Part 3—A hot yellow river ran down it: Was Chris Matthews “a lonely voice” opposing the onrushing war in Iraq?
That’s the story you’re now being sold on The One True Liberal Channel. That said, many false or bogus tales have been peddled concerning the war in Iraq.
Is this story accurate?
Let’s start with an interview Joan Walsh published on February 14, 2003—on Valentine’s Day, no less.
Walsh had interviewed Matthews that week for the long piece in Salon. She wasn’t yet a Hardball star. Years of ass-kissing lay ahead, producing that happy outcome.
That said, Walsh described a lonely voice in her introduction to the interview. She described Matthews’ years of Clinton-bashing, though she didn't mention the twenty months this great famous man had spent sliming Candidate Gore.
Walsh described a lonely voice opposed to the war in Iraq. Reading her portrait of Matthews today, we wonder what version of Hardball her cable provider was running:
WALSH (2/14/03): Chris Matthews barreled into American living rooms during the Clinton impeachment saga, when his CNBC show "Hardball" became the official cable clubhouse for Clinton haters—and must-viewing for Clinton defenders with a masochistic streak. Nobody who watched Matthews' shouting, spittle-spewing performance art night after night could question his sincerity: Here was a one-time Peace Corps volunteer from a blue-collar family—and a lifelong Democrat who had worked for House Speaker Tip O'Neill—and he clearly loathed Clinton for bringing shame to his office and his party...According to Walsh, no one who watched Matthews’ Clinton-trashing could doubt his sincerity.
"Hardball" lost some of its edge in the early days of the Bush administration. Matthews needs an enemy, or at least a cause, to keep him charged. But the show has become must-viewing again for anyone tuned into the nation's latest political drama (one that cable news poohbahs also hope will boost ratings): Who wants to bury a dictator? This time around, though, Matthews is bucking the right. He's the only mainstream cable host who's openly opposing the administration's rush to war, and almost every night he battles bloodthirsty Iraq hawks and rails against spineless Democrats who won't muster the power to stop them. Even more remarkably, considering the media establishment's reluctance to take issue with Israeli leaders, he never misses an opportunity to critique the Bush administration's pro-Ariel Sharon Middle East policy, which he insists endangers the U.S. as well as Israel by denying the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations to statehood.
In the wide-ranging conversation conducted earlier this week, on the day that ratings-challenged MSNBC announced it had added ultra-right attack dog Michael Savage to its lineup, Matthews assailed neo-conservative Iraq hawks, slapped Bush for sitting "on Sharon's lap" (but explained why he likes him anyway), laid out what's wrong and right with Fox News, and worried about whether his antiwar stand is hurting his ratings.
Could Walsh possibly be that dumb? We’ll leave that to the historians. But to this day, we have no idea what version of Hardball Walsh had been watching in the months which preceded Iraq.
According to Walsh, Matthews was “the only mainstream cable host who's openly opposing the administration's rush to war.” She said that even though Phil Donahue, on Matthews’ own network, was much more visibly antiwar, as everyone knew and had said. (He was canned two weeks later.)
“Almost every night [Matthews] battles bloodthirsty Iraq hawks and rails against spineless Democrats who won't muster the power to stop them,” Walsh weirdly said. What program had Walsh been watching?
As noted, Walsh’s interview appeared on Valentine’s Day. Nine days earlier, Colin Powell had delivered his famous address to the United Nations. Matthews had joined a stream of major mainstream pundits, melting down in response.
Was Matthews battling bloodthirsty hawks almost every night on Hardball? We can find no evidence that Matthews adopted that stance at any time in the seven months leading up to the war. But he certainly wasn’t adopting that stance in the two weeks before this interview ran. Consider the way he begged for war on the evening of Powell’s performance.
Matthews began his program that night with tape of Powell’s (often absurd) presentation. One hour earlier, Donahue viewers had seen antiwar analyst Phyllis Bennis note the absurdity of much that Powell said.
On Hardball, Matthews was buying every part of Powell’s presentation. This is the way the great man railed against the rush to war just nine days before Walsh's interview:
MATTHEWS (2/5/03): The big story tonight: The secretary of state, Colin Powell, presents the Bush administration's case against Iraq before the U.N. Security Council. Arguably the most dramatic piece of evidence was the link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.Matthews seemed to be buying the package. As he continued, Matthews directed his first two questions to Republican Senator John Warner. As he did, he seemed to assume the truth of the various things Powell alleged.
POWELL (videotape): Al Qaeda continues to have a deep interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al Qaeda.
MATTHEWS: Powell also presented an intercepted conversation between Iraqi Republican guardsmen that implied the existence of nerve agents in Iraq.
