Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Record Straightening

[posted by Callimachus]

I'm ashamed to say I didn't know any of this. Like Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, and probably the rest of us in the media, I assumed Bush's then-press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said "all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do" in the days after 9/11 as a direct rebuke to Bill Maher's riff on the terrorists.

When the usual suspects mouth something like that often enough, though, I should know better. I should expect the record to be more complicated. I should know by now to be suspicious of good-guy-liberal-comic-vs.-dissent-crushing-Republican-power-monster scenarios that read like a professional wrestling card in Nancy Pelosi's dreams.

Hitchens goes to the transcript and finds, sure enough ...

Shortly after the assault of Sept. 11, a buffoonish Republican congressman from Louisiana named John Cooksey—incredibly enough, a member of the Committee on International Relations—had made the following contribution to the debate on ethnic profiling:

If I see someone come in and he's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked.

This had provoked anguish in the Sikh community (though I remember my friend Hussein Ibish, then of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, saying that he refused to protest on the grounds that the remark was at least funny). Ari Fleischer was duly asked about the congressman at the briefing on Sept. 26 and responded as follows:

Q: Has the President had any communication with Representative Cooksey regarding his comments on Sikh Americans? And does he have a message for the lawmakers and members of his party in particular about this issue?

A: The President's message is to all Americans. It's important for all Americans to remember the traditions of our country that make us so strong and so free, our tolerance and openness and acceptance. All Americans—and we come from a very rich cultural heritage, no matter what anybody's background in this country. And that's the strength of this country, and that's the President's message that he expressed in his speech to Congress and as he has done when he visited the mosque a week ago Monday, and in the meetings that he's hosting here at the White House today with Muslim Americans and Sikh Americans.

Q: Did he speak to Representative Cooksey, and what were his reactions upon hearing those?

A: The President was very disturbed by those remarks.

Several questions later on, up came the matter of Bill Maher and his use of what Frank Rich oddly calls "comic irreverence:"

Q: As Commander-in-Chief, what was the President's reaction to television's Bill Maher, in his announcement that members of our armed forces who deal with missiles are cowards, while the armed terrorists who killed 6,000 unarmed (sic) are not cowards, for which Maher was briefly moved off a Washington television station?

A: I have not discussed it with the President, one. I have …

Q: Surely, as a—

A: I'm getting there.

Q: Surely as Commander, he was enraged at that, wasn't he?

A: I'm getting there, Les.

Q: Okay.

A: I'm aware of the press reports about what he's said. I have not seen the actual transcript of the show itself. But assuming the press reports are right, it's a terrible thing to say, and it's unfortunate. And that's why—there was an earlier question about has the President said anything to people in his own party—they're reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.

Is it not absolutely and glaringly obvious, from these exchanges, that the second reply from Fleischer is a direct reference back to his first one, which itself consists of a mild rebuke to a crass remark made by a Republican Congressman?

Media mavens like Rich and Krugman can't quite be forgiven for misunderstanding this and taking it out of context: The quote came from a press conference for chrissakes.