COMMENTS: Godwin’s Law at the Knesset

For the fourth straight day this week the earthquake in China's southwestern Sichuan Province was Story of the Day. Official statistics put the known death toll at 20,000 with another estimated 40,000 trapped or missing and feared dead. Yet none of the three network newscasts made the disaster its lead. CBS and ABC both chose the ruling by the Supreme Court of California striking down that state's ban on same-sex marriages. In 30 days gay and lesbian couples in the Golden State will be able to start tying the knot. On NBC, with Brian Williams anchoring from Atlanta, that rare event happened in George Bush's lame duck year: the President set the news agenda. During his state visit to Israel in a speech to the Knesset, the President exemplified Godwin's Law, seeming to equate diplomatic outreach to Iran with appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Of the traveling White House press corps, John Yang of NBC was the only network correspondent to file from Jerusalem. Bush warned of the "false comfort of appeasement" in order to criticize contemporary politicians who "believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals." Yang noted that the President "did not name any names" and his aides insisted that the speech "was not political. It was just stating longstanding policy." They told Yang that Bush's criticism applied to former President Jimmy Carter. If Bush was referring to Hamas, the Palestinian government of the Gaza Strip, when he mentioned "terrorists," Yang noted that his own former Secretary of State Colin Powell is on the record as contradicting him: "Hamas has to be engaged, I do not think you can cast them into outer darkness." If Bush was referring to the Islamic Republic of Iran when he mentioned "radicals," Yang offered his own current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' suggestion that "unofficial contacts with Iran would be a good thing."

Carter, Powell and Gates aside, Yang noted that "privately" the President's aides intimated "the shoe fits the Democratic frontrunner." Sure enough, both CBS and ABC covered the controversy as a campaign story not a diplomatic one--even though CBS' Chip Reid repeated a flat out denial from the White House that the President was referring to Barack Obama. On ABC, David Wright (no link) saw equivocation--White House officials denied the President was taking a swipe "solely" at Obama--and used a soundbite of Bush criticizing "an American senator" for "foolish delusion." No matter that the President did not name that senator--William Borah, a 1939 Republican from Idaho--he did use his quote referring to the invasion of Poland: "Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided."

As for Obama, ABC's Wright repeated the candidate's assertion that he has "never supported engagement with terrorists." CBS' Reid reminded us that his proposal has been to conduct diplomacy with leaders of states instead--Iran, Syria, Cuba--quoting Republican John McCain as making that same distinction, referring to Iran as a "state sponsor" of terrorism. McCain dismissed such diplomacy as evincing "naivete and inexperience" but did not join the President in a Godwin moment by equating it with appeasement of the Third Reich. "The focus on Obama yet again overshadowed his own campaign," observed Reid. McCain made a speech envisaging the world in 2013 at the end of his imaginary first term. So long a critic of timetables for withdrawal of troops from Iraq, McCain offered a timeline that five years from now the United States will already have "welcomed home most of the servicemen and women…the Iraq War has been won."

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, too, picked up on McCain's five-year plan for troops to come home from Iraq. She explained McCain's distinction: his opponents' timeline for military disengagement amounts to "surrender;" his would follow the achievement of "victory." O'Donnell noted that in McCain's entire "sweeping set of goals for a first term" he never once uttered the word "Republican." Following Democratic victories in special elections in House districts in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi, McCain's unidentified operatives openly described George Bush's brand of Republicanism as "broken," O'Donnell observed.


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