By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Karl Rove

Republicans have a Putin problem — and the media need to stop glossing over it

Madison Cawthorn. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at GBH News.

Madison Cawthorn didn’t get the memo.

Sometime in early March, the extremist Republican congressman from North Carolina decided to go off on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Remember that Zelenskyy is a thug,” Cawthorn told supporters. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

If Cawthorn had spoken, say, a month earlier, he might have earned the praise of former President Donald Trump and gotten invited to trash Zelenskyy some more on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. But that was before Zelenskyy had emerged as a heroic figure, standing up to Russia’s invasion of his country with a combination of eloquence and courage. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said to those who thought he should flee.

So former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, the sort of establishment Republican who was frozen out during the Trump era, used his Wall Street Journal column to let his readers know that Republicans like Cawthorn and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance (“I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another”) are outliers — and that the party is oh-so-very supportive of Zelenskyy. “Republican members of Congress, candidates and commentators echoing Mr. Trump’s isolationism and Kremlin apologetics are out of sync with GOP voters,” Rove wrote. of North Carolina, which obtained video of Cawthorn taking the Kremlin line, pushed that message even harder, stressing in its lead that Cawthorn’s vile rhetoric was at odds with his party and calling it “a comment that runs counter to the overwhelming share of Republicans with a favorable view of the leader fending off a military invasion from Russia.”

Oh, please. Can we get real for a moment? Yes, Rove and WRAL cited poll numbers that show Republicans, like most Americans, are now pro-Zelenskyy and support Ukraine in fending off the massive Russian invasion. But that is an exceptionally recent phenomenon.

In January, for instance, a poll by The Economist and YouGov found that Republicans viewed Vladimir Putin more favorably than President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — hardly surprising after years of pro-Putin pronouncements by Trump.

No wonder former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who’d like to run for president, told Fox News that Putin is “a very talented statesman” with “lots of gifts” who “knows how to use power,” as Eric Boehlert, who tracks conservative bias on the part of the mainstream media, took note of.

Now, some of this reflects a split between the Republican Party’s right wing and its extreme right wing. Way out on the authoritarian fringes, figures such as Carlson and Steve Bannon have long admired Putin for his unabashed, anti-democratic espousal of white Christian dominance and attacks on LGBTQ folks. Politicians such as Cawthorn, Vance and Pompeo, rather than standing up for principle, are trying to thread the needle.

Meanwhile, their less extreme counterparts, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have flipped from coddling Trump, Putin and Russia to claiming that Biden is to blame for the invasion and the high gas prices it has led to.

All of this has a historical context. As everyone knows, or ought to know, Putin has represented an existential threat to Ukraine since 2014, when he invaded the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and incorporated it into Russia. Putin appears to be gripped by the idea of a Greater Russia, of which in his mind Ukraine is a part. Ukraine was a Soviet republic, and Putin has always expressed nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. But the two countries’ ties go back centuries, and apparently no one cares about that more deeply than Putin.

Into this box of dry kindling came the spark of Trump in 2016. His numerous statements of support for Putin and pro-Russia actions couldn’t possibly all be listed here, but a few that pertain to Ukraine stand out. One of Trump’s campaign managers, Paul Manafort, had worked for a pro-Russian political faction in Ukraine and, upon being forced out, offered his services to Trump free of charge. You may also recall that a plank in that year’s Republican platform guaranteeing Ukraine’s security was mysteriously watered down — and a delegate to that year’s convention later said she was asked directly by Trump to support the change. (Manafort later went to prison for financial crimes he committed in Ukraine, only to be pardoned by Trump.)

That was followed by revelations in the fall of 2019 that Trump, in a phone call to Zelenskyy, demanded dirt on Biden in return for military assistance — assistance that Ukraine needed desperately to deter Russian aggression. Trump was impeached over that massive scandal. Yet not a single Republican House member (not even Liz Cheney) supported impeachment, and only one Republican senator — Mitt Romney — voted to remove Trump from office.

