Monday, May 22, 2006

The camera doesn't lie

Baghdad ER debuted last night on HBO not with a bang, but with a whimper. And that tells us a lot about the national mood.

If this documentary - a grim and gritty depiction of life and death on the gurneys inside the Green Zone - had been aired during the first year of the Iraq war, the backlash from President Bush's defenders would have been intense. They would have charged that the visual depictions of severed body parts, writhing National Guardsmen, and blood-spattered floors were calculated attempts by the "liberal media" to undermine the war effort at home. They would have contended that the documentary was designed to make squeamish Americans question whether the (literal) spilling of blood was worth the mission, as outlined by the president. They would have lumped HBO with the Dixie Chicks and called for a boycott.

Yet the reaction among the war's supporters has been noticeably muted. Naturally, there have been some complaints; as one conservative newspaper said, "There is no overt anti-war message, but the medical people are frequently heard muttering standard war-is-hell phrases like 'sheer madness,' 'stupid war,' and 'a lot of young kids getting hurt.' And the cumulative effect of the powerfully negative....Baghdad ER is neither for weak stomachs nor supporters of the war." But, on the backlash meter, these grievances barely register at Def Con One.

In fact, even the Weekly Standard magazine -- ground zero for the neoconservative case for war -- dismissed the idea that the graphic visuals in the HBO documentary would send the wrong, i.e. antiwar, message. Such a fear, said the magazine, "would be mistaken...It takes a hard look at the human cost of war. But the film is also a testament to the sacrifice and perseverance of our soliders in the face of terror. Their story needs to be told."

True enough. The documentary is such a testament. And that theme can arguably resonate across the political spectrum, because in this war everybody supports the troops; on the left, where anti-Iraq war sentiment is strongest, there is none of the hostility toward the troops that was common during the Vietnam era. But if this kind of film had been aired a few years ago -- when support for the Iraq war was greater, and when Bush's defenders were far more numerous and assertive -- HBO's testament-to-the-troops theme would have been dismissed as a fig leaf for an antiwar "agenda."

The visuals of severed bowels in a plastic tray, the severed limbs being placed in red plastic bags, the close-ups of emergency eye surgery, the tag being affixed to the toe of a dead soldier (whose skin had turned the color of pale ivory)...these images would have been assailed as items on the agenda. Much the way that Ted Koppel was assailed two years ago when he decided to read the names of dead soldiers on Nightline.

The difference today, as evidenced in every poll, is that most Americans have already turned against the war. They either reject its underlying premise, or reject the way that the administrating has handled it. It would be futile for the president's dwindling core of defenders to attack Baghdad ER for undermining domestic morale -- because it has already been sapped, both by the facts on the ground, and by the accumulation of evidence that has undercut the president's prewar rationale. (This morning on CBS, for example, John Murtha, the hawkish Democratic congressman and ex-Marine who has broken with the administration over the war, said: "There’s not only no progress, it’s worse than it was prewar. This thing has been mishandled so badly. The American people needed to hear. We’re spending $450 billion on this war by the end of the year, $9 billion a month, and so we need to change course. ")

There is a moment, during the HBO documentary, when an ER chaplain pauses in front of the body of a dead soldier. He says, "Lord, we pray that his life - and even his death - might be used to hasten peace and end this terrible war." A few years ago, that scene would have been widely denounced as evidence of an antiwar agenda. But today, it plays more as a consensus plea for deliverance.


Speaking of the war, Bush talked about it in Chicago today.Here's the headline I saw: "Bush Urges Patience on Iraq." Stop the presses. He does have a new word, however: incremental. He used it a lot, to explain why we still face "days of challenge and loss." That's certainly not a phrase that would play well on a GOP bumper sticker in election '06.


Still speaking of the war, it continues to roil the Democratic ranks. Following up on my recent column about pro-war Joe Lieberman's travails with the antiwar left, I duly note today that the Connecticut senator will be officially challenged in an Aug. 8 Democratic primary by antiwar hero Ned Lamont.

Lamont, a cable TV entrepeneur with minimal political experience, won the right to challenge Lieberman last Friday night, when, at a state party convention, he won 33 percent of the Democratic delegates. (In Connecticut, the minimal share required for an aspiring primary challenger is 15 percent.) In other words, it was an embarrasing night for the incumbent senator, because his aides got hurt by their own spin. In advance of the convention, they spread word that Lamont would get around 33 percent, in an attempt to raise expectations; then, assuming Lamont would get a lower share, they could paint the challenger's tally as disappointing. But they wound up nailing it perfectly. Rest assured that wasn't part of the Lieberman game plan.

Anyway, here's what it means: At the exact time that Democrats everywhere want to be focused on keeping Bush and the GOP on the defensive, they now have to pause in their labors and conduct what will be, in essence, a national referendum on their own internal divisions about the Iraq war. In the dead of summer, no less, when there is typically not much competing political news. Maybe it's "healthy" for Democrats that this will occur; antiwar Democrats have long sought such a confrontation with Lieberman. But rest assured that this primary is not part of the national party's ideal game plan.


Meanwhile, regarding my posting here Friday about the blogosphere's faux scoop on Karl Rove's purported indictment, we're still waiting. The offending website,, has now decided to eat crow: "The time has now issue a partial apology to our readership for this story. While we paid very careful attention to the sourcing on this story, we erred in getting too far out in front of the news-cycle. In moving as quickly as we did, we caused more confusion than clarity. And that was a disservice to our readership and we regret it."

"Too far out in front of the news cycle?" What's that supposed to mean? Whatever. Howie Kurtz has more on the topic, here.


I wrote a newspaper column this morning on the religious right's expectations for a federal amendment banning gay marriage (a Senate vote is slated several weeks from now), and its desire to hold Republicans accountable if they don't push the issue. I mentioned that John McCain might be on the spot; he's wooing the religious right, but in an earlier Senate vote two years ago, he came out against the anti-gay amendment. Well, he may get in trouble with his new best friends, because apparently he plans to vote against it again. Every respositioning politician apparently has his limits.


Here's yet another blow to the Democratic '06 message that the GOP has fostered a "culture of corruption." Now it turns out that ethically-challenged Lousiana congressman William Jefferson was videotaped taking 100 grand in bribes from a guy wearing a wire for the feds. Memo to the Democrats: When one of your own people is captured on video acting corrupt, then it's time to dump the party message. Because the camera doesn't lie.