It’s often forgotten—although The Scrapbook certainly remembers—that Stephen Colbert’s famous excoriation of President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner was only briefly about George W. Bush. It was actually part of an extended tribute to Helen Thomas, who was still writing her Hearst column at the time, was featured in a long (purportedly comic) video with Colbert, and sat beaming at the proceedings. When Colbert finished his performance, he motioned toward his heroine with an outstretched hand, and declared, “Helen Thomas, ladies and gentlemen!”
Well, that was then. It’s been less than a year since Helen Thomas urged Jews from Poland and Germany to “get the hell out of Palestine,” and, after the uproar, was obliged to give up her syndicated column. Now she is writing regularly for the Falls Church News-Press, a suburban Washington giveaway founded by a onetime follower of Lyndon LaRouche named Nicholas Benton. How the mighty have fallen!
But far worse, in The Scrapbook’s estimation, is the fate of the two awards named for Helen Thomas. As readers are aware, awards are to journalism as flies are to flypaper: There are nearly as many awards as there are eligible recipients, and you’d have to search very hard to find a journalist in America who isn’t “award-winning” in some form or another.
Now, not only has Helen Thomas won her share of industry accolades over the years—not to mention more than thirty honorary degrees (Brown, Michigan State, George Washington, etc.)—but two awards have been established in her honor. There is the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement, given by the Society of Professional Journalists, and there is the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award, bestowed by Wayne State University. Needless to say, the first recipient of the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement (2001) was Helen Thomas.
But what looked like a promising tradition in the annals of professional log-rolling and back-scratching has come to a premature end. Several weeks ago, in a speech in Detroit, Helen Thomas explained her predicament as an independent journalist covering the nation’s capital by informing her audience that “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists—no question, in my opinion.” Which was too much, even, for Wayne State and the Society of Professional Journalists, who have now announced that their respective Helen Thomas awards will be discontinued.
Which is too bad, in The Scrapbook’s view, and for two main reasons. First, as a specimen of comic relief, you can’t do much better than two journalism awards named for a garrulous anti-Semite whose primary distinction as a journalist was her longevity. Two awards named for Helen Thomas should be permanent reminders to journalists of the wayward paths to prestige in their business. And second, if Helen Thomas’s name is invoked to congratulate journalists, why not more awards named for colleagues of equal stature. The Walter Duranty Medal, for example, honoring the great Stalin propagandist for the New York Times; or the Peter Arnett/Stephen Glass/Janet Cooke/Jayson Blair/Dan Rather/Scott Beauchamp Spirit of Invention Award. Stephen Colbert could head up the search committee.
Bring Back Blair
The Scrapbook intends no disrespect to British prime minister David Cameron. But the more we hear from his predecessor Tony Blair, the more we’d like him back in office, if only to explain the world to Barack Obama.
Last week, Blair testified once again before Britain’s Iraq Inquiry commission, which is examining the Iraq war and the intelligence that led to it. As one might have expected, Blair defended the war and his decisionmaking. And what a defense!
In explaining the surprise at al -Qaeda’s decision to “mount a full-scale operation in Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein,” Blair says that there was too little attention paid to the Iraq-al Qaeda connection because intelligence officials did not want to believe it. Blair: “In retrospect . . . the intelligence that al Zarqawi, the Jordanian AQ leader, had been in Baghdad in May 2002 should perhaps have been given more weight. But actually most of the British authorities were at pains to separate Saddam from AQ in 2002, not to link them.”
