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5 Years Ago: When the Press Helped Colin Powell Sell the War

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

5 Years Ago: When the Press Helped Colin Powell Sell the War

Article excerpt

On February 3, 2003, a New York Times story was topped with: "All Aboard: America's War Train is Leaving the Station." Naturally, the world--and the media commentators--anxiously awaited Secretary of State Colin Powell's appearance at the United Nations on February 5, when he was expected to make the administration's case for war before a skeptical body.

While most pundits were already sold on the invasion, polls showed that the public was divided--or simply misinformed or confused. So the performance of the much-respected and moderate Powell could go a long way to greasing the skids for war.

In the week that followed, few pundits felt that they needed to do much fact-checking before declaring that Powell had, indeed, made his case. The invasion came six weeks later. Several months after that, it became clear that much of Powell's presentation was based on wrong or cooked intelligence, and he and his aides have expressed varying degrees of regret about it since.

Looking back on that day, it only took hours after Powell's speech before the U.N. Security Council for TV commentators and newspaper editorials, and even many liberal pundits, to declared their support for the Bush administration's hard-line stance on Iraq.

CNN's Bill Schneider said that "no one" disputed Powell's findings. Bob Woodward, asked by Larry King on CNN what happens if we go to war and don't find any WMD, answered: "I think the chance of that happening is about zero. There's just too much there." George Will suggested that Powell's speech would "change all minds open to evidence."

The Washington Post's liberal columnist, Mary McGrory, wrote that Powell "persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince." She even likened the Powell report to the day John Dean "unloaded" on Nixon in the Watergate hearings. Another liberal at that paper, Richard Cohen, declared 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."

As recently as a week earlier --following weapons inspector Hans Blix's report to the United Nations and the president's State of the Union address--more than two-thirds of the nation's leading editorial pages, E&P had found, called for the release of more detailed evidence and increased diplomatic maneuvering. The 80-minute presentation by Powell seemed to have silenced most of the critics.

Consider the day-after editorial endorsements, all from sources not always on the side of the White House. As media writer Mark Jurkowitz put it in the Boston Globe, Powell's speech may not have convinced France of the need to topple Saddam but "it seemed to work wonders on opinion makers and editorial shakers in the media universe."

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," while The Oregonian in Portland found it "devastating." To The Hartford Courant it was "masterful."

The San Jose Mercury News asserted that Powell made his case "without resorting to exaggeration, a rhetorical tool he didn't need." The San Antonio Express-News called the speech "irrefutable," adding, "only those ready to believe Iraq and assume that the United States would manufacture false evidence against Saddam would not be persuaded by Powell's case. …

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