THE BLOG

Chris Matthews and the Power of Repetition

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET

Sunday Sept. 8, 2002 was a red letter day in the White House Iraq Group’s efforts to market the war. That was the day the administration’s war salesmen scored one of their biggest propaganda coups.

That morning, the New York Times ran a front page story co-written by Judy Miller about how Saddam was trying to get a hold of aluminum tubes to be used in building nuclear weapons. Perfectly timed to coincide with this planted (and bogus) info, the administration blanketed the Sunday shows with its big guns -- who all used the New York Times’ credibility to bolster their case against Saddam and scare the American people.

Dick Cheney did Meet the Press, citing the Times story as evidence that Saddam was “actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons”. Condi Rice went on Wolf Blitzer and warned that the "smoking gun” in Iraq could turn out to be “a mushroom cloud”. Colin Powell on Fox News Sunday, Don Rumsfeld on Face the Nation, and Richard Meyers on This Week all made similar points, raising the specter of a nuked up Saddam. A month later, the House and Senate hastily authorized the administration to go to war.

Of course, the Plamegate investigation has revealed the political alchemy of turning crap into gold via a deadly game of neocon telephone tag. Cheney to Libby to Chalabi to Miller back to Libby for confirmation by “a senior administration official” (or is it “former Hill staffer”?)… then right to the front pages of the Times, which Cheney and Rice and Powell and Meyers and Rummy can wave around as “proof”.

It’s an iconic moment. A simple yet eye-opening narrative that exemplifies the way the war was sold. For me, it includes all the key pieces of the puzzle -- when you put them together, everything suddenly clicks into place.

Over the last two weeks, Hardball’s Chris Matthews has been relentless in repeatedly bringing the significance of Sept. 8, 2002 -- and its larger implications -- home to his audience.

It’s been crusading journalism at its best. Making a crucial point by repeating the story -- and the facts -- again and again and again.

The GOP message machine would have us believe that the Libby indictment has nothing to do with the selling of the war -- and that the American people aren’t really interested in re-examining the run-up to the war. “The American people,” Ken Mehlman told Matthews last night in response to Harry Reid’s efforts, “want their leaders to respond to this war on terror with seriousness, not political stunts.” You mean like announcing the new Supreme Court nominee the Monday after the VP’s chief of staff is indicted, Ken? Or heralding a $7 billion plan to battle bird flu the day after that?

Last night, Matthews said that Fitzgerald’s investigation had shown him things he “never knew” -- including how “the vice president’s office, Scooter Libby in particular, was able to use the press”.

And if a Washington insider like Matthews was surprised, imagine how John Q. Public must feel. Hence the need to drum the facts home like Matthews has been doing. It’s the only way to break through the GOP spin and the static of our 500 channel universe.

So there was Matthews last night, laying it out for his viewers:

MATTHEWS: One of the things we learned in this long investigation regarding the CIA leak was the way in which the Vice President’s office, Scooter Libby, in particular, was able to use the press. He leaked to the New York Times the story that there were aluminum tubes; there was, in fact, a case for a nuclear weapons program by Saddam Hussein.

And then the three major figures in the administration, the Vice President, Secretaries of State and Defense, went on Sunday television, all pointed to that story that had been planted there by Scooter Libby.


It’s a point he reiterated later in the show:

One of the stories that struck me was the way in which we all learned about the WMD. We learned it through the New York Times, and we find out now that it was the Vice President’s office that had fed the story to the Times.

This was just the latest in a run that goes back to October 19, and his interview with Frank Rich:

What I suspect here Frank, is an alley-oop play like in the NBA, where one player throws the ball near the net and the other puts it in. So someone from the Vice President’s office leaks to the Times. And the vice president goes on Sunday television and puts the ball in.


And again on October 19, with Tucker Carlson:

[Was the VP’s office] setting up the New York Times so on the Sunday programs these guys like the Vice President could come on and say, “That`s right, we have a nuclear argument for the war because that article in the Times was right” -- and you find out later that the article was put there by the vice President’s office?


And on October 26, with Walter Pincus:

What this does unearth is the possibility that we went to war on background, a case made for war by feeding the New York Times the case for war then having the Vice President come on and say, "Did you read the times Today? We’ve got to go to war."


And again on October 26, with Howard Fineman:

When you go back and look at the record, it isn’t just about a leak, this story; it’s about the war in Iraq and how the case was made and the roles played and the method of operations of people like the Vice President’s chief of staff.

And you realize that he was leaking to the New York Times for weekend use so that the stories would run on Sunday, so that the Vice President, who was already scheduled to appear, would go on Sunday television and say, "Did you see that New York Times piece this morning?" to Tim Russert. And of course he knew it was ready, because they had pitched the story to Judy Miller through his chief of staff. This is a lot of information here about how we got into war.


And on October 28, with Andrea Mitchell:

We’ve learned a couple of things during this long investigation. One is the enormous central role played by Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to the vice president. We’ve seen where he leaked certain information to the New York Times that showed up on the Sunday pages of the New York Times, and then the next morning, magically, three administration officials are deployed on the various Sunday shows to say, "Did you see that piece in the Times today that built the case for war?`"


And on October 30, with Mike Allen:

We also learned during the case here, during the investigation that Scooter Libby was pushing successfully the stories to The New York Times to build the case for war on background, preceding appearances by top administration officials, including the Vice President on the Sunday talk shows.

In fact, in one magic weekend, he managed to get a big story written on the front page of The New York Times about nuclear potential in the hands of Saddam Hussein, and then spread out three different administration officials on the Sunday talk shows to pull an alley-oop play and say, did you see the piece in The Times this morning?


Matthews clearly grasps the value of repetition -- and the power of a good narrative.

He is acting as a village explainer, using the dramatic example of Sept. 8, 2002 to simplify, clarify, and make memorable a very complex set of facts.

“Stories,” says Harvard professor Howard Gardner, “are the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal”. A journalist’s arsenal, too. Matthews should keep telling this one until the public takes it to heart -- and the White House war salesmen are forced to come clean.