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What Rather wrought (continued)

IF YOU WANT to take a look at what might be the future of right-wing attack politics, cruise on over to the Web site of Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican who’s trying to unseat Democratic congressman Max Sandlin. The two are running in an East Texas district that’s just across the border from Shreveport, Louisiana.

Gohmert’s latest 30-second television commercial begins by attempting to associate Sandlin with the hapless Rather. "Seen Max Sandlin’s negative ads?" a narrator intones. "They’ve got more holes than a CBS News story by Dan Rather." As we hear this, newspaper clippings float by on the screen, showing Rather’s face and a headline that reads, CBS APOLOGIZES FOR BUSH GUARD STORY. The narrator continues by blasting Sandlin’s record, concluding, "Max Sandlin. Against tax cuts. A liberal record. A negative campaign. No wonder he supports John Kerry." As the commercial ends, we see an image of Kerry’s smiling face, which apparently is thought to have voodoo-like qualities in them thar parts.

Gohmert is a piece of work. According to news reports, Sandlin was a prime victim of House majority leader Tom DeLay’s dubious gerrymandering in Texas, and was expected to be easily defeated by Gohmert. Instead, polls have showed them neck and neck all year. Earlier, Gohmert falsely accused Sandlin of supporting a rarely used late-term-abortion technique called intact dilation and extraction, or intact D&X, "even minutes before the child is born." (The procedure is far better known as "partial-birth abortion," another sign of how successful the right is at framing the conversation.) In fact, Sandlin had voted against intact D&X four times in recent years, even voting to override Bill Clinton’s veto in 1998. But no matter: now Gohmert is saddling his opponent with two unpopular running mates, Dan Rather and John Kerry. It might even work.

If Gohmert’s campaign shows how the CBS scandal is having an effect at the local level, the fallout is even more obvious at the national level. Take, for instance, former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg, author of the ludicrous bestseller Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, January 18, 2002) and a follow-up, Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Media Elite. In Bias, Goldberg displays a perverse fascination with and revulsion toward his former colleague Rather, comparing him to a Mafia don, to Richard Nixon, to a horny prison inmate with a stable of "bitches," and to a cross-dressing fetishist. Now Goldberg is triumphant. In a September 17 op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal’s ultraconservative editorial page, Goldberg all but accused CBS of obtaining the Killian memos from the Kerry campaign. Goldberg wrote, on the basis of no discernible evidence, that "Dan Rather may be protecting not just his source, but himself; because, if the source turns out to be a partisan, then Dan wasn’t just taken for a ride, but may have been a willing passenger. And then Dan, and CBS News, can kiss their reputations goodbye."

Not surprisingly, Goldberg’s speculation has become an emerging theme on the right. On September 10 — with the bloggers’ day-old suspicions barely beginning to penetrate the mainstream — the Web site of the right-wing American Spectator published an anonymously sourced piece "reporting" that the memos had surfaced at the Democratic National Committee, had then made their way to the Kerry campaign, and had finally fallen into the hands of CBS. Rush Limbaugh read the entire piece on the air. Needless to say, there’s been nothing more on that since.

That hasn’t stopped the right from trying. On September 21, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial that carried the Nixonian headline MODIFIED LIMITED HANGOUT. The subhead makes reading the actual editorial an exercise in redundancy: THE RATHER STORY LOOKS MORE AND MORE LIKE A PARTISAN DIRTY TRICK. The conservative National Review concluded an editorial thusly: "CBS can begin to redeem itself by reporting on who forged the documents, and especially on whether the Kerry campaign was involved. And heads should roll, including the anchor’s."

Granted, the contacts between Mary Mapes and Bill Burkett, between Burkett and Joe Lockhart, and between Burkett and former senator Max Cleland, a key Kerry supporter, suggest there are at least some questions that ought to be answered. But it makes far more sense to think that the Kerry campaign was interested in any genuine documents that Burkett may have possessed — not in helping him concoct fakes to prove what was already known to be true: that George W. Bush’s family and political connections helped him get both into and out of the Texas Air National Guard.

LAST FRIDAY, Eric Boehlert wrote a piece for Salon titled "Too Much About Memos, Too Little About War." Boehlert argued that the memo controversy, and even hurricanes, have overshadowed the deteriorating situation in Iraq. This plays to George W. Bush’s advantage, Boehlert continued, because "there is a clear connection between how closely Americans pay attention to Iraq and Bush’s standing in the polls; the less attention people pay to Iraq, the better Bush does."

As if right on cue, we soon learned that CBS canceled a piece that had been scheduled for this past Sunday’s 60 Minutes. The story concerned the apparently forged documents used to support the claim that Saddam Hussein had attempted to obtain uranium from the African country of Niger. Ironically, the story originally had been bumped to make way for the National Guard piece. CBS spokeswoman Kelli Edwards was quoted as saying that "it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election." But as a Newsweek piece made clear, there was no way the network was about to criticize the White House for its reliance on forged documents right after its own credibility had taken such a blow over a different set of fake papers. Thus did the substantive make way for the trivial.

You could, of course, argue that the entire presidential campaign since the Democratic National Convention has been hijacked by a media war fought over phony issues. On the one hand we’ve had the false claims of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose attempts to impugn John Kerry’s service in Vietnam are contradicted by the official records, by Kerry’s crewmates, and by the Swifties’ own past statements. On the other, there is the National Guard story. Despite CBS’s bungling, there is ample evidence, reported by the Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, and other news organizations, that George W. Bush failed to complete his service for reasons that have never been properly explained. To be sure, it’s a more legitimate issue than the claims of the Swifties — but perhaps not by much, given that most voters’ opinions of Bush as commander-in-chief are pretty well fixed after three years of constant war.

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Issue Date: October 1 - 7, 2004
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