by Paul Mackintosh
On May 9th, President Barack Obama delivered his first speech to the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) dinner. Obama joked about himself, members of his administration, and members of Congress, and his speech was well-received. The contrast between President Obama’s remarks to the gathering of journalists and President George W. Bush’s speeches to the WHCA during the previous eight years, was remarkably clear, and acknowledged in part during one of Obama’s first punchlines: “I am Barack Obama. Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me.”
The most telling difference between President Obama’s speech and those delivered by President Bush, however, was Obama’s avoiding jokes about journalists and the American media generally. In fact, at the end of the speech, Obama acknowledged the difficult economic times facing journalism and applauded the dedication, passion and talent of the journalists in the room. He made no jokes about these things, and this was no accident.
After President Bush’s address to the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2004, the event, and indeed the integrity of the Washington correspondents generally, might have appeared disgraced. In that speech, President Bush joked about the unsuccessful search for “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMDs) in Iraq, and he did so in such a way as to make everyone in the room a party to the joke. He showed ridiculously posed slides of himself looking between his legs, and under desks, in the Oval Office, and commented: “Those weapons of mass destruction gotta be somewhere.” The WHCA audience laughed and laughed.
Mr. Bush gave that speech on March 24th, by which time it was clear to most members of the American press that the administration had no solid evidence of WMDs in Iraq and, worse, had deceived Congress in its presentations of “evidence” known to be unreliable. In January of 2004, Tony Blair had admitted as much, and of course Seymour Hersh’s article about this problem, “The Stovepipe,” had appeared in The New Yorker in October, 2003. Meanwhile the number of American casualties in Iraq was rising daily — by the time Bush delivered his jokes there were already more than 500 American casualties, and more than 50 UK casualties. Thus the laughter of the journalists, to be replayed endlessly on YouTube (despite apparent attempts to remove official versions of the speech), has become a haunting reminder of the fundamental complicity of the press during the Bush administration’s decision to go to War in Iraq.
If President Bush possessed a genius in dealing with the American press it was certainly on display that night in 2004. Playing the simple guy, his performance left the audience with a difficult choice: laugh and be part of the deceit; or protest, ruin the evening, and maybe ruin your career. As Alexandra Pelosi’s important documentary, Travels With George (2000), makes clear, from the very beginning of his campaign for the presidency, Bush and his handlers confronted individual journalists with a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and trusted that the outcome would be complicity. And they were right nearly all of the time.
As the Obama administration now sorts through the messes and abuses that will be the most significant legacy of the Bush-Cheney years, there is a problem of accountability, and specifically a problem concerning the scope of responsibility. When he released the now-famous “torture memos,” President Obama at the same time assured CIA officers that they would not be prosecuted for carrying out interrogations they believed to be legal because of these memos. The effect of this assurance was to focus the attention of the media, the US Congress, and indeed the world, on those who authorized the methods the world regards as torture.
But the charges and prosecutions that come from the release of the torture memos may be only the beginning of a broader investigation into whether and how laws were broken during the Bush-Cheney years. We still haven’t investigated whether or how laws were broken in the run-up to the Iraq War, and we don’t even have a full accounting of whether and how individual members of Congress were deceived or complicit when they decided to give President Bush the powers he requested (or when they failed significantly to call him to account in the years that followed).
And what of the press? As the nation’s greatest newspapers struggle to survive and forge a sustainable future for professional general interest journalism, the last thing reporters or news organizations (or the corporations that own them) need is an investigation into whether and how journalists and news organizations abdicated their professional responsibilities during the Bush-Cheney years.
Listening to President Obama’s May 9th speech to the WHCA in this light, it seemed to me that he was offering this group a deal. “Look,” he might well have said — and is very fond of saying — “I could easily and legitimately have razzed you about what you did to America during the Bush years, but I’m not gonna do it. Instead, I’ll joke about myself, and Hillary, and all the usual political stuff; but you really need to get to work.” It’s actually a generous offer, given the ease with which the American press could be indicted for its recent failings; but it’s the only reasonable offer given how seriously the country now requires some truth-telling and a revived Fourth Estate.