New Sheriff in Baghdad, Gen. Franks

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Posted by Tony from ( on Monday, October 14, 2002 at 7:56PM :

The Suddenly Sizable NO Vote
Congress Goes For War, But With Objections

Doug Ireland is a New York-based media critic and commentator.

The TV blared: "Tonight on Larry King Live -- an exclusive interview from Baghdad with the man who rules Iraq, Gen. Tommy Franks..."

OK, it hasn’t happened yet. But that was what flashed through my mind in the wee hours of the morning as I watched on C-SPAN the Senate roll-call vote removing the last obstacle to a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq.

The real surprise, however, had come hours earlier when the House of Representatives approved the war resolution -- despite the seemingly irresistable pressure, 136 House members voted against giving George W. Bush a blank check to go to war whenever he wants. For some of us Congress- and media-watchers who’ve been following the story, the size of the "No" vote in the House -- where every single member faces the voters in just a few weeks -- was impressive.

In a hasty press conference just after the House vote (carried on C-SPAN), the Democrats who led the opposition had reason to crow. Just a few weeks ago, the press reported only 19 Democrats would vote against the resolution. A week ago, it was reported that only 50 would buck Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, their party’s House leader, after he’d stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush in announcing support for the president’s war powers grab. Two days before the vote, it was reported that 100 House Dems might oppose the resolution.

But when the vote finally came, House Democrats stood up against the open-ended war resolution by a margin of 126 to 81. (Six Republicans, some of them in tight races against anti-war Democrats, also voted "No.") This was a stunning black eye for the presidentially ambitious Gephardt.

"Now," cracked Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, one of the key opposition organizers, "we can move out of our telephone booth."

One thing that explains the unexpected strength of the opposition is the avalanche of constituent letters, e-mails, and phone calls rolling into members’ offices. Many reported stacks of letters three feet high, with only a handful supporting the Bush-Gephardt compact. As Doggett put it, "The millions of Americans who thought they had no voice have been heard." And Illinois Rep. Danny Davis, a member of the Black Caucus (which voted against war by 29-4) added: "The message this vote sends to Americans is, 'stay engaged, stay involved.'"

TV, however, missed the story of what the next morning’s Los Angeles Times labeled "the citizen call for diplomacy before war, which seemed equally as loud" as the opinion polls showing an increasingly slim pro-war majority for war. The "CBS Evening News" reported the House vote a few hours after it happened as its lead item, but didn’t mention the Democrats’ majority rejection of the Gephardt deal. Over on ABC’s "World News Tonight," Peter Jennings didn’t even get around to mentioning the House decision until eight minutes into the broadcast -- and then he gave it just one sentence. What came first? A lengthy report on the Maryland sniper. As they say in the TV-news biz, "if it bleeds, it leads." Bleeding in the future apparently doesn’t count for much with the ratings-watchers at ABC.

How much bigger might the "No" vote in Congress have been had the network news honchos not decided on a near-blackout of the Congressional war debate? The Big Three networks’ nightly news shows gave it little or no coverage after the first day. CNN didn’t do much better: on most days it confined its coverage to a brief segment on "Inside Politics," which runs in the late afternoon, while at the same time giving hour-long live coverage to each of the daily press briefings by Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. The result was the amplification of the administration’s drumbeat for war. PBS did a little bit better by offering short nightly summaries by Kwame Holman on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," but even those reports were only about three minutes worth of the day’s debate on the Hill. Given the import of the vote, all of this seems a little scrawny.

It’s no wonder that octogenarian Senator Robert Byrd (D-WVA) -- who more than any other member of Congress galvanized citizen opposition to war -- complained in the closing hours of the Senate debate: "I might as well speak to the waves, as did King Canute -- I cannot be heard." Byrd’s was a marathon performance -- he was always on the nearly deserted Senate floor from morning until adjournment, refreshing himself with catnaps in the office right across the hall from the Senate floor which he occupies as the chamber’s President Pro Tempore (it has a bed). And, thanks to C-SPAN, some of it got through to the public. Byrd told the Senate on the last day of the debate he’d received 50,000 e-mails.

But Tom Daschle, the Democrats' leader in the Senate, mercilessly truncated the debate when he, too, fell into the White House trap and agreed to fast-track the resolution giving away the Congress’s constitutional authority to declare war.

In denouncing the rush to war, and just two hours before the Senate voted on the resolution after only 30-some hours of full debate, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) appeared on "Nightline" and told Ted Koppel, "We spent 21 days debating education, 23 days debating energy."

Given the solid minorities voting against the resolution, it seems that if the war vote had been put off until after Election Day, or if TV news had allocated airtime in proportion to the importance of the vote, the "No" block might well have been larger. Voters might have had a chance to hear more that would have changed their views and motivated them to contact Congress. They might have reacted to speeches like Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold’s forceful floor dissection of Bush’s Cincinnati speech. Feingold called it "a shoddy piecing together of flimsy evidence that contradicted the intelligence briefings we’ve been getting" in linking Iraq to 9/11. Alas, the speech went unnoticed by the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post).

The morning after the vote in Congress, the Times reported the White House's plan to install Gen. Franks as military governor of Baghdad following the invasion. I'd stayed up to watch the Senate debate. I was groggy. But that morning it seemed the Larry King Live interview I dreamed about may yet air, and sooner rather than later.

-- Tony
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