Mandela? Well, Mandela is dead, because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas. He was a brutal tyrant that divided people up and split families, and people are recovering from this. So there’s a psychological recovery that is taking place. And it’s hard work for them. And I understand it’s hard work for them. Having said that, I’m not going the give them a pass when it comes to the central government’s reconciliation efforts.

Now, it’s an interesting statement insofar as the President went out of his way to set up the Mandela line. That, more than anything, is what puzzles me.

As people chuckled and rolled their eyes, and some reminded that Nelson Mandela is, indeed, still alive, and others pointed out that it wasn’t very respectful to imply that the South African icon had died, conservatives threw a frothing fit.

Patrick McIlheran, a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist wrote a blog piece decrying the reaction:

Slow down and read the quote. “…killed all the Mandelas.” Do you presume from this that the president, then, believes the former South African president to have been a whole group of people?

Or could it be possible that Bush was speaking metaphorically? I know, it’s an article of faith on the left that he can’t spell “metaphor” much less use one, but might it not be possible that, when asked “Where’s Mandela?” in an Iraqi context, Bush might have taken it to mean, “Where is the emergent Iraqi national savior who can reconcile warring factions?” I mean, two paragraphs previous, the guy was talking about national reconciliation in Iraq, so it’s reasonable to guess this is how he took it.

And so, having taken “Where’s Mandela?” in that way, might it not be further possible that Bush picked up the metaphor to suggest that Saddam killed all the potential national reconciliators? That Iraq’s potential national reconciliator, its Mandela, so to speak, is lying in a mass grave? I mean, all this has going for it is that it makes sense of what the president said.

Fair enough, sir, but slow down and read the quote again. There are plenty of ways to say it, and this is the one Bush chose. “Mandela is dead,” said the President. McIlheran preferred to take a demeaning attitude toward the criticism, noting that a “flack” from Mandela’s foundation had “chirped” that the Nobel winner was still alive; in this it seems the Journal-Sentinel’s “generally … right wing guy” overlooked reports that South African officials were flooded with calls from viewers of the live news conference who worried that Nelson Mandela actually had died. McIlheran would prefer to make excuses for the President’s crass joke, call the critics deranged, and demean Nelson Mandela. Good show, man.

But McIlheran is not alone in attempting to focus on only one part of the gaffe, and this is where the conservative response gets even more bizarre. Warner Todd Huston, over at Stop The ACLU, blasted Reuters:

Apparently al Reuters doesn’t understand the concept of “context” because they’re idiotically claiming that in his Thursday press conference Bush said that Nelson Mandela is dead ….

…. Heartwarming that Reuters is so concerned over Mandela’s health, isn’t it?

But here’s the problem. During the press conference, Bush was not talking about the actual Nelson Mandela. He was talking about people like Nelson Mandela and speaking metaphorically. And listening to Bush’s entire segment, while not artfully stated, makes it clear that he was not talking about the actual Nelson Mandela ….

Huston, like McIlheran, highlights only the latter part of the gaffe, and asks,

Could it be any more obvious that Bush is saying that there aren’t any Iraqis filling the same sort of role in Iraq that Nelson Mandela filled in South Africa? Could it be any more clear that Bush was saying that Saddam “killed all the Mandelas” of Iraq?

Indeed, sir, you are correct. Except, what about the phrase, “Mandela is dead”? I mean, it would have been just as easy, and considerably less bizarre to say, “There are no Iraqi Mandelas.”

And as people argue about what Bush meant, it is curious to note the actual transcript. Those who complain about the criticism would be better served to use the White House transcript. Strangely, and, perhaps, hair-splittingly, one might be able to make an issue out of punctuation. McIlhernan’s quote comes from the White House transcript. Huston’s is unsourced inasmuch as it does not match the Reuters article he linked to. And several other conservative blogs seem to have passed around an AFP transcript. Both the AFP and Huston’s unsourced quotes split the gaffe into two sentences. The White House transcript uses a comma, and the Reuters article in Huston’s crosshairs has no punctuation at all (and also lacks the extraneous apostrophe, but that’s beside the point).

