Bush’s WMD ‘Joke’: Is the Media Still Laughing? By Greg Mitchell
A brief comment at a forum in Washington this week resurrects one of the most shameful episodes in recent media history: The night a roomful of journalists laughed along with a president making fun of the bogus threat that led to a costly war.
(June 18, 2005) — Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, in an article Friday, suggested that the congressional forum the previous day on the Downing Street memos was something of a joke. In his opening sentence he declared that House Democrats “took a trip to the land of make-believe” in pretending that the basement conference room was actually a real hearing room, even importing a few American flags to make it look more official.
Oddly, he seem less interested in the far more serious “make-believe” that inspired the basement session: the administration’s fake case for WMDs in Iraq that has already led to the deaths of over 1,700 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. No, Milbank used the valuable real estate of the Post to mock Rep. John Conyers, who arranged the meeting, and his “hearty band of playmates.”
This fun-loving “band” included a mother who had lost her son in Iraq.
The debate over the Downing Street memos has been covered elsewhere at E&P Online, going back to our first story on May 5, and including a new column on this site by William E. Jackson. So allow me to focus, instead, on one brief moment in the Thursday forum, which took me back to a connected, equally brief, Washington moment last year. It represents one of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of the American media, and presidency, yet is rarely mentioned today.
It occurred on March 24, 2004. The setting: The 60th annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (with many print journalists there as guests) at the Hilton. On the menu: surf and turf. Attendance: 1500. The main speaker: President George W. Bush, one year into the Iraq war, with 500 Americans already dead.
Now you may recall what happened. President Bush, as usual at such gatherings of journalists, poked fun at himself. Great leeway is granted to presidents (and their spouses) at such events, allowing them to offer somewhat tasteless or even off-color barbs. Audiences love to laugh along with, rather than at, a president, for a change. It’s all in good fun, except when it’s in bad fun, such as on that night in March, 2004.
That night, in the middle of his stand-up routine before the, perhaps tipsy, journos, Bush showed on a screen behind him some candid on-the-job photos of himself. One featured him gazing out a window, as Bush narrated, smiling: “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere.” According to the transcript this was greeted with “laughter and applause.”
A few seconds later, he was shown looking under papers, behind drapes, and even under his desk, with this narration: “Nope, no weapons over there” (met with more “laughter and applause”), and then “Maybe under here?” (just “laughter” this time). Still searching, he settles for finding a photo revealing the Skull and Bones secret signal.
There is no record of whether Dana Milbank attended that dinner, but his paper the following day seemed to find this something of a howl. Jennifer Frey’s report, carried on the front page of the Style section (under the headline, “George Bush, Entertainer in Chief”), led with Donald Trump’s appearance, and mentioned without comment Bush’s “recurring joke” of searching for the WMDs.
The Associated Press review was equally jovial: “President Bush poked fun at his staff, his Democratic challenger and himself Wednesday night at a black-tie dinner where he hobnobbed with the news media.” In fact, it is hard to find any immediate account of the affair that raised questions over the president’s presentation. Many noted that the WMD jokes were met with general and loud laughter.
The reporters covering the gala were apparently as swept away with laughter as the guests. One of the few attendees to criticize the president’s gag, David Corn of The Nation, said he heard not a single complaint from his colleagues at the after-party. Corn wondered if they would have laughed if President Reagan, following the truck bombing of our Marines barracks in Beirut, which killed 200, had said at a similar dinner: “Guess we forgot to put in a stop light.”
The backlash only appeared a day or two later, and not, by and large, emerging from the media, but from Democrats and some Iraq veterans. Then it was mainly forgotten. I never understood why Sen. John Kerry did not air a tape of the episode every day during his hapless final drive for the White House.
I was reminded of all this at the Thursday forum when former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, after cataloguing the bogus Bush case for WMDs and the Iraqi threat, looked out at the cameras and notepads, mentioned the March 24, 2004 dinner, and acted out the president looking under papers and table for those missing WMDs. “And the media was all yucking it up…hahaha,” McGovern said. “You all laughed with him, folks. But I’ll tell you who is not laughing. Cindy Sheehan is not laughing.”
This was the woman sitting next to him whose son had been killed in Iraq. “Cindy’s son,” McGovern added, “was killed 11 days after the show put on by the president…after that big joke.”
Dana Milbank, who seems to like a good laugh, did not mention this in his story the following day.
Greg Mitchell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of E&P.