In a 2000 debate, Al Gore said that during wildfires in Texas he'd met with the director of FEMA. In fact, Vice President Gore had met with the deputy director of FEMA. Although I had been at the meeting as well, I didn't remember it either. But the press, spoon-fed by the Republican smear machine, used the misstatement to damn Gore as a "serial exaggerator."
So I expected the 600 journalists covering the GOP debate at St. Anselm's College to spank Mitt Romney when, in answering the first question of the night -- knowing what you know now, would you have invaded Iraq? -- Romney said that if "Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors, and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction...we wouldn't be in the conflict we're in."
Wolf Blitzer followed up, trying to get a straight answer. But again, Romney repeated this story: "You can go back and say, if we knew then what we know now, by virtue of inspectors having been let in and giving us that information, by virtue of if Saddam Hussein had followed the U.N. resolutions, we wouldn't be having this -- this discussion."
So, in Romneyland, Pres. Bush invaded Iraq because the Iraqi government would not allow weapons inspectors in. The lack of inspectors led Bush to believe Saddam had WMDs and was preparing to use them against us or our allies. So Bush had to invade.
Boy, oh boy, I thought, Ol' Mitt's gonna take some shit. Because everyone knows that Iraq did allow weapons inspectors in. Everyone remembers that day -- September 17, 2002 -- when Saddam capitulated to Kofi Annan and allowed inspectors in without conditions. (The CNN story that day was headlined, cleverly, "Iraq Agrees to Weapons Inspections.")
Everyone remembers Hans Blix and over 250 experts scouring the countryside, looking for weapons of mass destruction. Everyone remembers the Bush Administration deriding their work, Dick Cheney saying they provide false comfort, right-wingers darkly hinting that someone the International Atomic Energy Agency was secretly in league with -- or at least sympathetic to -- the evil dictator.
And everyone remembers that, after months of searching and finding nothing, the weapons inspectors asked for more time. Begged is more like it. But President Bush refused. On March 17, 2003 and kicked the weapons inspectors out, and on March 20 he launched his war.
So for Mitt Romney to say it was Saddam who kicked the inspectors out, well, I thought he'd be crushed for his ignorance -- or his dishonesty. I almost felt sorry for him.
But after the debate, nothing.
I couldn't believe it. I understood why Romney's Republican opponents didn't correct him. They need the public to believe the myth that Saddam wouldn't allow weapons inspectors in. In fact, Bush has repeated this same lie. Republicans want to blur the record, to revise history, so we don't have to confront the fact that if Mr. Bush had given the weapons inspectors more time to do their job, they would have concluded Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. No weapons, no threat. No threat, no war.
But I was -- and am -- stunned at the lack of scrutiny by the media. The New York Times found the space to correct some bit of arcana they believe Romney misstated about Z-visas -- a form of visa that does not exist, incorporated in a bill that will not become law. And yet the Times, like most of its colleagues and competitors, ignored the fact that Romney told a big, fat whopper about why Mr. Bush went to war -- and why tens of thousands of people are now dead.
To its credit, CNN (where I work as a political analyst) replayed the tape of Romney's fib -- or flub -- repeatedly. But when I pointed out Romney's blunder, the Republican pundits on the set with me vigorously disputed that Romney was even wrong. I yelled. In fact, my wife later called and said I was too aggressive. I was in full Crossfire mode.
Jon Stewart, whose show I love, gave Crossfire its epitaph when he said it was "hurting America." I thought then, and I still think, that was bullshit. Sure, we yelled a lot. But at least people like Carville and me yelled to try to stop George W. Bush from lying us into a war. When the smart set in the elite media were all repeating the Bush lies about war, the clowns on Crossfire kept saying there was no threat. And we yelled.
And so I yelled again last night when a leading Republican again lied about why we went to war. But with all respect to Jon Stewart, that's not what hurts America. What hurts America is when powerful media elites excoriate a Democrat for an insignificant error, but turn a blind eye to a campaign of lies about war.
UPDATE: John Dickerson of Slate did, in fact, call Romney on it. Sorry I missed it originally, but I'm happy to note Dickerson's perspicacity.