Off The Record

The remains of Ronald Reagan, fresh off their funeral tour, were settling in their California tomb. Bill Clinton was tuning up the band for his own book-publicity parade. Somewhere in the middle of it all, George Herbert Walker Bush was jumping out of an airplane.

But there was another, more sinister ex-Presidential apparition last week: a clammy, jowly shadow on the political landscape. The ghost of Richard Nixon was on the move.

It began with a broadside hit on the White House, when the Sept. 11 commission reported on June 16 that there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement in the terrorist attacks. “PANEL FINDS NO QAEDA-IRAQ TIE,” The New York Times declared the next morning in a three-column headline.

Inside, in its lead editorial, the paper amplified the message: “[T]here was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11.”

“Now,” The Times added, “President Bush should apologize to the American people, who were led to believe something different.”

The reply came from Vice President Dick Cheney that night, and it wasn’t an apology. On CNBC, Mr. Cheney denounced The Times ‘ coverage as “outrageous” and possibly “malicious,” saying The Times had “distorted” the report.

“We never said that Iraq was responsible for 9/11,” Mr. Cheney declared. “We have never said that. You can’t find any place where I said it, where the President said it.”

The surface dispute was a Clintonian wrangle over semantics: Where does a “contact” become a “connection” become a “collaboration”? When is a “tie” not a tie? But the tenor went back a quarter-century beyond Mr. Clinton’s impeachment.

“It was reminiscent of Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the media back in the 60’s and early 70’s,” said Boston Globe Washington bureau chief Peter Canellos. “Cheney seems to be going after the biggest media target in order to put across the idea that much of what people have been reading about Iraq has been exaggerated.”

Mr. Cheney’s anger did appear to be narrowly focused. Other papers, including Mr. Canellos’ Globe , had challenged the administration’s claims of a link-or connection or contact-between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein earlier and more vigorously than The Times , without waiting for the commission’s input.

And The Times was hardly alone in its reading of the report. “No Signs of Iraq-Al Qaeda Ties Found,” the Los Angeles Times wrote. ” No hay lazos entre Irak y Al Qaeda ,” pronounced Los Tiempos USA , across four columns.

Yet in the run-up to war, Mr. Cheney had put his faith in The New York Times , citing its updates on the state of Mr. Hussein’s chemical, biological and nuclear arsenal. Those updates, it later emerged, came from a tight loop of information: fed to The Times ‘ Judith Miller by administration officials and Ahmad Chalabi, then fed back to the administration by Ms. Miller’s stories.

Now The Times has expressed regrets over those stories in an editors’ note. And it’s not taking Mr. Cheney’s word on much. On Saturday, it struck back at the Vice President on two sides: It invited the two top commissioners to demand that Mr. Cheney back up his claims with evidence-playing the resulting challenge as news-and it ran a follow-up editorial savaging Mr. Cheney’s putative Iraq–Al Qaeda alliance. By the Vice President’s standards, the paper sneered, “the United States has longstanding ties with North Korea.”

Mr. Cheney, the editorial said, “wants us to trust him …. [W]hen it comes to Iraq, blind faith in this administration has been a losing strategy.”

Translation: Liar! Liar, liar, liar!

The Times ‘ editorial page may never have liked the Iraq war. But even in its liberal multilateralism, it stuck with the fundamentally conservative assumptions of every objective broadsheet daily: Our institutions are sound. They are run by reputable people with honest intentions. Even if we disagree with our government’s policy, we agree on the underlying goals.

But sometimes, the press gets pushed past those limits.

“It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his scathing 1994 obituary of Mr. Nixon. ” … You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”

The Times is not the only publication doing a double-take. Last week, the war-boosting New Republic weighed in on the topic “Were We Wrong?” (Answer: Not quite, but we feel like we could use a nice hot bath.)

“By early 2003, it was becoming clear that at least two pieces of evidence the administration cited as proof of Saddam’s nuclear program-his supposed purchase of uranium from Niger and his acquisition of aluminum tubes for a supposed nuclear centrifuge-were highly dubious,” the magazine said in its lead editorial. ” … In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to these warning signs.”

Hard-line boss Martin Peretz made sure the magazine’s official position stopped there. But editor Peter Beinart took it further in his own “TRB” column: “What I didn’t realize was that, for top Bush officials and their conservative allies … [t]here was just their way and their opponents’ way. And, if their way placed ideology above expertise, that was fine.”

In a phone conversation, Mr. Beinart said that the magazine had overrated the administration’s sincerity: The White House told liberal hawks what they wanted to hear, but refused to listen in return. The Bushies, Mr. Beinart said, have a “toxic relationship to anyone who might have information that sort of doesn’t support the party line.”

