Painting the Clintonites as Them

The audacity of the Republicans continues to amaze.

Take a step back and look at the whole picture—a television network decides to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11 by airing commercial-free, a two-part miniseries, “The Path to 9/11.”

On its face, it’s ordinary television hype; no commercials sounds noble—the network is not exploiting the national tragedy, it is honoring it.

The miniseries could have slipped by, under the radar screen, just another commemoration, had not Bill Clinton recognized its political significance. His trusted aides started a public protest as Labor Day Weekend drew to a close. The program took some vicious cuts at the former president.

According to the TV writers, his second term is crippled by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and that makes Clinton bungle opportunities to capture Osama Bin Laden. The film is a damning indictment of Clinton’s top advisers—doing too little too late, even worse, refusing to implement unanimous recommendations of inter-agency groups, and trying to insulate themselves from blame for risky decisions.

Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser, is made to look devious—willing to let the CIA go on missions alone without his authorization but unwilling to act without Clinton’s assent. These scenes have no balance; they are partisan attacks.

Clinton is made to stand for the entire Democratic Party’s—too liberal by half, the flip-floppers. Liberals are devious and cowardly. Their humanitarian principles are a sham, an excuse for doing nothing when confronting evil. These are staples of the Republican argument, reinforced with religious overtones—longstanding arguments about those who truly carry Christ in their hearts as opposed to the insincere who wear religion like clothes that can be changed daily. In this comparison, the Democrats are not just bad guys, they are hypocrites.

Thankfully, Clinton played the impending slam just right. He took a chance by placing the miniseries on the front page. He risked increasing its audience. But he also made people ask, ‘Is this the truth or is it politics?’ The suspicions he voiced deaden the film’s otherwise clear message.

More was at stake than Clinton’s reputation. The miniseries crowns a week of Republican campaigning designed to narrow the Democratic lead in the polls. The election is basically 50 days away and the Republicans are going to have tear down the Democrats if they are going to make the election close.

The miniseries tore into the Democrats and built up the Republicans. Space permits only two examples. After Osama Bid Laden’s associates blew up the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Clinton ordered submarines to fire missiles at Al Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan. This aggressive action is treated negatively in the TV film. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defeats the purpose of the president’s strike by warning Pakistan of the action. According to the miniseries, Al Qaeda in turn was warned and moved out of harm’s way.

Pakistan was, in fact, warned, though not by Albright herself—and the timing of that heads up was such that any warning to Al Qaeda, for which there is no evidence, seems at the very best to have been a distinctly remote possibility. The danger facing the Clinton administration, of course, was that the Pakistanis could have mistakenly believed the missiles came from India, its regional archrival, against whom it has long competed in a dangerous nuclear build-up.

Bush, in sharp contrast, is treated favorably. As evidence developed prior to 9/11 that Al Qaeda was going to use aircraft to stage an attack, the Bush administration could have circulated the intelligence widely among government entities, passenger surveillance could have improved, and FBI field offices could have shared their clues. It’s entirely possible the attack could have been thwarted had there been less secrecy.

But there is no suggestion in this film that the Bush administration bears any responsibility. Moreover, Bush’s remarks on 9/11 in this rendering are made while the attacks are going on, when he actually made the speech in the evening after the situation was contained. In the miniseries, Bush isn’t missing in action, flying from one city to the next all day—he is right on top of the action. We don’t need to know the right-wing affiliations of the creators of this program, the scurrilous treatment of Clinton and the flattering portrait of Bush expose the program’s politics.

David Brauder, the Associated Press television writer, deftly got to the bottom line on the whole controversy. Editing revisions made by ABC were “cosmetic and didn’t change the meaning of scenes.” It is clear that complaints from liberals accomplish less than conservative criticism. In 2003, conservatives were upset with a CBS miniseries about President Ronald Reagan, and the network canned its broadcast plans entirely, relegating it to cable viewing on Showtime.

Remember this the next time you hear complaints that liberals control the media.

The biggest propaganda effect came in the time allocated in the middle of the second of the two episodes to Bush’s September 11, 2001 Oval Office speech. His remarks read like the miniseries’ sermon. What does this long story mean? According to the president, efforts to bring about peace in the Middle East have only made matters worst.

“It became clear that the calm we saw in the Middle East was only a mirage,” Bush said. “Years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither.”

It’s clear to any viewer that it was the Democrats who pursued the “mirage” of calm. Bush contrasted this misguided effort with his war that will overcome those who “are evil and kill without mercy—but not without purpose.”

Bush argued there is a single threat “a global network of extremists who are driven by a perverted vision of Islam—a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom. Their goal is to build a radical Islamic empire where women are prisoners in their homes, men are beaten for missing prayer meetings. We are at war, and if we lose civilization as we know it is endangered.”

The president conjures this threat as a magical incantation. Yet, Paul R. Pillar, a CIA terrorism expert, pointed out in a Washington Post story this week that Islamic radicalism “is used by many different groups, with many different ideologies” and warned that ignoring these facts leads to “misunderstanding.” What is needed are “different counterterrorist policies for each group and state we are dealing with… Hamas is an entirely different entity than al-Qaeda… Their objectives are very much different.”

Radical groups flourish in the two major branches of Islam: Sunni and Shia. Shiite radicals are persecuting homosexuals in Iran and Iraq and sending rockets into Israel from Lebanon. In Israel, they are the key focus of concern, while they remain our major allies in Iraq. A leader ambitious, intelligent, and patient enough to explain this paradox could rally the American people.

Bush offers empty rhetoric, and that’s the indictment of the ABC miniseries. It intends to rally Americans to support a war that is accomplishing little and going badly. The reality of the war will inexorably overpower the president’s audacious rhetoric and the propaganda of his friends at Disney/ABC.