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Carping columnists

To my colleagues in the commentary business who think it is their job to criticize the president of the United States in the aftermath of an attack on the nation: Would you please just shut the hell up.

With America under attack, thousands dead, the Pentagon aflame and dozens of suspected terrorists or their accomplices still roaming the nation, President Bush faced a test – he passed it with extraordinary marks for the right combination of resolve and sorrow. When grief flashed across his face in Wednesday’s Oval Office press conference, America’s victims knew they were led by a man with heart. When he vowed repeatedly to take the war to the enemy, our military knew they had a commander in chief they could follow. And when the nation watched him speak from the pulpit in the National Cathedral, they learned that this is a president who understands through to his core – like Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Reagan – that ours is a nation of special purpose and mission, and that the defense of that exceptional calling calls forth a ferocity and commitment that is awe-inspiring.

Bush took command; issued orders; grieved and prayed for the dead, wounded, and families of the lost; and rallied the rescue workers and embraced his fiercest partisan critics in the Congress.

And he repeatedly served notice that the terrible, swift sword was unsheathed and would be used. I am proud to be led by this man.

If last November’s vote had gone the other way, and vice president Gore had been the man to face this awful challenge, I pray that I would have supported him at this crucial juncture – in my columns and on my radio and television shows. My audience is larger than most commentators, but not as large as the New York and D.C.-based commentariat. I am aware that the written and spoken word can affect the reader and listener – could indeed change opinion, rally or suppress spirit, that on a day of tragedy and during a week of national emergency the words of commentators and pundits could actually matter. It is the lasting shame of American media that many of its members did not understand that simple fact.

I have a stack of columns by pundits large and small: Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal, Chris Matthews in the San Francisco Examiner, Mary McGrory in the Washington Post. I watched Peter Jennings and Tim Russert and Brian Williams. All of them thought it was their job, on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to judge the president’s performance. All of them shared the conclusion of the Los Angeles Times’ television critic Howard Rosenberg who concluded that “Bush has lacked size in front of the camera when he should have been filling the screen with a formidable presence.” Cartoonist Jeff Danzinger led the pack to the bottom, penning a cartoon that implied the president is a coward.

I cannot fathom the sort of hatred that would motivate Danzinger to draw such a frame or allow McGrory to write that the president “looked more apprehensive than resolute,” and that he “allowed himself to be hauled around the country like a fugitive.” What could compel Mathews to suggest on the day after the attack that the president’s “first challenge would be to eradicate the image he conveyed on Day One”? Why would Dowd feel she had to write “the president didn’t seem sure of where to go”?

The Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt won the award for arrogance when Hunt lectured the president – on Thursday, less than 48 hours after America was attacked – that the president “should have overruled his security advisers and headed back to Washington earlier on Tuesday; the White House spin notwithstanding, a terrorist threat really wouldn’t jeopardize Air Force One accompanied by U.S. fighter jets.” It is good to know that Hunt is so smart. Too bad he didn’t predict the attacks since he apparently has complete knowledge on the subject of what terrorists can do and when they will do it. Perhaps Mr. Hunt will share all of his revisions to the Emergency Action Plan, as well as an explanation on what, exactly, we should do next.

There are more examples of this sort of petty carping and barking from men and women who have allowed their prominence to metastasize into a vanity without historical parallel. Can you imagine a Lippman or a Murrow criticizing FDR for waiting a day to address the Congress after Pearl Harbor or for remaining beyond their view during the weeks of travel it took to reach Tehran or Yalta? I am not aware of any British journalist who allowed their hatred of Churchill – and there were scores who hated Churchill with a passion – to cripple their support of the new Prime Minister when suddenly he was summoned to lead an England on the ropes. But here in our country, we have bred not one but a score of commentators so eager to hack at a president they oppose, that not a week – indeed not a day – is allowed to pass between the single largest loss of civilian life at the hands of an enemy and their first salvo at the commander in chief. This is a stunning stripping of the facade of professionalism from this crowd. At the crucial moment of their career, they chose partisanship over country.

I have left William Safire off the above list although he joined in the chorus of pundits taking the measure of the president in the aftermath of the attack. Safire quickly realized what he had done, helped by some reminders from well-placed friends of how a president acts in the national interest, not the television audience’s interest – and apologized in print the following day. I would not wait for any of these others to develop a sense of shame.

I understand that in this new world of media there are demands for instant opinion, and that greed and pride combine into a powerful force pushing folks like these into the business of snap assessments, even on subjects they know nothing about.. I am reminded, however, that powerful people who stay in power too long lose any sense of their failings or limits. I spent years in the executive branch, and tours in the Department of Justice and the White House Counsel’s Office taught me that there is so much I do not know, and even more that I do not know that I do not know. In the months and years ahead, our media elite needs a constant transfusion of humility, though clearly their bodies might reject this alien substance.

There are many parasites of crisis, and some of them enjoy the protection of the First Amendment and I am glad that they do. But the hundreds of millions of Americans who have been outraged by their repeated attacks on our leader do not have to listen to these snipings in silence, and they do not have to buy these papers or watch these networks. Until this past week, not one of these commentators had spoken or written a single phrase that was memorable or lasting. They have now penned or spoken infamous words, which will be their legacy: A lasting example of how not to act when the nation is under attack.

A Second Subject: Last month I wrote a column for a Southern California magazine extolling the location of Los Angeles for the site of the 2012 Olympic Games. The U.S. Olympic Committee site selection team was then visiting the area around Los Angeles as the committee makes its way through a variety of bid packages to select one to sponsor to the international committee making the final selection. It seems obvious to me that all other cities ought to withdraw their bids in favor of New York. Washington, D.C., was also poised to bid, but the devastation in Manhattan is the epicenter of violence that touched every portion of the country, and it is there that we ought to convene in 2012.


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