In Truth and Consequences, Keith Olbermann collects the best of his Special Comments, presented with additional observations and other new material.
Below is an excerpt:
David Bloom was dead.
It was Sunday morning, April 6, 2003, and, as in the stuff of nightmares, somebody woke me up with the terrible news. He’d been on my old MSNBC show nearly every night in 1998, and in the week since we’d premiered Countdown, we’d spoken, via satellite, several times. And now he’d died from a blood clot in the middle of this new war.
I did what many of us do in times of crisis: I went to the ballpark. There was ineffable value in the chilly first weekend of the season at Shea Stadium in New York, where there would be at least a hint of spring and hope and the easing of mourning; where I could commiserate with news-savvy friends on the field like the Australian-born pitcher Graeme Lloyd, who’d wanted to know every detail I had about David’s passing; where I could share the shock with friends in the press box; where I could dial back the pain through the simple ritual of folding up my scorecard and then filing out of the ballpark to the subway.
“Hey,” one evidently drunken twentysomething fan said to his cohort just as I crossed through the press box hallway toward the exit ramp. “It’s Keith Olbermann.”
“Hey, Keith,” his fellow staggerer began. Then a thought bounced across his brain like a shiny red ball skipping down the driveway toward traffic, and he stopped short. “Nah, forget him,” he said to his pal. “He’s a liberal.”
I had been back at MSNBC for less than two months.
We had only launched Countdown six days earlier.
We had put virtually nothing on the newscast except reports from Iraq and Washington.
We had equally bashed Geraldo Rivera for giving away American troop positions on Fox, and Peter Arnett for giving an interview to Iraqi state television while also working on MSNBC.
We had sent David Bloom into harm’s way and he wasn’t coming back.
And I was not to be talked to because somehow I was a liberal.
Barack Obama called it “9/11 fever” and we all had it, to some degree or another. The winter before, I’d actually kept a notebook with me in which to jot down the numbers of the subway cars I’d ridden in, just in case there was a biological attack. I could stagger into an emergency room one day and at least hand somebody a numerical trail of where I’d been. Maybe that could mitigate the impact of the terror. Even at the time I realized it was a psychological trick I was playing on myself to regain a false sense that I could control something in a world in which somebody had suddenly switched off the law of gravity. But as psychological tricks went, it was damned effective.
We played other tricks on ourselves in the eighteen months after the attacks. We, as the playwrights used to ask us to, suspended our disbelief.
As the naturally dubious, we reporters had severe doubts about the efficacy of blowing Iraq to hell. I even voiced them in my radio commentaries, couching them as gently as I possibly could. Others weren’t so gentle and wound up losing their programs or getting death threats or having their wives’ secret and truly patriotic careers exposed and ruined by those to whom patriotism is just a brand name.
Then the plotline in Iraq turned out to be not just phony, but also ridiculous. Not only were there no weapons of mass destruction, but the chemical warfare the generals and ex-generals nightly told us to expect also never materialized. Saddam Hussein not only had no offensive weapons, he didn’t have many defensive ones. That summer, when it turned out our troops had staged a lightning raid to “save” Private Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi “military hospital” that didn’t even have a Nurse Ratched in it, we broadcast the revised history as reported by a Canadian newspaper—the first TV news outlet in the country, I think, to do so. The right-wing water-carriers buffeted our management, and our management buffeted me.
But to that management’s credit, the truth rapidly gathering behind the Hollywood story of “Saving Private Jessica” was sacrosanct to them.
They smelled the rats as surely as did I. Management only wanted to make sure I clarified that I wasn’t attacking the heroism of the troops who broke into the hospital. Of course I wasn’t, I thought to myself, they were just as sincere as I had been. Just as patriotic. Just as much—what was that other word beginning with “pat”—oh, patsies.
That was the day my last symptoms of 9/11 fever disappeared.
The problem was that whatever kind of three-card monte game President Bush was running in Iraq, and whether he was the shill or just another victim, David Bloom was still dead, and so were a lot of young men and women in helmets whose names weren’t David Bloom but who still counted every bit as much as he did.
The White House, of course, both fabricated and destroyed the rationale for the war, as well as the new American culture of fear first and ask questions later. It did the former through what has to be acknowledged as some very clever thinking, enabling the exploitation of 9/11 in endless ways: Watch the genuinely patriotic opposition voluntarily file in to the political equivalent of comedian Shelley Berman’s famous “lousy hotel room”—the one he discovers seems to be missing all windows or doors or other ways out; cover Saddam Hussein in 9/11 guilt by association for the vast majority of people who couldn’t tell al-Qaeda from Al Jarreau; grab all kinds of un-American powers over the American legal system the way President Adams tried to, or President Nixon, or Joe McCarthy, or anybody else who ever recognized inchoate fear in the public, who were as ever eager to protect their freedoms by surrendering them.
