12/03/2007 12:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chris Matthews Rewrites History about the Clintons and the Origins of the Iraq War

On last Wednesday's Hardball, Chris Matthews asked a rhetorical question that no one answered. So I will.

"I'm amazed now that Bill Clinton has come out and said he's Jerry Rubin. I mean, he's now become -- announced the fact that he's been against the war -- I love the phrase, "from the beginning." Within a few hours, by the way, the verb -- the verb tense changed from the past to the present. This is like the old "is" is question. He's now against the war, having promised the voters a few minutes before that that he was against it. Now he's just saying he is against it, a lesser claim. I don't remember him speaking out against the war back in 2001, 2002 and 2003, do you?"

I sure do. A few minutes on a fee-based search engine jogged my memory. Here are few clippings:

"Clinton Splits With Bush on Iraq," The Washington Post March 13, 2003
"Former president Bill Clinton, who has generally supported the Bush administration's Iraq policy in recent remarks, called on his successor yesterday to accept a more relaxed timeline in exchange for support from a majority of the United Nations Security Council members. ..[T]he former president has publicly espoused an approach substantially different from the administration's public stance."

"Deadline for war - Give the inspectors more time, urges Clinton" The Daily Telegraph March 13, 2003 "Bill Clinton yesterday urged the Bush administration to give Hans Blix as much time as he wants to complete weapons inspections in Iraq. The former president broke ranks with his successor...Mr Clinton said war might yet be avoided if Saddam Hussein were given more time to disarm. "

"Clinton recommends U.S. patience on Iraq," Reuters, February 11, 2003. "Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said in an interview broadcast on Tuesday the United States should exercise patience in its standoff with Iraq to help build allied support for a potential strike."

Hardball, February 12, 2003,when Chris Matthews asks "Christopher Hitchens, are you upset that President Clinton has emerged as a critic and perhaps a mild-mannered critic of the policy of this administration on the eve of war?"

Let me spell it out for anyone who doesn't get it. If you say the country should not go to war until certain conditions are met, or if you say there is insufficient basis for going to war, then you are against going to war. (Nobody is ever indifferent). This concept holds true if you're referring to war with Iraq, Iran or Mexico. Bill Clinton's position, which was identical to that of Hans Blix, was that we should exhaust all opportunities for inspections prior to any military action. And if, five days before the invasion, Clinton said that we should proceed with inspections and diplomacy instead of artillery fire, then he was against the war from "the beginning." It's the simplest type of syllogism.

Matthews was not the only one. Most of Bill Clinton's critics framed their accusations in ways that are very misleading. The headline in the Times said "Bill Clinton Flatly Asserts He Opposed War at Start." Yes, Clinton used the verb "opposed" instead of "was against" which have very different meanings. But to my knowledge, you cannot "flatly assert" something in a subordinate clause. The full sentence, which the Times quotes at the very end of the article, was,

"Even though I approved of Afghanistan and opposed Iraq from the beginning, I still resent that I was not asked or given the opportunity to support those soldiers."

Clinton's primary point was about his opportunity to support the soldiers, specifically about the administration's unwillingness to work with him, not about Iraq. If Clinton substituted the word "opposed" with "was against" his sentence would have been 100% correct. But would the audience have been left with a materially different impression? Did Clinton "rewrite history" or make a bad choice of words? If the media chooses to make a big deal out of it, who's the one who's splitting hairs?

Which is why methinks Frank Rich doest protest too much. In Sunday's column, he writes that Clinton "revived unhappy memories of the truth-dodging nadirs of the Clinton White House," and that "history cannot be rewritten in any case, by Bill Clinton or anyone else." Rich revived my unhappy memories of pundits who relied on the flimsiest pretext to impugn the Clintons.

While we're on the topic of rewriting history, let's consider how pervasively the media conflates the October 2002 vote on the joint resolution with Bush's decision to invade. Whenever Hillary Clinton attempts to point out a bona fide distinction, pundits dissemble big time. Matthews' sleight of hand is obvious in this Hardball segment which opened with a clip from Meet the Press,

TIM RUSSERT, "MEET THE PRESS": Is it fair to say that the most important vote you cast in the Senate, in your own words, on authorizing the war in Iraq, was wrong?

