WHEN YOUR SIDE HOLDS the White House, it’s easy to conflate the president’s interests with the country’s. In the Bush era, conservative commentators have sometimes resisted that temptation—for instance, denouncing the president’s steel tariffs. Sometimes they’ve succumbed—for example, downplaying the Bush administration’s mishandling of postwar Iraq. And then there’s the debate over the 9/11 Commission, where they utterly surrendered. And now look really silly.
The Commission, tasked by Congress with “making a full and complete accounting” of “the circumstances surrounding the [September 11] attacks,” says Bush administration foot-dragging has left it unable to meet its May deadline. For weeks, it has been asking for more time. So have the families of the September 11 victims. Their rationale is simple: The American people should be given a full accounting of the bloodiest foreign attack on U.S. soil. For weeks, the White House and GOP congressional leaders resisted. Their rationale was also simple: Giving the American people a full accounting during an election campaign could hurt President Bush.
It was as naked as that. And yet conservative journalists took the president’s side. Consider the The Wall Street Journal, which on January 30 published an editorial titled “THE 9/11 AMBUSH.” The “membership and behavior of the current 9/11 commission,” it began, “have always looked like a political crackup waiting to happen.” What about the Commission’s membership did the GOP- aligned Journal find so offensive? Five of the Commission’s ten members, including its chairman, are Republicans—appointed by the president or the congressional GOP. Its staff director, Philip Zelikow, served on the Bush administration’s transition team and co-authored a book with Condoleezza Rice. The Journal mentioned none of this. Instead, it implied the opposite. “Richard Ben-Veniste, one of the commission’s highly partisan Democrats, is ... claiming that the Bush administration hasn’t been cooperative enough,” said the editorial. “Commission Democrats,” it went on, “were asserting that literally millions of pages hadn’t been delivered to their desks with sufficient alacrity.”
But it was Chairman Tom Kean, the former Republican governor appointed by President Bush, who last fall repeatedly warned the administration to stop withholding key documents and witnesses. In October, Commissioner and former Republican Senator Slade Gorton criticized the “indifference” of some Bush administration agencies, noting that “this lack of cooperation, if it extends anywhere else, is going to make it very difficult” to meet the May deadline. And, last week, Republican Commissioner and former Reagan Navy Secretary John Lehman said he “can’t for the life of me understand why this administration is so negative on this commission.” To buy the Journal’s logic, you not only had to believe the Commission’s Democrats care more about hurting President Bush than they care about the truth; you had to believe it about the Commission’s Republicans, too.
Unlike the Journal, The New York Post at least acknowledged that the 9/11 Commission includes Republicans. In a November 2 editorial, it leveled a different charge: That, because of Chairman Kean’s “run-amok,” “bizarre,” “emperor”-like behavior, the Commission was a farce.
What did this madman do? On October 26, Kean vowed “to use every tool at our command to get hold of every document.” The Post declared that “bizarre,” because Kean had previously said the administration had handed over “massive amounts” of information. But Kean was talking about two different things. Many agencies did indeed hand over “massive amounts” of information, but Kean’s October 26 comment referred to the White House, which was refusing the Commission access to the president’s daily intelligence digest. Why was it “bizarre” for the chairman of a commission investigating September 11 to want to know what the president was told about Al Qaeda in the days and weeks before the attack?
On December 19, the Post denounced Kean for saying that “there were people, certainly, if I was doing the job, who would certainly not be in the position that they were in at that time, because they failed.” Kean, it thundered, was prejudging the Commission’s outcome by offering opinions before it completed its work. But the Commission is encouraged to offer opinions before it completes its work—that’s why the legislation authorizing it specifically provides for interim reports and public hearings. One such hearing in January revealed that (contrary to Bush administration claims) immigration officers allowed several of the September 11 hijackers into the country with faulty visas. Did Kean really disqualify himself by suggesting that the people who failed should no longer be in their jobs?
Behind the Journal’s and Post’s preposterous arguments was simply this: They didn’t want a report on September 11 to come out in the middle of an election. The Post fretted that an extension could “delay release of the Commission’s final report until deep into the presidential campaign.” The Journal suggested that, if the Commission couldn’t finish its work by May, it should “close up shop” until “after the election.”
In other words, the papers saw nothing wrong with the GOP holding its convention in New York in early September, in a blatant attempt to capitalize on the anniversary of September 11. They saw nothing wrong with President Bush making his interpretation of that awful day the centerpiece of his reelection bid. But they deemed it unacceptably political for a bipartisan commission to issue its report during the election campaign, so voters would have an independent analysis against which to judge the GOP’s September 11 spin?
Until today, that’s where the debate stood. But, as THE NEW REPUBLIC was going to press, the Bush administration unexpectedly reversed itself and agreed to support a two-month extension of the Commission’s work. Which, in a comic twist, means the president now wants to put the truth about September 11 above his electoral fortunes, but the Journal and Post do not. That’s the problem with choosing the White House’s interests over the country’s. Every now and then, even the White House will disagree.
This article appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of the magazine.