The Day of the Jackals

Mythmaking at the Republican convention and getting punk'd on Kudlow and Cramer

Still, Bush dared not talk about life on the ground in today's unstable Afghanistan, where the Taliban is coming back (and spreading into Pakistan). He didn't utter the name "Osama bin Laden." And he skimmed over realities of the Iraq war: the failure to find WMD; the human-rights violations at Abu Ghraib; a reconstruction plan so bungling that, 16 months in, the coalition has barely begun rebuilding the country; the loss of control in areas like Fallujah, which may have to skip the forthcoming elections; the ongoing insurgency that wounded more U.S. soldiers, 1,100, in August than in any month since the war began. Predictably, Bush forgot to mention that he had budgeted $10 billion to pay for that corporate boondoggle, the "Star Wars" system, yet couldn't find enough money to scan the cargo on passenger planes, secure fissionable material in the former Soviet Union, or make sure New York City cops and firemen—slavishly evoked during the convention—were properly equipped for future attacks.

Such a shortfall might give another man pause. Not so the Defender of the Homeland, who, during one of his speech's emotional crests, declared, "I will never relent in defending America—whatever it takes." (For some reason, this prompted an eerie chant of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" He was talking about terrorism, folks, not men's gymnastics.)

Nor would Bush's party relent in demonizing his Democratic opponent. Now, I'm no great fan of the orotund Kerry, who's a dreary candidate and, if anything, too close to Bush in much of his thinking. Still, it was repellent to witness the glee with which the Republicans portrayed him as a coward, peacenik, serial waffler (the $10 flip-flops sold at the RNC were a nice touch), bogus war hero, Chirac's butt-boy, and, quite possibly, a traitor. As MSNBC's Chris Matthews rightly noted, the GOP didn't stop at saying Kerry was wrong. They suggested he should "not be." Here was convention-floor terrorism—mythology as liquidation.


After the swift-boat smears and the Republican convention, many people I know have begun turning their anger against Kerry rather than the character assassins who've been slurring him. "His timid campaign proves the point he's timid," fatuously claimed New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Although Kerry should have been better prepared for the Republican hit squads, it's easy to be knocked back by the sheer moral and intellectual thuggishness of the right.

Last Thursday, I received my own farcical initiation into that arena. To publicize my book, the publisher lined up a spot on Kudlow and Cramer, one of those CNBC shows whose hosts desperately compete with the stock-market ticker tape endlessly crawling across the bottom of the screen. Like most of America, I barely knew the show existed, let alone ever considered watching it. But I had a book to sell, so I dutifully made my way to CNBC's Burbank studio.

There, I was put in a chair that found me staring into the blank eye of a TV camera. Although I could hear the program—the monitor was on the wall over my shoulder—I couldn't see the show's hosts, Larry Kudlow and Jim Cramer. But I knew they'd be able to see me. (Such are the power relationships on live TV.) I listened to fawning interviews with Karen Hughes and the head of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain.

Finally, my turn came. "Welcome to your maiden voyage on Kudlow and Cramer," Kudlow said, then smirked: "I notice your book is 9,056 on the Amazon list." Ouch! It had been ranked a little over 1,000 for most of the previous week, and I wondered if he was lying. But not for long. Kudlow was already suggesting that I was some sort of Bolshevik: "You don't like capitalism and markets and ownership, do you, sir, a representative of the left?"

I replied that I was perfectly fine with capitalism; I didn't like run-amok capitalism, and soon heard myself chiding Zell Miller's keynote address for implying there's something unpatriotic about even running against Bush.

"The problem with that," said Kudlow, "is that Zell Miller just gave us factual information that Mr. John Kerry in the last 20 years has voted against the 15 or 20 weapons systems that we are using to protect our country . . . I assume, Mr. Powers, that you wish to defend the United States."

Now my patriotism was at issue. They were treating me as the rabid right treats Kerry. I pointed out that when Kerry voted against those weapons systems, Dick Cheney also opposed them.

KUDLOW: (outraged) That is simply not true!

POWERS: That is simply true. In 1990, Dick Cheney—

KUDLOW: Not true!

POWERS: Oh, it is true. I want you to come back on the air and prove that that's not true.

KUDLOW: Dick Cheney was the defense secretary of the United States . . .

POWERS: He was and—

KUDLOW: He was running the Defense Department.

POWERS: Of course. And he was boasting how he was cutting the Defense Department.

And he was. As CNN, Slate, and The Washington Post all carefully explained, Kerry's votes against these weapons systems were part of a Washington-wide attempt to shrink the Defense Department as part of the so-called peace dividend; in fact, Secretary of Defense Cheney had boasted how he was cutting the Pentagon's budget. Kudlow either didn't know these facts or, more likely, didn't give a damn. In a clownish parody of a real terrorist, he merely wanted to produce an on-air explosion. That's how these shows work.

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