FORGET JANET Jackson's boob scandal. On Sunday, Feb. 8, I watched Tim Russert's special NBC Meet the Press interview with George W. Bush. I was expecting to see the greatest Oval Office act of oral sex since Monica, but it was really more an everyday act of Beltway frottage. Such interview "events" are where a media celeb spends an hour rubbing up against a powerful guest in an act of unconsummated journalism.
Russert did better than I expected in pressing the president on the decision to invade Iraq based on apparently faulty intelligence—or based on accurate intelligence that didn't support the certainties that were expressed and the resulting decisions. He wasn't very tough on other major issues, like the economy or Bush's Vietnam-era military service record, but it was more substantive than, say, NBC's Stone Phillips chatting up George I on the subject of adultery.
Nevertheless, the network Sunday-morning chatfests are stacked against finding out much. They're an opportunity for a major media representative to appear mildly serious while really providing the interviewee with a forum for getting his or her official talking points across. Call it Meet the Press Release.
IN THAT, IT'S NOT unlike Bush's newly announced intelligence commission. That, too, is being carefully structured so as not to produce any real inquiry or revelation. Under public pressure to identify just which virus caused every major figure in his administration to serially lie about the reasons for the war in Iraq (a kind of neocon mad cow disease, perhaps), Bush has declared, à la O.J. Simpson, that he'll get to the bottom of things. At least O.J. recognizes there is a crime to solve. Bush does not.
His ludicrous new commission to investigate prewar intelligence failures is carefully constructed to please only himself. The only thing better than a jury of your peers is a hand-picked jury of your peers.
In addition to appointing the commissioners, Bush is dictating their work, and he has defined their charge both too narrowly and too broadly. His executive order tasks the commission to assess America's intelligence capabilities?a large "strategic" overview, he says. In other words, they won't attempt to answer the important questions that are actually being asked by the public about the administration's motives and manipulations. They will not be asking hard questions about the failures or malfeasance of policy makers. As with Britain's recent Hutton report, which "cleared" Prime Minister Tony Blair within its narrow charge as to whether he "sexed up" the Iraq threat, Bush's commission is designed to exonerate the president by failing to address the real issues.
The White House has openly characterized the president's new group as a Warren Commission- like body, and never were truer words spoken by this administration. We'll likely be arguing about WMDs on the grassy knoll for the next 40 years. It is made up of Washington, D.C., insiders and will rely on the good nature of department heads for cooperation. The group has no subpoena power of its own. The co-chairs are a Democrat, Charles Robb, and a Republican, Laurence Silberman. The former is the son-in-law of Lyndon Johnson, the man who presided over the Warren Commission mess and lied to the American people consistently and outrageously about our previous quagmire, Vietnam. The latter is a federal judge and Ken Starr pal who was a behind-the-scenes adviser to the scandal-mongering Republicans during the political persecution of Bill Clinton. This is Bush's idea of balanced, fair-minded leadership.
In addition, before the commission has even begun its work, Bush has pronounced himself satisfied with the job performance of the current CIA director, George Tenet. So even if the commission finds serious problems at the CIA, Tenet's job is safe. Perhaps whatever Tenet and the CIA know about Bush & Co.—and they must know plenty, dating back to Bush Sr., who is thought to have worked for the agency as far back as the Bay of Pigs—is enough to guarantee him job security, J. Edgar Hoover-style. Or perhaps it's a trade-off for a little consideration in the Valerie Plame case, making good for an agent outed by the Bushies. Surely rendering this job performance verdict in advance suggests that we should look for intelligence problems elsewhere?either deep in the system (bureaucracies?what can you do with them?!) or with the critics (this is a waste of time!) or with other administrations (things got really screwed up on Clinton's watch!). Or keep in mind this wild card: Dick Cheney will find a WMD stockpile all by himself.
THE ULTIMATE statement of futility for the commission came last weekend, not from Bush but from Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the group's most "independent" member who, it might be added, is an Iraq war hawk working to re-elect the president. The day after his appointment, he declared that Bush "did not manipulate any kind of information for political gain or otherwise" in relation to the war. I'm sure he'll announce his duck-hunting trip with Cheney and Scalia next week.
In the Russert interview, Bush also managed to signal that the commission's findings, whatever they might be, were irrelevant to him. First, he's put off their final report until nearly five months after the presidential election. Second, he claimed that the commission isn't so much for his benefit as for the benefit of future presidents. In other words, history. "Lessons learned," he says.
One presumes he means lessons in how to rig the game.