And they don’t mean what they say, Mr. Beinart said. The magazine had especially prized the administration’s human-rights case for overthrowing Saddam. But now our troops are tied up avenging the gassing of Kurds back in 1988, while a genocide unfolds in the present in Darfur, Sudan.

“If they didn’t do Iraq, would they really be doing Darfur anyway?” Mr. Beinart said.

The New Republic ‘s array of attempted revisions-which range from Mr. Peretz’s declaration that the war is “an honorable undertaking” to Leon Wieseltier’s view that “an absence of regrets and recriminations on the part of a supporter of this war now amounts to an absence of intellectual honesty”-hints at the enormity of the question at stake: Does this administration act in good faith?

The Times itself has hardly settled the intramural dispute. On June 18, Adam Nagourney and Richard W. Stevenson overlooked Mr. Cheney’s hostility to present “Account Recalls Cheney as a Swift and Steady Hand,” a largely favorable account of Mr. Cheney’s ordering hijacked jets shot down on Sept. 11.

And on the editorial side, on June 21, Op-Ed warhorse William Safire-the former speechwriter for Nixon and Agnew-dismissed the paper’s coverage of the commission report as “all wrong,” a result of the commission and the press having been duped by renegade staffers. The same commissioners who had been challenging Mr. Cheney days earlier in The Times had “disavowed” the conclusion, Mr. Safire wrote.

Mr. Safire declined to discuss his dissent any further. The column, he said, is “what I think about it. Feel free to quote from it.”

Mr. Safire has been a notorious dead-ender ever since his days in Mr. Nixon’s bunker. At last report, he also continued to maintain that Mr. Chalabi was a hero and statesman, whose downfall was the work of disgruntled intelligence agents.

Still, his work was seized on in turn by E.J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post -whose own editorial page stands steadfast for the war-as a sign that the administration is panicking as its credibility crumbles. “[T]he gun was not smoking and there probably was no gun at all,” he wrote of Mr. Safire’s belief that Mohamed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence. Mr. Dionne did not mention his own bosses, but the implication was hard to miss.

Mr. Cheney’s office failed to return phone calls seeking comment on his feud with The Times . But VPOTUS appears not to care whether the papers come around or not. The papers were against Mr. Nixon-and, more importantly, he against them-in 1972. And he still got himself re-elected. Somehow.

W here in the World Is Graydon Carter?

Embattled Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter does, in fact, know right from wrong. That’s the premise of his upcoming book, What We’ve Lost -that the Bush administration is corrupt, dishonest and unfit to govern.

One theory floating around, in fact, is that Mr. Carter’s recent bad press has been sicced on him by right-wing operatives. Why else would the crypto-fascist Los Angeles Times be hounding him about the years-old, five- and six-figure payments that Mr. Carter reportedly extracted from Hollywood?

But a partial manuscript of Mr. Carter’s book shows that the editor is undeterred. In page after page, he lays out the back-scratching, hypocrisy and sundry boodling of Mr. Bush’s White House. For instance, Mr. Carter recounts that the oil firm Koch Industries gave the Republican Party $800,000 in campaign donations in 2000. Then the administration, once elected, turned around and dropped fines and felony charges that Koch faced for polluting.

Mr. Carter has identified a clear principle at stake here: You cannot accept campaign contributions from people for whom you are in a position to do favors.

Next time, presumably, the Republicans should invoice the $800,000 as a “consulting fee.”

But if Mr. Carter’s ethical compass is working again, some of his other orientation equipment is on the fritz. Despite reports of a platoon of researchers at Mr. Carter’s disposal, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has received a manuscript in which the writer’s argument frequently outruns his available facts. The result reads like a Mother Jones edition of Mad Libs : Vice President Dick Cheney is “currently under investigation by WHO for WHAT REGARDING BRIBING FOREIGN OFFICIALS DURING HIS TENURE AS HEAD OF THE COMPANY”; the White House has snubbed the “Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty, signed by TK nations WHEN.”

Off the Record was able to solve some of Mr. Carter’s troubles with Google. Using a dial-up Internet connection, it took 13 seconds to establish the curb weight of “the TK-lb Hummer” at 6,400 pounds (assuming it’s an H2). Slow-loading federal Web sites meant it took a full 30 seconds to learn that “the Forest Service-created WHEN TO DO WHAT” was founded in 1905 to manage publicly owned forest reserves.

Geography especially is a weak point for Mr. Carter. So-on the grounds that before you can save America, it helps to know where it is-Off the Record presents this handy map quiz. Using clues taken from the manuscript, can you help Mr. Carter find his way around?

1. “WHAT STATE TK’s Mall of America”

2. “Yellowstone National Park in STATE TK”

3. “TEXAS CAPITAL CITY TK”

4. The home address of Mr. Carter, “who lives TK blocks from where the World Trade Center towers once stood.”

Off The Record