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Condi Rice's Tortured Macaca Moment

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Political blog readers know that Condi Rice recently lost it.

Asked about her role advancing torture during the Bush administration in a meeting with college students, Rice claimed that no torture occurred in Guantanamo (false); Al Qaeda poses a greater threat than the axis in World War II (dubious); and -- this was big -- the President can make an act legal by authorizing it (official Frost/Nixon alert). Along the way, Rice also berated one college student, chiding him to "do your homework first" and read a report supporting her views -- an exchange that was unbecoming and uncomfortable to watch.

Harpers' Scott Horton already demolished Rice's arguments, so I won't repeat his points here. But this incident also shows the prospects for what we might call a substantive Macaca Moment - using YouTube and citizen media to scrutinize our leaders on the issues, not gaffes.

The riveting video of Rice was a collaborative citizen project, from start to finish. Stanford students Jeremy Cohn and Sammy Abusrur asked Rice the intelligent, pointed questions that drew such revealing responses, while their classmate Reyna Garcia shot the video and uploaded it to YouTube. Garcia is no-nonsense. She simply titled the video "Condoleeza Rice meets with some students," instructed visitors to "keep comments civil," and announced that "all rights to this video belong to me, Reyna Garcia."

The seven-minute clip quickly drew 150,000 views, shot up to the top of Rice videos on YouTube, and jumpstarted traditional media coverage. Blogs pounced. Law professor Jack Balkin, who runs an influential legal blog, banged out a quick analysis of the claim that an act isn't torture if "Bush ordered it." The Washington Post ran an item about how the "riled" former secretary of state was "caught on tape" giving a "finger-wagging" torture defense to students. Online radio host Cenk Uyger picked up the clip with a YouTube commentary, "Condi Rice Pulls a Nixon," that drew over 100,000 views. The next day, Keith Olbermann devoted a segment to broadcasting and discussing Garcia's video on MSNBC.

Watching the video, however, it is striking to contrast how this civil, mildly persistent questioning from college students generated more pressure - and answers - than many of the professional television interviews Rice has done. Scott Horton also flagged this dynamic:

For eight years, Condoleezza Rice dealt with the Beltway punditry and the access-craving White House press corps. The reception she got, with a handful of exceptions, was fawning. Which leaves her totally unprepared for a return to an academy populated with the Daily Show generation: bright young minds with a very critical attitude towards the last eight years.

It would have barely mattered, of course, if the audience were limited to the few people physically present in that classroom. But this generation knows how to ask questions and get the word out. For government officials who oversaw war crimes, that could make life outside of Washington a little more trying.

Originally posted at Personal Democracy Forum.

Ari Melber writes for The Nation and Politico. See him discuss the Bush administration's torture policies in this television debate.