SEN. CLINTON: It's fair to say that the president misused the authority that he was given, and if I had the opportunity to act now, based on what I know now, I never would have voted that way.

MATTHEWS: The problem with that, Anne Kornblut, is what she knew when she cast the vote authorizing the war is that 80 percent of the American people believed that Bush was taking us to war at that time. At that time, she knew that most people believed--she may not have--overwhelmingly, people knew Bush was gunning for a war, and approving the war, authorizing it, meant we were going to war. What does she mean by saying, I didn't know he was going to abuse it? I mean, that's what he asked for. If I say, Can I borrow your car, you're going to drive it.

KORNBLUT: This has been the sort of...(LAUGHTER) This has been the sort of inherent problem with this answer for her all along. And it's been a calculated risk on her part. She would rather give this answer that, to you and to some others, might seem convoluted, might seem verging on dishonest, because...


KORNBLUT: ... of course, a lot of people thought that it was going to lead to war.

Neat trick, huh? In order to make Senator Clinton look dishonest, Matthews and Kornblut bypass the text of the resolution, which imposed certain conditions prior to any military action - conditions Bush subsequently ignored. Matthews and Kornblut buy into the Republican narrative - that our knowledge about the WMD threat and Bush's intentions never really changed between October 2002 and March 2003. Both of these phony implications - "If you voted for the resolution, you voted to go to war," or "We all relied on faulty intelligence," - are commonplace deceptions used by Republicans, along with the Washington press corps, to evade culpability. It's time to set the record straight.

On October 11, 2002, the day Hillary Clinton and others in the Senate voted on the Iraq war resolution, certain things were known, and other things were not known.

On October 11, 2002, everyone knew:
1. The text of the resolution, which stated that prior to any military action the President must first determine that reliance on peaceful means will not protect the security of the US, or enforcement of UN Security Council Resolutions,
2. The US and its allies were negotiating a UN Security Council resolution to compel new intrusive inspections in Iraq,
3. The publicly disclosed Key Judgments from the National Intelligence Estimate, and
4. That the neocons were talking about regime change and disparaging the idea of inspections.

On October 11, 2002 almost no one knew:
5. The extent to which George Bush was or was not bluffing about regime change,
6. That Colin Powell's power and authority would be neutralized by Cheney and Rumsfeld,
7. The extent to which Cheney and Rumsfeld had short-circuited the institutional integrity of the Pentagon and the CIA, and
8. The extent to which the NIE was based on cooked intelligence

In other words, almost no one knew the extent to which the Bush administration was undercutting all of our administrative and constitutional checks and balances. Even today, we don't know the extent of it.

So on October 11, 2002, almost no one could be expected to foresee that:
9. Bush would flagrantly abuse the discretion afforded him under terms of the joint resolution, specifically, his refusal to attempt to reconcile the inspectors' intelligence with the NIE, prior to the invasion, and
10. Bush's agreement to proceed with the inspections process was a sham from the beginning.

And what was Hillary Clinton saying during the months after her vote?

"Hillary Clinton tells Irish TV she is against war with Iraq," Irish Times, February 8, 2003

"Hillary Clinton prefers 'peaceful solution' in Iraq," Associated Press March 3, 2003
"[Clinton said the US] should continue its attempts to build an international alliance rather than going to war quickly with Iraq...[I]nspection is preferable to war, if it works, the New York Democrat said."

On March 18, 2003, everyone (who was willing to look) knew with substantial certainty that:
11. UN inspections had discredited the NIE,
12. The White House made no effort to reconcile the inspectors findings with their prior intelligence assumptions,
13. The White House offered nothing substantive to refute the inspectors' findings,
14. Hans Blix said the inspectors, who found nothing that presented even a remote danger to the US or Europe, could complete their work in a matter of months,
15. George Bush had promised to call for another Security Council vote to invade, ("Everyone will show their cards,") and totally disregarded that promise a few days later,
16. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and others said their was insufficient basis for launching a war at that time,
17. Most of our allies were - including Britain - also advocating more time for the inspections to be completed, and
18. Mainstream media never seriously considered or reported Numbers 11 through 16 above.