The problem for Messrs. Bush and Cheney and Rove, of course, was that having come up with a brilliant idea, they started to believe their own press clippings. Turns out they might not really have been that smart, or that good at execution.
Not a big deal, just the salvation of our democracy.
Just how bad this White House really was at the follow-through, I witnessed firsthand. At the height of the focused terrorism against Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson in the late spring and early summer of ’04, we booked Joe to come on the show. Inexplicably, somebody in the administration’s press office was working off an old script. They assumed I would be debunking Wilson, and decided to send me some helpful talking points by e-mail.
Only nobody there knew how to spell my name.
In the twenty-four hours prior to the interview, they must have sent a copy of the e-mail intended for me (Oberman, Olberman, Obermann, Obleman, Ohlbermen, Olderman, and Olberding, if I remember the permutations correctly) to seven different people at NBC whose names they could spell. These transmissions fell upon me like icicles on the first sunny day. Damned annoying. Damned stupid.
So of course, I showed the e-mail on Countdown and asked Joe Wilson about the talking points. And he laughed and I laughed and the audience ratings grew a little bit and I had an odd feeling that the show, and the country, would turn out all right after all.
With bitter irony, it wasn’t Iraq that did George Bush in—it was the weather.
Hurricane Katrina, provoking his governmental response of “Here’s a bucket; that’ll be a million dollars,” ultimately was The Decider. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff came on my television and declared “Louisiana is a city that is largely underwater,” and I turned and shouted back at him, “There’s your goddamned problem right there!” and switched on my computer and started spewing. We didn’t call it that at the time, but that venting would become the first “Special Comment.” And the attention it garnered dropped a few embers in the vast empty forests of my vast empty head, which would provide a lot of heat and a lot of light at the appropriate later date.
Oh, and parenthetically, prior to the attacks, had you ever heard the word “homeland” used in this country, except while somebody employed a cheesy German accent, and inwardly we were all glad anew that we’d beaten those bastards in 1945?
Screw you, pally.
This is America.
Once again I’d learn a lot about this country on a baseball field.
I escaped to Florida at the start of March 2006, for my first trip to spring training in a decade. There are liberals and moderates and the enlightened and the skeptical within that sport, but they’re outnumbered by the conservatives. Generally these are the conservatives of the more malleable sort. My best friend in the game is one of them. We’ve argued politics since 1990 and eventually he calls me a communist and I call him a fascist and then we start giggling and he begins to reminisce about hitting batters he didn’t like with pitches.
And that day in ’06 when I stepped onto the Yankees’ practice field in Tampa, one of my other conservative baseball friends was waiting for me.
“What happened to my president?” he asked. “Was I not paying attention, or was he always like that?” I was stopped cold. He looked at me with angry eyes. “Katrina! What the hell did he do in New Orleans?” We had barely finished a conversation in which the political poles had so reversed themselves that I had partially defended Bush, when a second like-minded friend came over. “Am I nuts, or could you and I, just the two of us, have done a better job in the Gulf Coast than Bush and Chertoff and Mike ‘Heck of a Job Brownie’ Brown did? Just with paper towels.”
I had a feeling the Democrats were going to do okay in the midterms.
The actual phenomenon of the birth of the Special Comment has been recited so often by the barely contained egotist in me that I begin to feel like Ted Baxter explaining how it all started at a five-thousandwatt radio station in Fresno, California.
But the gist merits repetition (like you could stop me anyway). I was stuck on the tarmac at LAX, the late August thunderstorms in New York keeping us pinioned on the ground three thousand miles away with nothing to do but read the Associated Press stories on my ESPN-issued mobile phone.
And there it was: Don Rumsfeld calling me morally or intellectually confused, or the equivalent of a Nazi appeaser, or both. Not just me, mind you, but all of us—all of us who dared question Iraq, or the game of Simon Says that is the juvenile and ineffective new domestic counterterror rules, or the Bush administration itself.
And I searched the rest of that part of the Web offered me by the phone for the righteous indignation, for the atomic bombs of verbiage from the poets of the left, for the repudiation of this historically backward twisting of all that had happened since about 1933.
