WASHINGTON – As much as I fault White House press corps doyen Helen Thomas and the Washington Post for lobbing softballs at President Clinton during his press conferences, I don't cheer President Bush's snubbing of them at his last press conference on Iraq.
Their dissenting voices, grating as they may be, were missed in that echo chamber in the East Room. Almost all the questions were predictable pap about Iraq, and none were about Pakistan and al-Qaida, the real Sept. 11 culprit and threat to America.
Advertisement - story continues below
But then Bush and his media handlers, namely Ari "The Android" Fleischer, planned it that way.
The press conference was so scripted it was comical, with Bush at one point actually saying out loud that he was following a "script" in calling on establishment media types, passing once again over any new faces who might actually ply him with an outside-the-Beltway question the American people want to have asked as their government starts a war in the Middle East, and our oil-dependent economy teeters again on the brink of recession.
Here are the questions the president should have been compelled to answer:
- Mr. President, who is a bigger threat to Americans in America, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden? (I have put this question repeatedly to White House press aide Dan Bartlett, Bush's point man on Iraqi war propaganda, and still can't get an answer.)
- Mr. President, Saddam Hussein was in material breach of U.N. resolutions calling for weapons inspections from the moment you stepped into office, yet you did not warn Americans about the alleged Iraqi threat to America back then. Even after Sept. 11, you didn't alert the country to any Iraqi threat, nor did you tie Iraq to Sept. 11 or al-Qaida. It wasn't until Jan. 29 of last year that you first broached the subject. What changed? Why now?
- Mr. President, to follow up, how do you answer critics who charge you only went after Saddam when you couldn't find bin Laden, who you didn't even mention in your Jan. 29 "axis of evil" speech.
- Mr. President, now that it's plain that bin Laden has found sanctuary in Pakistan, what is your plan to find him there, and if it involves U.S. forces, do they still need the permission of Pakistani President Musharraf to pursue al-Qaida across the border into Pakistan?
- Mr. President, America is far outside the range of Iraq's missiles. Could you explain to the American people how Iraq, if it is hiding nuclear, biological or chemical warheads for those missiles, could use such "weapons of mass destruction" against America?
- Mr. President, as you know, bin Laden's fatwahs against America began after former President Bush had to leave troops on sacred Muslim soil in Saudi Arabia, home of Mecca and Medina, so that we could police Saddam Hussein after the last Gulf war. If you can oust Saddam, will you draw down the number of troops stationed in Saudi Arabia?
- Speaking of Saudi Arabia, Mr. President, your doctrine, the Bush Doctrine, states that any country that harbors, supports, sponsors or finances terrorism is our enemy. Is Saudi Arabia our enemy?
- Mr. President, to follow up, it's no secret that you and your family are close to the Saudi royal family. That said, can you assure the families of Sept. 11 that you are not giving Saudi too much of the benefit of the doubt when you insist it is our "ally," and doesn't support al-Qaida and other terrorist groups?
- Mr. President, you have made a point to say on many occasions that Islam is a "religion of peace." Have you actually read its sacred book the Koran, in its entirety, for yourself? And if not, how can you be so sure that the Koran does not condone violence against non-Muslims?
- Mr. President, the White House adviser you put in charge of regime change in Afghanistan and now in Iraq was an energy industry consultant. And you, the vice president, your national security adviser and your President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board chairman all have ties to Big Oil. What can you say to mollify critics who charge that your war strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq are as much about oil-and-gas development and export as they are about fighting terrorism?
Advertisement - story continues below
As our government takes us into an unprecedented preemptive war against a sovereign nation that few are entirely convinced actually attacked America or even poses a future threat to America, this is hardly the time for courtier journalism. It is time for asking tough, unpleasant questions of our leaders. Cheerleading may win entre with this Republican White House, but it is not reporting. It's gutless conformity.
Where is the soul of the national media? Apparently watching Fox News.