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Why didn't Washington Post columnists call Cheney a disgrace?

Message Eric Boehlert
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What a difference two terms make.

Or more specifically, what a difference they make when a Republican former vice president harshly critiques the new White House, compared with when a Democratic former VP raised policy concerns. Seriously, press double standards just don't come more pronounced than this.

Last week, when Dick Cheney made his case that the Obama White House's national security policies are making Americans less safe, he won high marks from the Beltway press corps, which looked the other way and pretended it was normal for a dislodged VP to launch such a wildly partisan and public attack on the new White House. (Fact: It's not [1].)

Cheney, in the eyes of the press, wasn't a sore loser unable to accept the Republicans' shellacking at the polls last November. Instead, he had emerged as "perhaps the leading Republican voice against President Obama," according to The New York Times [2]. Cheney's May 21 speech [3] at the American Enterprise Institute "crackled with intensity" and represented "a remarkably focused, blistering attack," claimed [4] Gerald Seib in The Wall Street Journal. And The Washington Post's Dana Milbank cheered [5] that "Dick Cheney came out swinging" and was "winning this fight" with Obama over national security.

Cheney was a serious, big-time policy player who landed punches on Obama, the press seemed to agree.

But go back to the fall of 2002 and look at how media elites reacted when Al Gore made a public speech raising doubts about how and why the Bush administration was rallying the country for war with Iraq. Of course, unlike Cheney, Gore thought it was his duty as a former VP to give the new administration plenty of time and space to operate, which was why Gore waited nearly two years before airing concerns of any kind in a public forum on September 23, 2002.

And how did Beltway pundits repay Gore for showing a type of class and respect that Cheney has managed to assiduously avoid in 2009? At The Washington Post, star columnist and Beltway big shot Michael Kelly acted as though Gore's war skepticism was a crime against humanity.

The "formerly important Al Gore," Kelly sneered [6] in print, "cannot be considered a responsible aspirant to power" because with his Iraq speech, the former VP had "placed himself beyond that pale."

And that was just from Kelly's first two paragraphs. From there, Kelly got really nasty:

It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts -- bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible.

Kelly was plain: Gore's performance was a disgraceful spectacle given by a hollow, empty man. Kelly's Post colleague Charles Krauthammer agreed [7]: "It was a disgrace -- a series of cheap shots strung together without logic or coherence." Gore was an intellectually "thin" and "cynical" man whose speech was "brazen" in its wrong-headedness.

And the Post was hardly alone in piling on the invective. Jonathan Shapiro, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California law school, mocked the former VP in a Los Angeles Daily News op-ed for his "shrill campaign speech masquerading as a foreign policy address." New York Times columnist William Safire labeled [8] the effort a "self-contradictory pushmipullyu of a speech." Writer and war cheerleader Andrew Sullivan dubbed [9] Gore a "pure opportunist" for voicing his misgivings about the war. (Of course, unlike Cheney, Gore the "opportunist" wasn't shopping around a memoir [10] to publishers while he was conducting a PR campaign.) And in a disdainful editorial, the pro-war New Republic belittled [11] Gore's speech for being a misguided rhetorical mess.

The cool kids in the press agreed: Gore had flopped.

Of course, we all understand today that with the concerns he raised about the administration not having a fully thought-out plan to deal with a post-invasion Iraq, not bringing together a large international coalition, and diverting key resources away from the war on terror being fought in Afghanistan, Gore was pretty much right about everything back in 2002.

But in real time, Gore served as a Beltway punching bag. Following his defeat in 2000, the Beltway press routinely and openly portrayed Gore as a jackass, which was how Gore got treated while he campaigned for the White House.

I've been reminded of that robotic Gore-bashing while watching Cheney parade around on TV in recent weeks, being treated with utmost respect by the same Beltway press corps that mocked Gore for trying to re-enter the conversation. Slate described [12] Kelly's attacks on Gore as Kelly "raking him over the coals for trying on a serious persona when his career was over." Pre-Nobel Prize, of course.

To date, though, I haven't seen any Washington Post columnists denounce Cheney as a disgrace in the wake of his unprecedented attack on the office of the presidency.

The press' peculiar Cheney double standard has actually been on display all year. It's peculiar because traditionally, the Beltway press reveres winners and disdains losers. Yet despite Cheney's dismal public approval ratings and his staring role in an administration that may go down as one of the least popular in modern American history and that may have done lasting damage [13] to the GOP, the press treats Cheney as a winner.

And more important, the press has refused to put Cheney's ongoing anti-Obama smear campaign into any kind of historical perspective [14]. It has also rushed to protect Cheney from those White House meanies in a way that reporters and pundits never dreamed of doing on behalf of Gore. The Village first came to Cheney's aid back in March, when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs referred [15] to the former VP as a member of the GOP "cabal."

Not cool, the press announced. Definitely not cool.

But why had Gibbs even made the "cabal" crack in the first place? Because Cheney, in an extraordinarily loaded and incendiary allegation, claimed Obama was making America less safe. That kind of rhetoric, the press had no problem with. Instead, journalists simply reported it as breaking news. (Image if Gore had had the gall to make that claim vs. the still-green President Bush in March 2001. The Democrat would have had to enter a witness protection program to avoid the media attacks.)

Reporters then asked Gibbs for a response, and when Gibbs dismissed Cheney with the "cabal" quote, that's when the press pool rose up in anger. That's when the press morphed into the etiquette police and announced that that kind of language was beyond the pale. Clearly rattled [16], MSNBC's Beltway tip sheet, First Read, wondered if Gibbs' "open disdain" for Cheney was "acceptable" to Obama. ABC's The Note also reached [17] for the smelling salts: "Wow -- we're talking about the former vice president here."

CBS' Chip Reid seemed appalled as well and demanded [18] a clarification from Gibbs:

Can I ask you, when you referred to the former vice president, that was a really hard-hitting, kind of sarcastic response you had. This is a former vice president of the United States. Is that the attitude -- is that the sanctioned tone toward the former vice president of the United States from this White House now?

Got that? Weeks into Obama's first term, when Cheney claimed Democrats were making America less safe (and doing it for political reasons), the Beltway press bubble was mostly silent in terms of condemning it, or even raising eyebrows about it. But when Gibbs tossed out the throwaway line mocking Cheney, the press recoiled in horror.

We saw the same knee-jerk media response last week, as at least one White House reporter raised objections that the administration had taken a "swipe" at Cheney because Gibbs had jokingly noted that these days, Cheney had a lot of time on his hands.

As blogger Greg Sargent correctly noted [19]:

This is just weird. Cheney delivered a 5,000 word speech today blasting Obama and Dems as unwilling to defend us from terrorists. He called them phonies and hypocrites for condemning torture. He accused Obama of closing Guantanamo in order to "receive applause in Europe." And Gibbs is taking heat for gently pushing back?

By the way, how did Republican officials respond to Gore's Iraq war critique in September 2002? What kind of rhetoric did they use to describe the former VP? They called him an "irrelevant [20]" "political hack [21]."

The press' response to that kind of GOP name-calling? Radio silence. Nobody, as far as I can tell, asked if that kind of talk was acceptable despite the fact that, wow, we're talking about the former vice president here. I suspect the (pro-war) press didn't object to Republicans' labeling Gore a "hack" in 2002 because so many Beltway scribes agreed with the assessment.

Oh, and how did television news cover the Cheney and Gore speeches? Of course, cable news provided roadblock coverage for Cheney last week, placing him right up on the same news-making pinnacle as the POTUS. But back in 2002, when Gore stepped forward as the most high-profile Democrat to raise doubts about war in Iraq, the cable outlets refused to grant Gore the same type of coverage.

And in terms of the nightly network news programs, Cheney grabbed top billing following his national security (pro-torture?) speech last week. But please note that the World News Tonight report on Gore's September 23, 2002, anti-war speech was buried mid-broadcast. The dispatch ran 43 words in its entirety:

Why? Because Gore, the has-been, was a "disgrace" when he tried to butt in about the Iraq war, according to the press corps -- the same press pack that awarded Cheney such high marks last week.

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Eric Boehlert is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, 2006). He worked for five years as a senior writer for Salon.com, where he wrote extensively about media and politics. Prior to that, he worked as a (more...)

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