Posted at 10:22 AM ET, 06/26/2009
White House Watched
It’s hard to summarize the past five and a half years. But I’ll try.
I started my column in January 2004, and one dominant theme quickly emerged: That George W. Bush was truly the proverbial emperor with no clothes. In the days and weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks, the nation, including the media, vested him with abilities he didn’t have and credibility he didn’t deserve. As it happens, it was on the day of my very first column that we also got the first insider look at the Bush White House, via Ron Suskind’s book, The Price of Loyalty. In it, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill described a disengaged president “like a blind man in a room full of deaf people”, encircled by “a Praetorian guard,” intently looking for a way to overthrow Saddam Hussein long before 9/11. The ensuing five years and 1,088 columns really just fleshed out that portrait, describing a president who was oblivious, embubbled and untrustworthy.
When I look back on the Bush years, I think of the lies. There were so many. Lies about the war and lies to cover up the lies about the war. Lies about torture and surveillance. Lies about Valerie Plame. Vice President Dick Cheney’s lies, criminally prosecutable but for his chief of staff Scooter Libby’s lies. I also think about the extraordinary and fundamentally cancerous expansion of executive power that led to violations of our laws and our principles.
And while this wasn’t as readily apparent until President Obama took office, it’s now very clear that the Bush years were all about kicking the can down the road – either ignoring problems or, even worse, creating them and not solving them. This was true of a huge range of issues including the economy, energy, health care, global warming – and of course Iraq and Afghanistan.
How did the media cover it all? Not well. Reading pretty much everything that was written about Bush on a daily basis, as I did, one could certainly see the major themes emerging. But by and large, mainstream-media journalism missed the real Bush story for way too long. The handful of people who did exceptional investigative reporting during this era really deserve our gratitude: People such as Ron Suskind, Seymour Hersh, Jane Mayer, Murray Waas, Michael Massing, Mark Danner, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau (better late than never), Dana Priest, Walter Pincus, Charlie Savage and Philippe Sands; there was also some fine investigative blogging over at Talking Points Memo and by Marcy Wheeler. Notably not on this list: The likes of Bob Woodward and Tim Russert. Hopefully, the next time the nation faces a grave national security crisis, we will listen to the people who were right, not the people who were wrong, and heed those who reported the truth, not those who served as stenographers to liars.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that there is so very much about the Bush era that we still don’t know.
Now, a little over five months after Bush left office, Barack Obama’s presidency is shaping up to be in large part about coming to terms with the Bush era, and fixing all the things that were broken. In most cases, Obama is approaching this task enthusiastically – although in some cases, he is doing so only under great pressure, and in a few cases, not at all . I think part of Obama’s abiding popularity with the public stems from what a contrast he is from his predecessor — and in particular his willingness to take on problems. But he certainly has a lot of balls in the air at one time. And I predict that his growing penchant for secrecy – especially but not only when it comes to the Bush legacy of torture and lawbreaking – will end up serving him poorly, unless he renounces it soon.
Obama is nowhere in Bush’s league when it comes to issues of credibility, but his every action nevertheless needs to be carefully scrutinized by the media, and he must be held accountable. We should be holding him to the highest standards – and there are plenty of places where we should be pushing back. Just for starters, there are a lot of hugely important but unanswered questions about his Afghanistan policy, his financial rescue plans, and his turnaround on transparency.
So now I’m off. I wish The Washington Post well. I’m proud to have been associated with it for 12 years (I was a producer and editor at the Web site before starting the column.) I remain a big believer in the “traditional media,” especially when it sticks to traditional journalistic values. The Post was, is and will always be a great newspaper, and I have confidence that it will rise to the challenges ahead.