NEWS

‘I’ve never seen the US so divided, not even during Vietnam’

I’d like your opinion on where the American press is after the Iraq war, how it has handled the war and how it has handled itself in this new environment. Well, I’ll probably be indiscreet and I don’t want to talk too much about the Post and I think the reportage, the reporting has been fabulous, just fabulous. They have been quick and all the good papers were quick to put their best young men in there. We have Anthony Shadid, who refused to leave and he was kind of ordered home by the paper but he wouldn’t come and we knew he wasn’t coming. But once that first battle was over I think they’ve done a very good job. Editorially, I think the Post is crazy. I wouldn’t like to say it quite that bluntly in your newspaper, but I disagree with the editorial policy which has been, from the beginning, pro-war. Mind you it was quite the same, only with a different cast of characters, in Vietnam. The Post was for years very interventionist in Vietnam and it was only when Phil Jelland took over the editorial page and Russ Wigans quit to become ambassador to the UN that they changed their policy from, you know, «Bomb ’em into the Stone Age» to «Let’s get out.» But I think the battle of the war reporting has been as good as any I have seen and from my advanced age I am very impressed by their bravery, their intelligence, their willingness to go the last mile. And I haven’t followed the Greek press but I feel that that’s been true of the Brits, the Canadians. Split in two So why is there so much self-doubt, so much self-flagellation in the American press? Because the thing about America now is that it is split in two, so equally. Half of the country is for Bush and therefore for war (I think there’s a smaller half for war) but I think that the Democrats, you know, Kerry is very critical of it. It’s hard to criticize if your country is at war, it really is. You run the risk of being called unpatriotic. But I think that Bush’s personal popularity remains remarkably strong but the approval for the war is going down, as you know. To me that was quite unusual. It would seem to me if support for the war was decreasing support for Bush would decrease. I think that’s going to happen and it’s probably just beginning to happen now, but it certainly was slow. And I think, again speaking personally, Kerry is not the most charismatic man, and Bush is quite charismatic. I mean he’s a little not to my taste. The country, I’ve never seen it as divided as it is. In the middle of the Vietnam war it wasn’t that divided. Because the people who are pro the government in Iraq are ferociously, fiercely so. And you get in an argument, oh my God, and you can empty the room. And that’s not usual in America. Have people been questioning this more lately? I think so. You’ve got to remember I am 12 years out of the city room, although I go to the Post every day of my life, I can’t help it. I’m still a vice president at large, whatever that means, and I go to the newsroom a lot and I talk to them a lot, the politics of it. The supporters of Bush, especially the Christian right, scare me, I don’t like them. And Kerry, he’s been at it so long, he’s been trying so hard, he’s got a very snappy wife. I like his wife, she’s full of prunes and sass. But he hasn’t clicked… No, he hasn’t really. But you know, Clinton was way behind at a comparable time, when he was running against Bush. Clinton had that extra little magic. He did, and this guy finds it hard to get. He’s so qualified, you know. He’s got a really good war record, whereas Bush is a draft dodger, not to put too fine a point on it (chuckles). And that still counts in America, I think. It may count a little more than you think. We’ve been celebrating the 60th anniversary of D-Day in Washington. There was a great dedication of the new memorial and the veterans who fought in that war are very easy to identify. They wore all their caps and we talked to each other a little bit. I was 20 years old when I went to war but that still makes me part of it. You have lived through the greatest events of the past 60 years… I’ve had a really good time to live if you had to choose it. How do you rate our time today, where are we? I think we’re in kind of a jam. I’m not scared about the condition of my country but I think we’ve kind of lost our way and the people behind Bush, the people who are running Bush are the most conservative; they’re more conservative than the Reagan people, they really are, and they’re more sort of religious about it. Someone called Reagan an amiable dunce; that was how I thought of him. But he was a great leader for our country, and that’s after all what we elect these presidents for. We can always get these Harvard professors to tell us what to do and when to do it. Clinton’s lying is the only thing that prevents him from being a remarkable president. He was well informed and personable. Resilient So we have a very divided country heading for an election. Can that election solve the problem or will it be a more divided country afterward? I am unable to say how it will heal the country because it is still going to be so close. But we’re awfully resilient, it’s a resilient country and we’ll fix it. It depends on who is Kerry’s vice president, but if Kerry is nominated and wins, I think he has a chance to be a very successful leader. He’s not an extremist in any sense. Do you feel that the terrorist attacks of September 11 pushed the country into this division or did Bush have an agenda that would lead to this? Well it gave him the agenda if he didn’t have it. Well, I don’t know [what] the agenda of the Republican party in Texas is and I don’t think it’s terribly important. Texas doesn’t need to have a foreign policy, but 9/11 certainly scarred the country and divided the country. I’ve been saying to myself over all the last celebrations of D-Day, 407,000 Americans lost their lives in World War II and we haven’t even got a thousand yet. And so, the press, and I don’t say this critically, is so much more on the ball and able to do so much more now. The press is everywhere, it is very hard to keep a secret. You have these talking heads on television, they talk all day long. I don’t listen to them anymore. There’s half a dozen of them who make sense, and there’s a hundred of them talking. But I think that what has changed in the last six months is that the Republican leadership is almost as determined to get out as the Democrats are. Maybe some of the right-wing supporters of the Republicans aren’t, but who are they going to follow? To get out of the war? Yeah. If the Iraqis will give us a chance. I’d like to know what the Iraqi war has done to the American military, because I think they’re not used to fighting that kind of street fighting where these people are totally out of control, jumping up and down in the streets. And they’re losing a lot of people. The rate seems to be speeding up, three or four or five Americans killed every day. You know, there used to be three or four or five hundred killed in a week in Vietnam but – so I don’t know how it’s going to come out. I really don’t. I think there is a significant and vocal opposition to Bush among some Republican leaders – John McCain, a couple of senators, Chafee, some of those people, who are steadfast and seem to me to be good. But I don’t think the political leadership of America, in the Senate, is very impressive to me. They got rid of the one who I thought was really awful, the senator from Mississippi, Lott, he was embarrassing. You mentioned Vietnam with up to 500 dead a week. Do you get the feeling that the way the media is structured today, with the technology, with many types of media, with this instant society, this instant world that we live in, probably magnifies every death, and magnifies time? It does, and television does that too, which was just starting in Vietnam. But in Vietnam the press needed military escorts to take them into the jungle. Here in Baghdad you really can walk round. Three weeks after the war all of this stuff about embedding a reporter with a certain unit, that went out, and these young reporters are crazy enough to do it.