Put another way, Number 18 meant that, at a time in the world when a journalist's professionalism and integrity counted most, Helen Thomas stood virtually alone in the Beltway press corps, courageously asking hard questions while surrounded by cowards. Tim Russert's sycophancy stands out because he repeatedly lied about the inspectors.

To this day, Chris Matthews forgets about the elephant in the room. He interviewed White House speech writer Michael Gerson, John McCain, and George Tenet, each of whom repeated the canard that they believed at the time of the invasion that Saddam had WMD. Matthews never referenced the reports by Blix and ElBaradei, which prove that their "beliefs" were based on a reckless indifference to the truth.

When interviewing Tenet on May 7, 2007 Matthews said,

"Most Americans were for this war for two reasons: one, payback -- it was even in our country music, 'Remember How You Felt?' -- and the fear of a nuclear weapon, that they actually had a delivery system, this balsam wood plan they were going to use to bring over here and attack us with."

And you know why they believed that? Because Chris Matthews and glossed over information that put us all on notice. On March 7, 2003, ElBaradei said, "The IAEA has yet to come across evidence of a nuclear weapons program." And later,"After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq."

We knew enough on March 7, 2003, months before Joe Wilson spoke out or David Kay's inspectors began snooping around. You know why we knew? Because the administration offered nothing in rebuttal and because their reliance on such a crude forgery showed that they were incompetent. It's plain common sense which Matthews and others failed to consider then or now.

To bring things back full circle, Bill Clinton made a comment that was 90% accurate, Hillary Clinton made comments that were 100% accurate, yet they are accused by the media chronically feeding us doubletalk. You what to know what real doubletalk is? Check out Howard Kurtz' interview with Tom Brokaw:

HOWARD KURTZ: Most people would say, and I would agree, the media did a pretty poor job during the run-up to the Iraq War in terms of the way that President Bush was selling it, and now, of course, the coverage in recent years has been more critical.

BROKAW: Yes. The one thing I would disagree with you about, a lot of what happened on the run-up was unknowable. People did believe he had weapons of mass destruction. People who were critical of the war and the idea of going to war did in fact think that he had weapons of mass destruction, which was one of the bases for...

KURTZ: But shouldn't journalists have been more skeptical toward the line the administration was selling, even if they couldn't disprove it and given it more...

BROKAW: I think on the execution... (CROSSTALK)

BROKAW: I think on the war plan they should have been a lot more skeptical.

KURTZ: And given more space, more air time to opposition voices? There was a feeling... (CROSSTALK)

BROKAW: Yes, but remember -- you have to remember, the opposition voices were not that many in this town, for example, in Washington. There just weren't that many....

"Not that many opposition voices in this town"? How about 230 miles north in New York, where Brokaw lived and worked? Did Brokaw conveniently forget the names Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei?

Arianna and Keith Olbermann perfectly dissected Karl Rove's transparent and ugly lies about the beginning of the Iraq war. But at the end of the day, it's the historical whitewashing by Chris Matthews and Tom Brokaw that poses a far greater danger to our political discourse. Not because it maligns the Clintons, but because it obstructs our ability to look at cause and effect or any individual's responsibility. And because it remains the conventional wisdom.

Addendum: (11:40 pm) The piece was not intended as a wholesale defense of Hillary Clinton's October 2002 vote, or of Bill Clinton's public statements during the run up to the war. Rather it was about how the press dismisses any valid points they wish to make. And Senator Clinton's point in particular reminds us that everyone was put on notice about the absence of WMD before we invaded. In other words, the fact that George Tenet told Bush, "It's a slam dunk!" was totally irrelevant when Woodward published his book. And any suggestion that Bush made an honest mistake, or that we did not know better, is a pervasive and very dangerous canard.