As detailed a month ago by The Washington Post, Trump has continued to praise Putin, hailing his war against Ukraine as “genius” and “savvy,” while Trumpers like U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona sneer, “We should just call ourselves Ukraine and then maybe we can get NATO to engage and protect our border.”

Mother Jones reported over the weekend that Russian media outlets have been ordered to quote Tucker Carlson as much as possible. Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed Republican congressional candidate in Washington state, endorsed Cawthorn’s eruption this past Saturday and went him one better, tweeting: “Zelenskyy was installed via a US backed color revaluation [sic], his goal is to move his country west so he virtue signals in woke ideology while using nazi battalions to crush his enemies. He was also smart enough to cut our elite in on the graft. @CawthornforNC nailed it.”

There was a time when, as the old saying went, politics stopped at the water’s edge. That wasn’t always good policy, as elected officials came under withering attack when they dared to criticize misbegotten actions such as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But there was a virtue to it as well. When we go to war or, in the case of Ukraine, engage in high-wire diplomacy aimed at ending a war, it’s that much harder when critics are sniping at our leaders. Can you imagine if Republicans had gone on television in 1962 to say that Nikita Khrushchev was right to place Soviet missiles in Cuba?

Claiming that Republicans are united in supporting Ukraine doesn’t make it so. Some are, some aren’t. It’s shocking that a few fringe figures like Cawthorn and Kent are openly criticizing Zeleneskyy even now — but it’s just as shocking that praise for Putin was a mainstream Republican position as recently as a month or so ago.

Unfortunately, the media’s tendency to flatten out and normalize aberrant behavior by the Republicans will prevent this from growing into an all-out crisis for the party. We’ll move on to the next thing, whether it be expressing faux outrage over Vice President Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s touting electric cars while gas prices are high (what better time?) or Biden’s latest miserable polling numbers.

Anything that enables our feckless media to cover politics as the same old both-sides game that it used to be.

The final word on McClellan’s book

Given the ever-accelerating nature of the news cycle, I suppose this was bound to happen someday. Today is the official release date of former White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” And, as a news story, it’s already over.

But since I gave up two and a half hours on Saturday night so I could skim through an advance copy I’d been able to buy (and you thought your social life was pathetic), I’m going to share a few of my thoughts before the book slips under the waves once and for all.

1. There is nothing in “What Happened” that is interesting beyond the identity of the person who wrote it. As press secretary, McClellan was the slow-talking, dull-witted stooge who knew little and said less. Unlike his predecessor, the sharp and disdainful Ari Fleischer, or his successor, the sharp and combative Tony Snow, McClellan’s very presence came across as a way of telling the media that they didn’t matter — to “de-certify” the press, as Jay Rosen has written.

Thus it is of passing interest that McClellan has come to see that he was used; that the cool kids he thought were his friends were snickering behind his back and lying to him, as he says Karl Rove and Scooter Libby did regarding their roles in the Valerie Plame matter. But his book — which should have been titled “What Happened?” — is simplistic and unoriginal in its analysis.

2. McClellan swallowed a lot for a long time. A number of observers have pointed to McClellan’s claim that George W. Bush, during the 2000 presidential campaign, said he couldn’t remember whether he’d ever snorted cocaine as evidence that McClellan had spent way too much time looking the other way. But I was struck by a different anecdote.

As a spokesman for then-Texas governor Bush in the late 1990s, McClellan says he had to defend Bush’s use of the death penalty, despite his own opposition to capital punishment. McClellan writes:

My thinking is grounded in a moral belief. I’m deeply troubled by the idea that even one innocent person could fall through the system and be put to death for a crime that he or she did not commit. [p. 42]

Trouble is, McClellan was flacking not just for a run-of-the-mill pro-death-penalty governor, but for the executioner-in-chief, a man who never met an inmate he didn’t want to kill. So memorably callous was Bush that, in 1999, he mocked the last moments of Karla Faye Tucker — who’d become a cause célèbre because of her born-again Christianity — in an interview with Tucker Carlson.

McClellan has a strong stomach, to say the least.

