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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


I first knew that the war in Iraq had tipped several days ago when I was surfing channels on the telly. I happened across Fox News’s heavyweight star Bill O’Reilly having a gleeful discussion with former Clinton adviser Dick Morris and columnist Michelle Malkin.

They weren’t discussing troop movements or military strategy or endgames. They were animatedly considering who was going to “pay” in the aftermath of Gulf War II. Mind you, they weren’t talking about Saddam Hussein and his henchmen. They weren’t even talking about appeasement-inclined allies like France and Germany. No, they were talking about American politicians and (mostly) media and entertainment celebrities.

They barely wasted a moment on the likes of Michael Moore and the Dixie Chicks. They were targets too obvious to dwell on. John Kerry was also a foregone conclusion as dead meat. They seemed more concerned about an ersatz politician, Martin Sheen. The strongest words seemed to be for the newspapers of record of the two largest American cities, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, which weren’t nearly “supportive” enough during the war. Malkin thought ABC evening news anchor Peter Jennings would “pay” for similar reasons. Surprisingly, O’Reilly defended him as being merely acceptably “skeptical.”

So, the war is already enough of a success that the political right feels it is ready to start toppling liberal icons in the same way Iraqis have been bringing down statues of Saddam. It’s all over. Except, of course, for the rest of the fighting and a few little other details, like the reconstruction of Iraq.

Personally, I’m impressed. The American/British military victory was never in doubt. It was always a question of when Saddam would fall, not if. But I figured that this war would be another one of those events which would be told in completely different versions for the rest of history. There would be the right-wing version in which the Iraqis were liberated by a benevolent superpower. And there would be the left-wing version in which a greedy imperialist power trampled on Middle East sovereignty. And these two versions may both yet survive and prosper. But, after watching the cheering crowds on multiple channels, it is hard to see how any but the most extreme of the western world’s left will be able to do anything but quibble over procedural details of how the war was conducted and the cost, in both lives and treasure. And history teaches that these sorts of details are inevitably forgotten by most of us over the course of time.

So, the people who supported President Bush all along are anxiously looking to reap politically. So, how is one of the objects of their scorn, The New York Times, reacting? Well, as it happens, last week the paper published a piece by Frank Rich on the topic of the celebrity backlash. His stance seems to be that actors are merely filling a void left by the Democratic party which, for the most part, was co-opted by the Bush war steamroller. He uses a great quote from Senator John McCain: “If Washington is a Hollywood for ugly people, Hollywood is a Washington for the simple-minded.” In other words, even thoughtful people who agree with liberal Hollywood stars are happy to write them off as not very bright or significant.

Most of Rich’s verbiage, however, is reserved for Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. He makes the point that the fact that so many people were upset with Moore’s controversial acceptance speech at the Academy Awards means “that he, unlike many of his fellow showbiz protesters, has actually drawn blood.” He goes on to make the same point that I did two weeks ago that Moore is essentially the liberal Rush Limbaugh. The difference, however, is that Rich actually thinks this is a good thing. “You can already fantasize,” writes Rich, “how Moore, once he is turned away from the White House, might travel to Kennebunkport to pursue the first President Bush in retirement much as he did Charlton Heston in ‘Bowling for Columbine.'”

So, depending on your point of view, the “backlash” against liberal celebrities is either payback for a lack patriotism or a sign of liberal success in keeping the right wing in check.

Another target of O’Reilly recently was the BBC, which he chided for not supporting its own (British) government and for choosing to cover an earthquake instead of the toppling of the Saddam statue. America’s National Public Radio is another frequent target. Personally, I am thrilled to get both of these radio broadcasters on my Worldspace radio. And so would O’Reilly, if his only alternative would be to listen to and watch Ireland’s RTÉ. In the course of the war, I have had to learn to translate RTÉ’s news reports, the same way kremlinologists used to decipher official statements from the old Soviet Union. Here is an excerpt from my RTÉ glossary:

  • RTÉ version: “American and British forces were not prepared for the overwhelming resistance put up by the Iraqi population.” Translation: The war will take a week longer than expected.

  • RTÉ version: “Reports coming from Iraq are mixed today.” Translation: Saddam’s forces are being routed.

  • RTÉ version: “Collateral damage in the war has claimed a priceless piece of public art in the centre of Baghdad.” Translation: The Iraqi capital is in coalition hands.

    Say what you want, Mr. O’Reilly, about BBC and NPR skepticism. But when they report that Iraqis are cheering in the street and kissing American soldiers, their skepticism gives the news a credibility that is lacking in a format such as yours, which is essentially right-wing “hot talk” radio with pictures.

    -S.L., 10 April 2003

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