It was a moment, I gather, that some nonswimmers experience when a child falls into the deep water and nobody else makes a move. As time slowed, they invariably recall, they waited to see who else was going to dive in. Upon realizing nobody was, the thought formed, not of heroism or of urgency but of resignation. Oh, hell, I see how this is going. I’m diving in. I wonder if I can swim.
This does not always turn out well. Some drown, some don’t, some prevail and everyone lives. But in the moment, you understand that if you’re going to go down, at least you’re going to go down for something worthwhile.
I started scribbling the first “Comment,” by hand, on the back of my trip itinerary. We were somewhere over the Rockies by the time I finished.
The responses to the pieces you will read herein were varied, but they contained one common thread.
I got fake anthrax mailed to my home, and the New York Post mocked me for calling the cops (when it turned out those cops would subsequently arrest a domestic terrorist who had done the same thing to David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Sumner Redstone—kinda makes the Post pro-terrorist, right?). The FBI came and did a wonderful job, although it cost me a night in isolation at the hospital, and the clothes I was wearing, and, in an irony I recognized even at the time, that ESPN mobile device on which I had read Rumsfeld’s remarks—burned in the irradiation of all I had on me when I opened the powder-filled letter.
They’ve threatened my relatives, printed phony stories about nonexistent skeletons in imaginary closets, guaranteed my imminent dismissal, and even whined when I started writing again for a memorabilia magazine about old baseball cards (“How can you let that lefty back in your page?” the editor quoted one complainant).
Baseball cards. Some people are dumb enough to see a political slant to frickin’ baseball cards.
But amid all the tumult and the threatening and the name-calling, I have yet to see serious refutations of either the facts or the conclusions in these Comments.
Which leads me to the tentative conclusion that I’m probably right, with the caveat that I wish the water-carriers would apply to themselves as I apply it to myself:
As Oliver Cromwell said to the Church of Scotland nearly 360 years ago: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES
September 5, 2005
While we didn’t realize it at the time, and we hadn’t yet enshrined the format or come up with the name, this was in fact the First Special Comment.*
I was on my way out to a minor league ballpark to clear my head of the first week of the cascade of disasters that was Hurricane Katrina, when I chanced to turn on the television. There was the secretary of Homeland Security—a John Waters look-alike without the charm— explaining to me that Louisiana was a city that was largely underwater. At first, the gaffe made me feel as if I were underwater. I needed to check that transcript to see if that’s what he had really said.
Needless to say, I never made it to the ball game.
As I would later tell an interviewer, this was one of those moments when it felt like the words were just coming out of my fingers—when
*Just for the record: For the sake of utter (ahem) historical accuracy, these Special Comments have been reproduced in this book as I uttered them on the air, and that includes the sort of little grammatical infelicities that my copy editor tried to weed out. But what I said, I said, and I stand by it.
My indignation, more as a citizen than as a journalist, made it necessary to address a topic directly and at length.
And the words had not come out at that length in sixteen years. The only time I had ever previously written anything resembling, in shape, tone, or texture, the definition of the word “screed,” I had been a local sportscaster in Los Angeles—angered and humiliated that when the 1989 World Series was interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area, baseball staged no charity exhibition game, or promised any specific aid, even though the players wore on their chests the very names of the cities most heavily impacted by the disaster—San Francisco and Oakland. I pledged to donate the equivalent of the salary I would have made covering the series and challenged baseball’s teams and players to do the same. The commentary lasted six minutes—six minutes out of a twenty-five-minute Sunday night sports broadcast.
When I got back to the office the next afternoon, the phones were still ringing, management was encouraging me to repeat the commentary on that evening’s news, and the first reactionary newspaper columnist was comparing me (unfavorably, I should point out) to the character Howard Beale in the prescient movie Network. Almost all of the elements, good and bad, of the Special Comments were foreshadowed in those few days, principal among them that it was necessary to do and say things like this—but only when it was necessary, and not merely when it was rating “sweeps” time.
The next time it was necessary, for me anyway, was after Michael Chertoff faux-pas’d himself into the history books. For some, Hurricane Katrina was a lightbulb moment, when they realized that the president and administration in whom they had put their faith were in fact incompetent. For the rest of us, it was yet another case study in the dissonance between what they said and what they did. Like a lot of people, I was outraged as much by the administration’s incompetence as I was by its apparent indifference to the people of New Orleans.