POWELL (videotape): Two officers talking to each other on the radio want to make sure that nothing is misunderstood. Remove, the expression, the expression, I got it. Nerve agents, nerve agents, wherever it comes up, got it, wherever it comes up, nerve agents. Stop talking about it. They are listening to us. Don't give any evidence that we have these horrible agents, but we know that they do, and this kind of conversation confirms it.
MATTHEWS: The only video shown demonstrated Iraq's capability to disperse biological weapons into the air.
POWELL (videotape): This video of an Iraqi test flight obtained by UNSCOM some years ago shows an Iraqi F-1 Mirage jet aircraft. Note the spray coming from beneath the Mirage. That is 2,000 liters of simulated anthrax that a jet is spraying.
MATTHEWS: Before-and-after satellite photos revealed how Iraqis bulldozed and cleansed a chemical weapons site of any evidence.
In each response, Warner walked back Matthews' sense of certainty. But nothing was slowing down this lonely antiwar voice:
MATTHEWS (continuing directly) Senator John Warner is a Republican from Virginia. Senator Dianne Feinstein is a Democrat from California. Senator Warner, you have a privileged position, I know, as chairman of the Committee on Armed Services. Do you— Did you know this before, that Iraq had this hand-in-glove relationship with Saddam Hussein in training the terrorists for the use of chemical weapons?That last answer was a fuzzy non-answer, but Matthews didn’t seem to notice. At this point, he asked one question of Senator Feinstein. After her somewhat troubling response, he seemed to beg Warner for war:
WARNER: We knew generally about that situation. I wouldn't call it hand-in-glove because Saddam—he claims he doesn't have control over that region, but he certainly tolerates it. And Chris, that was the strong part of the speech that was directed towards Europe because now their attention is focused on how quickly that knowledge could spread out of that camp and begin to inflict harm on them or indeed, some of the material itself. Powell did a wonderful job today. His speech was as strong as the speech given by our president on September 12 to the United Nations.
MATTHEWS: Well, did you know particularly the government of Iraq offered chemical and biological weapons training to two al Qaeda associates beginning in 2000? The government offered it, not just those people up in the camps up in Kurdistan, but the actual government in Baghdad of Saddam Hussein offered weapons training in chemicals.
WARNER: Chris, I stand behind all the facts that Powell gave today to the world to see because we have in our committee and in the Intelligence Committee been discussing this information for some time...
MATTHEWS (continuing directly): Senator Feinstein, did you know this particular fact, the missing connection here apparently made by the administration, by Secretary Powell, that al Qaeda was offered help in chemical weapons training by Saddam Hussein's government and took it?Feinstein had never heard that before—and a lot of Powell’s claims were new! But so what? In response to those pregnant statements, our fearless anti-war crusader skedaddled directly back to Warner.
FEINSTEIN: No. As a member of the Intelligence Committee, this has never, to my knowledge, been brought to our attention, and I think what Secretary Powell did today that was truly unique was from the very beginning, plunge into the facts, and weave a very, I thought, compelling web of circumstances. But a good deal of it, frankly, was new, and I've been pretty good about attending intelligence briefings and also asking for them, and the nexus that he drew between al Qaeda, not 9/11, but al Qaeda, who perpetrated 9/11, and Iraq, was all new.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask Senator Warner, why doesn't the United States military, why don't we just hit those targets in Kurdistan, the chemical weapons camps, the training camps? Why don't we hit them now?
He asked him why we don’t just move directly to war.
Was Matthews a lonely voice this night? To borrow Walsh’s pleasing language, was he openly opposing the rush to war? Was he battling bloodthirsty hawks? Was he railing against spineless Democrats who won't muster the power to stop them?
At no point did Matthews adopt any such stance on this particular evening, or in the days and weeks which followed. After speaking with Warner and Feinstein, he brought on super-hawk Richard Perle for two bloodthirsty segments.
During these segments, Matthews agreed that France had perfidiously sought “a separate peace” with Saddam. But then, it was time for “the Hardball debate,” during which our lonely voice repeatedly seemed to beg for instant war.
Poor Matthews! He was so shocked by the things Powell said that he wondered if we shouldn’t hit Iraq right away! Here you see chunks of his lonely stance as he spoke with the recently-retired Rep. Dick Armey and with MSNBC analyst Bill Arkin:
MATTHEWS: I was impressed today. Bill, what do you make of this threat? Do you think it's an imminent threat to the United States based upon what you heard from the secretary today, that they might use chemical weapons against us, they were trained to use by Iraq?Years later, a thrill would run up Matthews’ leg. On this particular evening, a hot yellow river ran down it. At least in his public stance, Matthews assumed the accuracy of everything Powell had said. Poor Armey was forced to talk Matthews down as he begged for instant war.