3. It’s all Bill Clinton’s fault. But of course. To the extent that “What Happened” has an idea behind it, it is that Bush allowed the “permanent campaign” — the subordination of governing to a state of constant political gamesmanship — to destroy the nation’s post-9/11 unity and to ram through support for the war in Iraq. (McClellan cites a 2000 book by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann called “The Permanent Campaign and Its Future,” but does not mention Sidney Blumenthal’s better-known book, “The Permanent Campaign: Inside the World of Elite Political Operatives,” published some 20 years earlier.)

Amazingly, McClellan casts this as a matter of Bush’s failing to live up to his promise of not being like Clinton. McClellan:

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, members of the Clinton administration should feel deeply flattered when they look at the Bush administration. In our own way, we built on the art form the Clinton White House established and took it to a higher level. [p. 311]

Thus does McClellan compare Clinton’s overly cautious but largely successful record of governance with the Bush-Cheney disaster. To point out the obvious: Clinton lied about his reprehensible personal life. By McClellan’s own telling, Bush lied about his reasons for going to war in Iraq, fearing the public would not support his misguidedly idealistic vision of forcing democracy on the Iraqis whether they wanted it or not. Not the same thing.

4. It doesn’t matter whether McClellan is being disloyal or not. No, McClellan is not a loyalist. Maximum loyalty would have required him to keep his mouth shut at least until after Bush had left office. This might make McClellan a dubious choice for a best friend. It does not make him an unreliable reporter. What Bob Dole said may be right, but it’s also beside the point.

On “Meet the Press” Sunday, Tim Russert was at his mindless worst. The entire interview consisted of observing that McClellan had said one thing then and another thing now. It’s bad enough when Russert does it to a politician whom he wants to portray as a flip-flopper. In McClellan’s case, though, it was ludicrous.

The entire point of “What Happened” is that McClellan believed one thing when he was press secretary, and has come, through the course of writing his book, to believe something else entirely. McClellan explains this well in the preface. If Russert had focused less on “you changed your mind” and more on “why did you change your mind,” it would have been a far more valuable exercise.

5. Just as we thought, he really was out of the loop. McClellan tells us that, as press secretary, he was excluded from Karl Rove’s “strategery” meetings (Rove’s comic term), National Security Council meetings, even the daily communications meetings with Bush, Rove, Dick Cheney, Andy Card, Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes and, later, Dan Bartlett. McClellan writes:

Over time, I realized that the reason the press secretary was treated this way had nothing to do with who occupied the position but rather was rooted in distrust of the national media. Neither the president nor most of those in his inner circle of advisers placed any great value on the national media, including the White House press corps. [p. 155]

Gee, you think?

There are numerous problems with craft and logic in “What Happened.” On page 121, for instance, McClellan writes that, in 2002, a majority of the public “erroneously” believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, yet he fails to grapple fully with the administration’s own role in spreading that belief. There are numerous instances of re-created dialogue between him and Bush, some of it going back years.

McClellan also blames Rove and company for politicizing every issue they dealt with, yet he himself sees the failures of Katrina largely in political terms. McClellan dwells at absurd length on Rove’s less-than-brilliant idea to have Bush photographed while looking down on New Orleans from the luxury of Air Force One. A bad PR move? Sure. But it would have been quickly forgotten had Bush not so completely bungled the government’s response.

But enough. “What Happened” will be forgotten within days. What matters is that Scott McClellan, of all people, has turned truth-teller, at least to the extent that his limited abilities allow. The most poignant section in the book comes early:

I frequently stumbled along the way and failed in my duty to myself, to the president I served, and to the American people. I tried to play the Washington game according to the current rules and, at times, didn’t play it very well. Because I didn’t stay true to myself, I couldn’t stay true to others. The mistakes were mine, and I’ve suffered the consequences. [p. x]

McClellan couldn’t have prevented the mistakes of the past seven and a half years, but he could have spoken up earlier. He could have resigned as a matter of principle. Instead, he’s written a book that few will read, but that has considerable symbolic value nevertheless. That’s not only better than nothing. It’s also quite a bit more than we had reason to expect.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén