MEDIA
05/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Ed Gillespie Doesn't Have A Leg To Stand On

Ed Gillespie is mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore! Evidently he's been storing up all sorts of affronts against the Bush administration committed by NBC News, like when you finally explode at your roommate for forgetting the put the milk back in the fridge when really you're also yelling at leaving dirty dishes in the sink or using your toothbrush or, um, being too loud. There's only one problem: He's pretty much wrong on every count.

Grievance #1: The Interview

NBC's Richard Engel conducted an interview with President Bush for "NBC Nightly News." Like pretty much every other interview ever conducted in history, that interview was edited for time, space and relevance. Thanks to the internet, the full interview is available online but that doesn't change the fact that on the air, a newscast only has about 22 minutes to work with. The interview clocked in at 15:20. Ergo, some had to be cut.

Here's what was broadcast:

ENGEL: You said that negotiating with Iran is pointless, and then you went further. You said that it was appeasement. Were you referring to Senator Barack Obama?

BUSH: You know, my policies haven't changed, but evidently the political calendar has. And when, you know, a leader of Iran says that they want to destroy Israel, you've got to take those words seriously.

Here's what Bush said that wasn't broadcast:

People need to read the speech. You didn't get it exactly right, either. What I said was is that we need to take the words of people seriously....And if you don't take them seriously, then it hearkens back to a day when we didn't take other words seriously. It was fitting that I talked about not taking the words of Adolf Hitler seriously on the floor of the Knesset. But I also talked about the need to defend Israel, the need to not negotiate with the likes of al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas. And the need to make sure Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon.

Here's what Ed Gillespie said: "NBC's selective editing of the President's response is clearly intended to give viewers the impression that he agreed with Engel's characterization of his remarks when he explicitly challenged it."

Here's what I say: NBC's selective editing of the President's response clearly indicated his disagreement with that statement ("My policies haven't changed, but evidently the political calendar has" means "I was saying this long before Obama, hence I was not referring to him"). The edited part about the "need to take the words of people seriously" does seem to be adequately conveyed by "[when] a leader of Iran says that they want to destroy Israel, you've got to take those words seriously." It should be noted that Engel did not ask about Hitler, he asked about Iran; that said, the reasonably educated viewer could probably have made the leap with Bush from "Iran wants to destroy Israel" to the implied historical context. The rest of the statement could also be easily filed under "wanting to destroy Israel." (It's an easy go-to category for the middle east.)

In fact, contrary to Gillespie's assertion, anyone watching the edited interview would see President Bush pushing back against Engel in every question. Had Iran been empowered by disarray in Iraq? "I'm not so sure I agree with that." What of recurring tours of duty? Is there an exit strategy? "We're returning troops on success." How can Iraq be a success when on the ground it looks so bleak? "That's a little different from the surveys I've seen and a little different from the actual Iraqis I've talked to, but you're entitled to your opinion."

No, Ed Gillespie, that's not a complete transcript. But I've reviewed the whole and adjudged it to be a fair and accurate representation. That's called editorial judgment — and it's what NBC used to air the edited piece. Sure, you can challenge it, but in my estimation, this challenge doesn't make it on the merits.

Grievance #2: Iraqi Civil War

After blustering about a "media-manufactured storyline" (um, who mentioned Hitler exactly?), Gillespie doubles-down on his weak argument and picks another fight, going back to...November 2006. Suddenly Gillespie wants to talk about whether or not Iraq is in a civil war. Bloggers, media critics, people banging your head against the wall at home — do not be drawn into this nonsense. There are no do-overs and retroactive corrections here, unless the administration would like to announce one of their own on the same topic, about which they obfuscated and spun so extensively that the mere act of putting a name on the appalling carnage happening in Iraq became more of an issue than what was actually going on.

But if I am going to trust a source on this point, then damned if I wouldn't trust Engel — who has BEEN THERE throughout the whole damn thing. Engel tells Bush that on the ground in Iraq it looks bleak; Bush, who saw surveys and talked to "actual Iraqis" during what were no doubt brief and tightly-orchestrated visits says "you're entitled to your opinion?" Really? Was he entitled to his opinion in April 2005, about which he wrote this in his new book, War Journal: My Five Years In Iraq, on page 203:

A senior U.S. diplomat said tensions had been building in Ma'dein as Shiits started to move into traditionally Sunni neighborhoods. "But I don't see signs of a civil war," he said.

I certainly did. There were fourteen car bombs, forty-two roadside bombs, and twenty-two shootings in Baghdad the same week...U.S. military officials said there were now seventy attacks a day.

This was more than a year before the administration got up in arms over what to call the carnage. Reading on in Engel's book reveals a catalog of killings, like the group of men who were laid on a concrete slab and decapitated with a chainsaw, the grocer's daughter who was kidnapped, raped and had her throat cut, the sectarian executions, a toddler killed, stuffed with rice, cooked and left on his family's doorstep, bodies found bound and blindfolded with holes drilled into their bodies, bodies piled three deep in morgue refrigerators that didn't get cold enough to stave off the maggots.

Yes. It certainly puts roommate complaints in perspective, doesn't it?

So: As for conditions on the ground in Iraq, I would tend to take Richard Engel's considered opinion over that of either Bush or Gillespie, frankly, on whether Iraq remains in civil war or if ethnic cleansing and population displacement were sufficient to change the status to "volatile, violence-ridden country of roaming, warring insurgents."

Grievance #3: Recession?

Oy. Gillespie. You're really picking this fight? Brian Williams said the GDP numbers for Q1 2007 "just stopped short of the official declaration of a recession." Emphasis added to underscore how close to a recession that number implies the country is. In light of all the other factors put forth (and updated consistently) on NBC Nightly News by Erin Burnett and other experts, all of whom have agreed that various hallmarks of recession are clearly evidenced in the current economy, I think I'll take NBC's word on this one, too.

Or we could just take Bush's: "You know, the average person doesn't really care what we call it," said Bush on April 29th. "Recession, slowdown -- whatever you want to call it." Sort of like civil war.

Upshot: NBC: 1, Ed Gillespie: 0

To paraphrase a certain red-faced letter-writing someone, "Mr. Gillespie, I'm sure you don't want people to conclude that there is really no distinction between the "news" as reported on NBC and the "spin" pushed by the White House." Seriously, dude, you don't have a leg to stand on here.

P.S. Yes, I read your whole letter.

Letter From White House To NBC News
[The Page]
Statement From NBC [HP Media]