When Washington Post lost its mind cheering Colin Powell’s case for war

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Colin Powell’s passing this week prompted lots of media coverage about his historic and star-studded military and diplomatic career. His resume also included the large blemish that was the Iraq War, which he helped sell as President George Bush’s Secretary of State. And specifically, Powell sold it during an infamous presentation to the United Nations’ Security Council just weeks before the doomed invasion.

More than 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died in the pointless conflict, and Powell played a key role in all of it. What has received little or no attention this week though, was the oversized role the press played in 2003 as it cheered Powell’s deeply flawed U.N. presentation, and helped march the country to war. Especially the Washington Post, which became rapturous of Powell that winter.

Over the years, lots of attention has been focused on the New York Times and the central, historic role it played in marketing Bush’s disastrous war. (See: Judith Miller.) As the Times' then-public editor, Margaret Sullivan, reminded readers in 2014, “The lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003 was not The Times's finest hour.”

But the Washington Post’s behavior, especially from its editorial page and columnists, was equally awful and detrimental to the U.S. At times exhibiting a bloodlust for war, the Post transformed itself into a proud pro-war platform that eagerly echoed every misguided claim the Bush administration was putting forward for its doomed, pre-emptive invasion.

Between September 2002 and March 2003, the Post published nearly 30 editorials and columns urging war. And because the newspaper came with a supposed “liberal” reputation, its relentless war cheering was a godsend for the White House, which could turn around and say, ‘Even the Washington Post supports the military incursion.’

It turns out the Post’s pro-war cheering section was wrong about everything. And that’s where Powell comes in.

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In the summer of 2002 Powell, clearly not supportive of a possible Iraq invasion, convinced Bush that the U.S. should make its case at the United Nations via the Security Council. Bush agreed and Powell was the point person for that sales job, which sputtered for months. Then on February 3, 2003, Powell, acting as a loyal team player, addressed the Security Council for 90 minutes, complete with with easel-mounted maps, and detailed the U.S.’s rationale for war. Relying almost entirely on faulty intelligence, Powell sold the war with gusto, portraying Saddam Hussein as a clear and present danger to a post-9/11 America.

The Beltway pundit class could barely contain its glee as it accepted Powell’s version of events. “It is impossible to overstate just how thoroughly the vast majority of the media bought what Powell was selling,” Media Matters’ Jamison Foser once noted.

As Greg Mitchell detailed at the time, “The San Francisco Chronicle called the speech "impressive in its breadth and eloquence." The Denver Post likened Powell to "Marshal Dillon facing down a gunslinger in Dodge City," adding that he had presented "not just one 'smoking gun' but a battery of them." The Tampa Tribune called Powell's case "overwhelming.””

The Post especially though, seemed to lose touch with reality following Powell’s address. The next day, the daily published a high-fiving editorial, “Irrefutable,” which mocked anti-war activists for daring to question the path to war [emphasis added.]:

After Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's presentation to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Powell left no room to argue seriously that Iraq has accepted the Security Council's offer of a "final opportunity" to disarm.

Soon a cavalcade of Post writers rushed their Powell tributes into print, declaring the debate about the war to be officially over.

The paper’s George Will compared invasion skeptics to conspiracy theorists still dreaming up wild tales about President John Kennedy’s assassination. Will’s column was dedicated to mocking the non-believers: “What are people denying who still deny the need for force? That Iraq has weapons of mass destruction?”

Of course, those weapons never existed.

The Post’s Jim Hoagland pointed to Powell and claimed there could no longer be any skepticism about the unprecedented invasion. “To continue to say that the Bush administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in by manufactured evidence,” he stressed. “I don't believe that. Today, neither should you."

In one of the more famous pundit lines from the run-up to the war, the Post’s Mary McGrory quipped that Powell "persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince." The extended valentine continued: “Powell took his seat in the United Nations and put his shoulder to the wheel. He was to talk for almost an hour and a half. His voice was strong and unwavering. He made his case without histrionics of any kind, with no verbal embellishments.”

In the end, very little of what Powell said that day at the U.N. was true.

Meanwhile, the Post’s Richard Cohen announced that Powell's testimony "had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise.”

War skeptics were fools, conspiracy buffs, and generally unserious people — that was the taunting message from the Post weeks before the U.S. launched arguably its most failed military action in the last century.

The Iraq War and the media's lapdog, obedient performance during the run-up should have demolished all claims of liberal media bias, simply because so many journalists teamed up with the Republican White House to help sponsor the disastrous war. At a time of heightened patriotic fervor, the national press played a central role in helping to sell a war to the public. 

And the Washington Post proudly led the imprudent parade.

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(Photo: Brooks Kraft/Getty Images)

📰 GOOD STUFF:

The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism has produced a fascinating, and disturbing, deep dive into the role white newspaper publishers played in stoking violence against Blacks in 19th and 20th century America.

From the online “Printing Hate” project:

For decades, hundreds of white-owned newspapers across the country incited the racist terror lynchings and massacres of thousands of Black Americans. In their headlines, these newspapers often promoted the brutality of white lynch mobs and chronicled the gruesome details of the lynchings. Many white reporters stood on the sidelines of Jim Crow lynchings as Black men, women, teenagers and children were hanged from trees and burned alive. White mobs often posed on courthouse lawns, grinning for photos that ran on front pages of mainstream newspapers.

“Printing Hate,” a yearlong investigation by students working with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, examines the scope, depth and breadth of newspaper coverage of hundreds of those public-spectacle lynchings and massacres.

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🐂 FUN STUFF — BECAUSE WE ALL NEED A BREAK

Asleep at the Wheel (featuring George Strait, Willie Nelson), “Take Me Back to Tulsa”

There are certain kinds of music that when you listen it’s almost impossible to be a sour mood — ragtime and reggae come to mind. And so does Western swing.

Celebrating 50 years of honoring Bob Willis’ distinct brand of 1940’s country dance music, Asleep at the Wheel’s latest take on “Tulsa” is brimming with an irresistible two-step beat, popping fiddles and swirling steel guitar. As well as a couple Hall of Fame cameo appearances from George and Willie.

(Interesting to note that this version does not include the song’s traditional verse about “Black man raises the cotton, white man gets the money.”)

Where's that gal with the red dress on? Some folks called her Dinah
Stole my heart away from me, way down in Louisiana
Take me back to Tulsa, I'm too young to marry
Take me back to Tulsa, I'm too young to marry

🎙 Click here to listen to the music that’s been featured on PRESS RUN, via a Spotify playlist.

Click here to listen via Apple Music.