Keith Olbermann's finest hour
By Bill Berkowitz
Journal Guest Writer
Sep 14, 2006, 00:19
On Wednesday, August 30, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann had his
Edward R. Murrow moment and he made the most of it. In a thoughtful and
hard-hitting six-minute commentary, Olbermann, the host of
"Countdown," responded to the new campaign launched by the Bush
administration branding opponents of the war in Iraq as appeasers and confused
enablers of terrorism.
With the war in Iraq droning on, an exit strategy still a
mystery, the president's poll numbers in the tank, the war on terrorism in
disarray, and the continued Republican control of Congress threatened, Team
Bush rolled out its time-tested "the Democrats are weak on terrorism"
In successive days at the end of August, administration
spokespersons led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and aided and
abetted by Vice President Dick Cheney, cranked up the volume against those
disagreeing with Bush's Iraq policy and its strategy to win the war on
No longer satisfied with merely insinuating that critics of
the war in Iraq and the president's war on terrorism are unpatriotic and
threatening the morale of the troops in the field, Rumsfeld lashed out at war
critics for being appeasers of fascism.
Speaking at the American Legion's annual convention in Salt
Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday, August 29, Rumsfeld "drew parallels between
the current conflict with terrorists and the period between World Wars I and
II," the Associated Press reported.
"It was a time when a certain amount of cynicism and
moral confusion set in among western democracies, when those who warned about a
coming crisis, the rise of fascism and Nazism, they were ridiculed or
ignored," said Rumsfeld.
"With the growing lethality and the increasing
availability of weapons, can we truly afford to believe that somehow, some way,
vicious extremists can be appeased?" Rumsfeld asked.
Rumsfeld said "any kind of moral or intellectual
confusion about who and what is right or wrong can weaken the ability of free
societies to persevere" in any long war.
Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) summed up the Democrats' response,
saying that Rumsfeld was "Desperate to divert attention from his many
failures as Defense Secretary, [and] resorting to tactics that would make Joe
Pentagon press secretary Eric Ruff denied that Rumsfeld was
"accusing critics of this administration of being soft on terrorism or
anything of that sort."
"The point of the speech," Ruff said, "was to
raise these questions, and at the same time to remind us that . . . it's not in
America's best interest to turn your back on history. And the lessons of the
'30s are pretty clear."
Fifty-two years ago, at the height of the Cold War, CBS
television aired what some critics have called the most influential news
program in U.S. television history. Edward R. Murrow, a trusted and veteran CBS
reporter, lashed out at Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's
infamous campaign to root out so-called unpatriotic Americans from public
In the early 1950s, McCarthy and his minions irresponsibly
hurled charges that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government before,
during, and after World War II. McCarthy and his gang of self-righteous
"patriots" trained their guns on government employees, the creative
community -- writers, directors, and actors working in Hollywood and on
Broadway -- as well as public school teachers and academics on college campuses
across the country.
The hysteria, stirred up by mostly unsubstantiated charges,
cost thousands to lose their livelihoods and some to commit suicide.
More than 50 years later, Rumsfeld picked up McCarthy's
baton, stirring up his own brand of fear and loathing; fear amongst the
American public that a Congress controlled by Democrats would lead to another
terrorist attack on the homeland, and loathing for those that dared criticize
Bush's war in Iraq and war on terrorism.
MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, however, was having none of it. He
opened his scathing commentary by declaring, "The man who sees absolutes,
where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning, is either a prophet, or
a quack. Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet."
Olbermann pointed out that Rumsfeld's remarks "demands
. . . deep analysis -- and the sober contemplation -- of every American,"
because "it did not merely serve to impugn the morality or intelligence --
indeed, the loyalty -- of the majority of Americans who oppose the transient
occupants of the highest offices in the land."
Olbermann maintained that "dissent and disagreement
with government is the life's blood of human freedom," and that it was
absolutely "essential. . . . Because just every once in awhile it is right
and the power to which it speaks, is wrong."
Rumsfeld got it completely wrong by comparing today's
critics of the war in Iraq with the appeasement of Hitler before World War II,
Olbermann said. He was turning history on its head, he pointed out:
In a small irony . . . Mr. Rumsfeld's speechwriter was
adroit in invoking the memory of the appeasement of the Nazis. For in their
time, there was another government faced with true peril -- with a growing evil
-- powerful and remorseless.
That government, like Mr. Rumsfeld's, had a monopoly
on all the facts. It, too, had the "secret information." It alone had
the true picture of the threat. It too dismissed and insulted its critics in
terms like Mr. Rumsfeld's -- questioning their intellect and their morality.
That government was England's, in the 1930's.
It knew Hitler posed no true threat to Europe, let
It knew Germany was not re-arming, in violation of all
treaties and accords.
It knew that the hard evidence it received, which
contradicted its own policies, its own conclusions -- its own omniscience --
needed to be dismissed.
The English government of Neville Chamberlain already
knew the truth.
Most relevant of all -- it "knew" that its
staunchest critics needed to be marginalized and isolated. In fact, it
portrayed the foremost of them as a blood-thirsty war-monger who was, if not
truly senile, at best morally or intellectually confused.
That critic's name was Winston Churchill.
Rumsfeld's analogy failed precisely because it was
Chamberlain that "had . . . his certainty -- and his own confusion,"
a confusion that led him to design his own construct and stick to it regardless
of the facts. "Rumsfeld," declared Olbermann, made "an apt
historical analogy . . . Excepting . . . that he has the battery plugged in
The Bush administration's credibility has been severely damaged
by incompetence and a series of miscalculations and intractable unwillingness
to acknowledge mistakes and change course. "To date, this government has
proved little besides its own arrogance, and its own hubris."
Rumsfeld, Cheney and the president himself have continued to
create a "'Fog of Fear' which continues to envelop this nation," and
they "and their cronies have -- inadvertently or intentionally -- profited
and benefited, both personally, and politically."
Ironically, the Bush administration is "in fact now
accomplishing what they claim the terrorists seek: The destruction of our
freedoms." And, Olbermann added, while Rumsfeld was correct in warning
that this country faces a "new type of fascism," he need only look in
the mirror to see its genesis.
Olbermann ended his commentary by quoting the final words of
Edward R. Murrow's historic 1954 broadcast: "We must not confuse
dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof,
and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.
"We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will
not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history
and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not
from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that
were for the moment unpopular."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the
conservative movement. His
WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies,
players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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