And believe it or not, that difference is important. There is no question, when reviewing the video, that Bush spoke two separate sentences. The first was, “Well, Mandela is dead.” The pause is unmistakable. And this, contrary to McIlhernan, Huston, and other conservatives’ suggestions, is the phrase that is at the heart of the gaffe.

So we’re down to punctuation, on the one hand, while to the other we haven’t even arrived at the truly bizarre part.

Indeed, the strangest part of this is that some conservative bloggers have chosen to lash out after Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show. At the National Review Online, Greg Pollowitz (quoting AFP, for those keeping score), simply sought to clarify the quote, noting, “Since Jon Stewart ended his clip of the President with ‘dead,’ the President looked kind of foolish, as Mr. Mandela is very much alive.”

Over at TownHall, Mary Katharine Ham picked up on Pollowitz’s clarification, and lashed out at The Daily Show:

There’s no way they saw the “Mandela is dead” clip without seeing the context. But the facts got in the way of an easy political joke. And, Stewart has the nerve to get all self-righteous on “Crossfire?” Ha.

Tipping a hat to both Ham and Pollowitz, RedState’s Finrod escalated the absurdity:

Disgusting. Is Jon Stewart getting hints on how to be a newsman from Dan Rather? What’s he going to do for comedy in 16 months when Bush leaves office and he doesn’t have Bush quotes to warp and distort any more?

And to think he had the gall to criticize Crossfire for not being helpful to the political scene.

Okay, if you’re a conservative, pay close attention. If you’re a liberal, join the chorus. I’m only going to say this once:

The Daily Show is not a real news show. It is a comedy show. Jon Stewart is a comedian. Tucker Carlson didn’t seem to understand that during the Crossfire shootout, and for some reason conservatives seem to be having a problem understanding that fact now.

It’s not difficult to understand.

And that’s the thing. In the long run, I probably would have forgotten this whole thing by next week. Bush is known to say some truly bizarre things, and by my measure, this is a minor Bushism. It’s the sort of thing I probably would have chuckled at if someone mentioned it months, or even years down the line, as I remembered it for the first time since it happened. But now, thanks to conservatives, I’ll be remembering this one much more clearly, and not so much for the fact of the President’s gaffe. Rather, I’ll be remembering this episode as another example of conservative dishonesty, another example of conservative stupidity. Because McIlhernan needs to overlook facts in order to feel better about a chirping flack; Huston needs to stoop to silly phrases like “al Reuters”. And both need to snip the quote and pretend part of it doesn’t exist. And then there’s Finrod, Pollowitz, and Ham, who need to pretend Jon Stewart is a real journalist in order to stoke their self-righteous fury.

I’ll tell you my Bushism story. There were two of them that got me. One was the, “Now watch this drive,” quip that was harmless except for its crass timing. Big deal. The other was the “fool me once” disaster. I didn’t actually think I was hearing it. And then I didn’t realize the magnitude of what I had heard. When it blared all over the news that night, I was stunned. I mean, really.

Bushisms are amusing. They wouldn’t be a big deal for the press or anybody else except for their frequency and the pretense of intelligence conservatives attempt to keep about the President. Conservatives need to get over this one. The only thing more pathetic than beating a dead horse is trying to resuscitate its skeleton.

Accept the fact that Bush once again made a fool of himself. He went out of his way to set up what he thought was a catchy line, and it backfired. Really, I would have gone right on by this one, except that I had the misfortune of stumbling across McIlhernan’s angry spew. And then, curious, I was stupid enough to wonder what the rest of the conservative response was. So far, it’s only reinforcing the notion that my conservative neighbors really are morons. After all, I can only go by what you give me to work with, and this is what you’ve given.

Get over it. And get over yourselves.