It Takes a While to Reach DEFCON 1

02/20/2006 02:24 pm 14:24:53 | Updated May 25, 2011

Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, wrote a provocative column the other day about the reaction to scandals surrounding the Bush White House. Ultimately, his argument has everything backwards.

"Have you ever noticed how on a scale of one to 10, every untoward event in the life of the Bush presidency goes straight to a 10?" Henninger asked. "The Abu Ghraib photos? A 10 forever. Dick Cheney catching a hunting buddy with some birdshot? An instant 10. The Bush National Guard story? Total 10. How can it be that each downside event in this presidency greets the public at this one, screeching level of outrage and denunciation by the out-of-power party and a perpetually outraged media?"

Henninger's boss, the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot, made a similar argument on Meet the Press yesterday, noting that "every Washington goes immediately to DEFCON 1."

I'll gladly concede that the Cheney shooting story reached near-frenzy status fairly quickly last week -- that is, if you define "quickly" as a few hours after word was leaked to the Corpus Christi newspaper. It's not every day that a Vice President shoots someone and there were enough odd inconsistencies in the story to make it immediately fascinating.

But, in general, the opposite of the point Henninger and Gigot raised is true. Bush scandals don't go "straight to a 10" on the frenzy-meter -- they usually linger around 2 or 3 until the media realizes it's missing a big story.

Henninger, for example, points to Bush's limited service in the Texas Air National Guard as a good example of his thesis. But Henninger's memory is flawed -- Democrats tried to generate attention for this story in 1994, during Bush's first run for governor, but reporters largely bought Bush's story. In 2000, Democrats tried again, but to no avail.

Consider this in a quantitative way. Paul Begala did some research comparing how many stories from 1992 focused on Bill Clinton's Vietnam draft record vs. stories from 2000 that focused on Bush's. It wasn't even close -- Begala found 13,641 stories about Clinton's alleged draft dodging versus 49 about Bush's dubious military record. Not exactly a feeding frenzy against the Republican from the "liberal media."

In February 2004, the WaPo ran an item (on page A8) explaining that Bush's National Guard service is now "in question." Slowly but surely, more reporters started to realize that the president's story didn't add up and there were gaps in his service record. But the story didn't go "straight to a 10" -- it took literally 10 years for the national media to care about this story.

That's not all. Henninger said the "Abu Ghraib photos" are "a 10 forever." That's true about the impact, but it still gets the narrative wrong. Abu Ghraib became an international crisis once pictures were released, but the story didn't go "straight to a 10" beforehand. People needed to be shocked and nauseated by the images before the scandal was taken seriously.

I also keep thinking about the Plame leak scandal. Henninger's argument -- that "every untoward event in the life of the Bush presidency goes straight to a 10" -- is completely destroyed here.

Plame's name was leaked in a July 2003 Robert Novak column, and immediately became a big story -- for liberal bloggers. A month later, the Washington Post ran an item about former CIA director John Deutch's concerns about the failure to find WMD in Iraq. At the very end of the article, the WaPo devoted five whole paragraphs to the Plame controversy, noting that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had asked the FBI to investigate "whether Bush administration officials identified the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson as a clandestine CIA officer." The Post wouldn't even give the story its own article. They hid it at the end of an unrelated article -- on page A20.

For two full months, the national media ran a total of two items on the story -- the Post piece and a Paul Krugman column -- while bloggers (including me) went berserk. Once reporters realized what they were missing, in late September, Slate's Jack Shafer said political reporters ran to the blogs to help them "catch up." A story that went "straight to a 10"? Not so much.

Most of us can only imagine a world in which every untoward event in the life of the Bush presidency goes straight to a 10. The reality is, Bush scandals struggle for oxygen for weeks, sometimes months, and occasionally years, waiting for reporters to recognize their significance.

Cheney shooting an old man in the face was an exception, not the rule.