Blair’s testimony further explodes the prewar conventional wisdom on Iran—that Iran would seek “stability” in post-Saddam Iraq and that religious differences would keep Sunni and Shiite extremists from working together:
As far as Iran’s involvement, that was specifically assessed as unlikely given the hostility to Saddam. If anything, it was thought that whilst Iran would have a keen interest, naturally, in what happened in Iraq it would be more interested in promoting stability than instability. What is remarkable, rereading the intelligence, is how fast that picture changed. There were numerous JIC assessments. I cannot be sure I saw them all but certainly I would have been aware of their purport. The first references to Iran involving itself destructively were on 25th March 2003; then on 2nd April; 7th April, linking Hezbollah with it; then on 11th June 2003. Then a report of April 2004 suggested Iran may not be behind the attacks on the coalition. But in September 2004 this was strongly altered and it was accepted Iran was behind such attacks. On 23rd September 2004 a further report stated that the Sunni extremist presence in Iran was “substantial.” This was emphasized in December 2004. A number of Defence Intelligence Staff and in-theatre reports from 2005-2007 also detailed malign Iranian activity in Iraq.
Blair says that the reports “show beyond doubt what Iran was up to.” His testimony continued:
What nobody foresaw was that Iran would actually end up supporting AQ. The conventional wisdom was these two are completely different types of people because Iran is Shia, the al Qaeda people are Sunni, and therefore, you know, the two would never mix. What happened in the end was that they did because they both had a common interest in destabilizing the country, and for Iran I think the reason they were interested in destabilizing Iraq was because they worried about having a functioning majority-Shia country with a democracy on their doorstep, and for al Qaeda they knew perfectly well their whole mission was to try and say the West was oppressing Islam. It is hard to do that if you replace tyrannical governments with functioning democracies.
Blair concluded his testimony by saying that one of the most important lessons of the Iraq war “has to do with the link between al Qaeda and Iran.” The importance of that relationship has implications for security policy today, Blair said: The West cannot deal with al Qaeda without dealing with Iran. Let’s hope President Obama is paying attention.
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There’s an old saying here at The Scrapbook that looking for evidence of the authoritarian instincts of the left is a little like birdwatching: Once you’ve learned where to look, and what to look for, the landscape is suddenly full of specimens. And in unexpected places, too.
Or maybe not so unexpected. Take, for example, an extraordinary editorial that appeared in last Wednesday’s New York Times entitled “Friends of the Court?” The “friends” in question are retired solicitors general (and former lawyers on the solicitor generals’ staff) who, instead of ascending to the federal bench or moving into academia, practice law before the Supreme Court. And that’s not all: Some of these ex-SGs have argued cases on behalf of “big business,” and “a recent study done by scholars for the Times documents that, compared with other Supreme Courts since 1953, this one is ‘significantly more likely to produce a conservative decision’ in those cases.” Most shocking of all: Of the cases on the docket this month for oral argument, the Times complains, “the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed briefs in seven.”
Setting aside the complaint of scholars in recent years—presumably not the same scholars who conducted that study for the Times—that the Court has tended to ignore important commerce cases, what the Times appears to be suggesting, in effect, is that the Roberts Court should not be hearing cases that might be decided in ways the Times doesn’t like, and that “big business” and its buddies at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have no moral standing in the constitutional arguments that reach the Supreme Court.
What really agitates the Times, however, is the notion that former solicitors general—who, of course, argued before the Court on behalf of the government—might wield some unidentifiable special influence when advocating for private clients, and that justices “may unconsciously—and unfairly—defer to former solicitors general.” The Times’s evidence for this is a recent case involving medical residents and Social Security taxes in which ex-Solicitor General Theodore Olson “slyly tweaked Justice Sonia Sotomayor and got an affectionate laugh all around.”
The Scrapbook could not have reacted with greater astonishment to this passage if it had sighted a prothonotary warbler on the backyard feeder. The idea that the justices are vulnerable to influence because they may or may not be acquainted with members of the Supreme Court bar is not just insulting to members of the Court, liberal and conservative alike, but seems to argue that equal justice before the law is a matter of rendering decisions to the satisfaction of the editors of the New York Times.
In the meantime, The Scrapbook takes some satisfaction in the apparent fact that a mild outbreak of civility in the august chambers of the Court—a little friendly joke between George W. Bush’s onetime solicitor general and Barack Obama’s first appointee—seems to have sent some Times editorial writer into (stop the presses!) paroxysms of self-righteous rage.