Few media marching bands have beat the Iraq war drums more frantically and with more influence than the editorial pages of the Washington Post. On Monday, the Post announced the hiring of another drummer boy, one who played a key propaganda role inside the Bush White House.
The Post editorial pages were an echo chamber for pre-war distortions and paranoid fantasies originated by the White House Iraq Group (WHIG). So it's grotesquely fitting that the Post would hire as an op-ed columnist, Michael Gerson, Bush's top speechwriter who - as a key wordsmith within WHIG - helped originate the flights of rhetorical fancy that so dazzled the Post's laptop warriors. Gerson spun the deceit; the Post peddled it. Now they'll operate under the same roof.
In explaining why the Post was adding yet another pro-war voice to its op-ed page, hawkish editorial page editor Fred Hiatt described Gerson as being "a different kind of conservative from the other conservatives on our page." Thanks, Fred, for all the diversity.
In their new book "Hubris," Michael Isikoff and David Corn write that it was Gerson who -
* inserted references to the yellowcake-from-Niger tale into various Bush speeches, including the 2003 State of the Union.
* helped prepare Secretary of State Colin Powell's dishonest and bellicose speech to the U.N.
* conceived Team Bush's trademark paranoid "soundbite" warning of a potential Iraq nuclear program: "The first sign of a smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud."
According to "Hubris," the "mushroom cloud" line was intended for a Bush speech, but was too good to hold. It was first deployed in September 2002 by anonymous White House aides in a New York Times front-page scare story (by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon) warning that Iraq had "stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons." On CNN that day, Condoleezza Rice declared: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." And Gerson's line became a standard and manipulative war cry from then on.
Speechwriter Gerson should be right at home at the Washington Post. From September 2002 through February 2003, the Post editorialized 26 times in favor of the Iraq war. As Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman have documented, its op-ed page was also dominated by hawks screaming for war. War skeptics were denounced as "fools" and "liars" and worse - and the skeptics were not given space to respond.
As Gerson's "smoking gun/mushroom cloud" soundbite took flight, Al Gore made an Iraq speech questioning "preemptive war." On the Post op-ed page, Gore's speech was "dishonest, cheap, low" and "wretched...vile...contemptible." And that was all in one column. Another called it "a series of cheap shots."
By contrast, the error-filled Colin Powell speech at the U.N. (that Gerson worked on) was hailed at the Post with almost Pravda-like unanimity. An editorial - headlined "Irrefutable" - declared: "It is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction." And the Post op-ed page from right to "left" embraced Powell's speech.
"When reading the Post's pre-war coverage," summarized journalist Robert Parry, "there was a whiff of totalitarianism in which dissidents never get space to express their opinions but are still excoriated by the official media. When the state speaks, however, the same media hails the government's brilliance."
Gerson and his new colleagues at the Post worked together to help bring us one of the worst foreign policy debacles in our nation's history. Newspapers are supposed to hold discredited public officials to account. The Post is hiring him.
It's partly because of the Post's inexcusable coverage before the war, and its ongoing pro-war editorial bias, that I will be joining Scott Ritter, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern and other activists at Camp Democracy in Washington D.C. this Tuesday, Sept. 19, for a public forum on the media's role in Iraq and Iran.
There will also be a protest march to the Washington Post headquarters that evening. With the newspaper's hiring of Gerson, I know an appropriate slogan: "Two, four, six, eight/Separate the press and state."