ARKIN: I don't. I have to say Powell, the good soldier, made a very good performance today and certainly the amount of information which was released today was far more than anybody else has ever said. It's an impressive compilation, but I think in the end, we have to ask ourselves the question, what is the threat that we're talking about? Is the threat the threat of weapons of mass destruction or of terrorism? would be the most likely way in which weapons of mass destruction would be used against the United States. And so—
MATTHEWS: But, what's missing here? If you— If Colin Powell makes the point that there's training going on by Iraqi officials of al Qaeda operatives in northern Iraq, what more do you need to know that it could happen?
MATTHEWS: Why don't we just attack him now and forget this takeover and regime change and all the big talk and just blow apart those camps if we know that we've got them in our crosshairs, Congressman?
ARMEY: I don't know the answer to that. My—
MATTHEWS: Doesn't it surprise you? The secretary of state goes on the international television and says America is threatened now by chemicals weapons in the hands of Saddam Hussein's people thanks to the training of the Iraqi people, and we know the camps, here are the pictures of the camps. Why don't we do something about those camps? Blow them away?
ARMEY: Well, and that might be the solution, but I also think that there's probably a case to be made that if you take any military action, you might have to complete the job. You know, there's a lot of criticism for Desert Storm for not having done so. The other thing you have to understand is to some extent, this administration is in a chess game with Saddam Hussein.
MATTHEWS: I'm trying to get back to the main point of this debate in this segment of the show. We just saw the secretary of state point to those camps in northern Iraq where they are teaching right now as we speak—I don't know what the time zone is— Right now, they're teaching these people how to use chemical weapons against us. Are we going to stop that or are we going to talk about it? That's the question. And I don't know how we can live with ourselves if we wait for another month with the U.N. or we don't do anything in a month.
MATTHEWS: How many days are you willing to give that camp in northern Iraq to keep training those Osama bin Laden terrorists in the use of chemical weapons? How many days from now are you willing to put up with that?
ARMEY: I think that's a military decision and that—it would depend on what I believe will be more and more closely held information than I have, but obviously you can't just let them prepare with the kind of manner in which they can strike so insidiously.
Here at THE HOWLER, we punished ourselves at the start of the week, reading all the Hardball transcripts in the two weeks before Walsh’s piece. We found no program where Matthews behaved in the brave way Walsh would describe. Examples:
On February 12, Matthews spent the full hour with Bernie Goldberg on the Hardball College Tour. Goldberg had just published the often-ridiculous book, Bias. Matthews of course kissed his ass:
MATTHEWS (2/12/03): I like guys who put their balls on the line like you do.The next night, he opened with General Haig. Perhaps you can discern the gist:
GOLDBERG: Well I appreciate that.
MATTHEWS: OK, go ahead.
GOLDBERG: I appreciate that.
MATTHEWS (2/13/03): The big story tonight, the triple threat of Iraq, al Qaeda and North Korea as the U.S. inches closer to war with Iraq and Osama bin Laden encourages suicide attacks against Americans, intelligence officials now reveal that North Korea has a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon and striking the western United States.No one could doubt his sincerity! The next day, Salon’s poor misused liberal readers were told that Matthews had been bravely attacking the hawks, “almost every night.”
Tonight, we'll examine the three threats with former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and former CIA Director Robert Gates. But first, General Alexander Haig, he served as secretary of state during the Reagan administration.
Mr. Secretary, when you look at all these three threats, which is the worst?
MATTHEWS: OK, General Haig, thank you very much for joining us. We'll be coming back to talk about the Clinton administration, what they could have done, but didn't perhaps, to counter these threats from Iraq, North Korea, and al Qaeda. Specifically we're going to talk about the North Korea question. I'm going to ask former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.
And later, the Hardball debate: Should former President Bill Clinton be injecting himself into today's foreign policy debate or is he undermining the president during a time of war?
Over the weekend, we read through many Hardball transcripts in the seven months before the war. We found no place where Matthews behaved in the brave way Walsh would describe.
During his interview with Walsh, Matthews did talk like a bit of an anti-war man. But very little of that approach had been displayed on the air.
For our money, Matthews may be the greatest and most influential dissembler of the past twenty years. At this point, we’d have to say the illustrious Walsh isn’t real far behind.
On the brighter side, she has become a cable star. Presumbaly, the money is good. Her celebrity is much greater.
But good lord, the stories we liberals get told! Of course, as long as we’re told these tales by our tribe, we swallow them down every time.
Tomorrow: Christopher's willing enablers