A day after I presented this Comment, Barbara Bush had her own Marie Antoinette moment, a jaw-dropping moment in which she was blissfully sanguine about the people huddled in the Astrodome: “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” Suddenly those murmurs, that “Bar” was not the benevolent grandmother implied by her carefully manicured image, had been confirmed. It was suddenly not hard to figure out either of the George Bushes.
The Katrina comment apparently struck a chord. It quickly made the rounds on the political blogs; my boss pulled me aside to encourage me to make similar remarks whenever the spirit moved me; Rolling Stone would put me alongside everybody from Jack Murtha to Seth MacFarlane in its year-end issue saluting “rebels”; and we even heard rumblings that the commentary was viewable in a pirated edition online, courtesy of some brand-new company called “YouTube”— whatever that was.
secretary of homeland security Michael Chertoff said it all, starting his news briefing Saturday afternoon: “Louisiana is a city that is largely underwater . . .”
Well, there’s your problem right there.
If ever a slip of the tongue defined a government’s response to a crisis, this was it.
The seeming definition of our time and our leaders had been their insistence on slashing federal budgets for projects that might’ve saved New Orleans. The seeming characterization of our government: that it was on vacation when the city was lost, and could barely tear itself away from commemorating VJ Day and watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus to at least pretend to get back to work. The seeming identification of these hapless bureaucrats: their pathetic use of the future tense in terms of relief they could’ve brought last Monday and Tuesday—like the president, whose statements have looked like they’re being transmitted to us by some kind of four-day tape delay.
But no. The incompetence and the ludicrous prioritization will forever be symbolized by one gaffe by the head of what is ironically called “the Department of Homeland Security”: “Louisiana is a city . . .”
Politician after politician—Republican and Democrat alike—has paraded before us, unwilling or unable to shut off the “I-Me” switch in their heads, condescendingly telling us about how moved they were or how devastated they were—congenitally incapable of telling the difference between the destruction of a city and the opening of a supermarket.
And as that sorry recital of self-absorption dragged on, I have resisted editorial comment. The focus needed to be on the efforts to save the stranded—even the Internet’s meager powers were correctly devoted to telling the stories of the twin disasters, natural and government-made.
But now, at least, it is has stopped getting exponentially worse in Mississippi and Alabama and New Orleans and Louisiana (the state, not the city). And, having given our leaders what we know now is the week or so they need to get their act together, that period of editorial silence I mentioned should come to an end.
No one is suggesting that mayors or governors in the afflicted areas, nor the federal government, should be able to stop hurricanes. Lord knows, no one is suggesting that we should ever prioritize levee improvement for a below-sea-level city ahead of $454 million worth of trophy bridges for the politicians of Alaska.
But, nationally, these are leaders who won reelection last year largely by portraying their opponents as incapable of keeping the country safe. These are leaders who regularly pressure the news media in this country to report the reopening of a school or a power station in Iraq, and defy its citizens not to stand up and cheer. Yet they couldn’t even keep one school or power station from being devastated by infrastructure collapse in New Orleans—even though the government had heard all the “chatter” from the scientists and city planners and hurricane centers and some group whose purposes the government couldn’t quite discern— a group called the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
And most chillingly of all, this is the Law and Order and Terror government. It promised protection—or at least amelioration—against all threats, conventional, radiological, or biological.
It has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water.
Mr. Bush has now twice insisted that “we are not satisfied” with the response to the manifold tragedies along the Gulf Coast. I wonder which “we” he thinks he’s speaking for on this point. Perhaps it’s the administration, although we still don’t know where some of them are. Anybody seen the vice president lately? The man whose message this time last year was “I’ll Protect You, the Other Guy Will Let You Die”?
I don’t know which “we” Mr. Bush meant.
For many of this country’s citizens, the mantra has been—as we were taught in social studies it should always be—whether or not I voted for this president, he is still my president. I suspect anybody who had to give him that benefit of the doubt stopped doing so last week. I suspect a lot of his supporters, looking ahead to ’08, are wondering how they can distance themselves from the two words which will define his government—our government: “New Orleans.”
For him, it is a shame—in all senses of the word. A few changes of pronouns in there, and he might not have looked so much like a twenty-first-century Marie Antoinette. All that was needed was just a quick “I’m not satisfied with my government’s response.” Instead of hiding behind phrases like “No one could have foreseen,” had he only remembered Winston Churchill’s quote from the 1930s. “The responsibility” of government, Churchill told the British Parliament, “for the public safety is absolute and requires no mandate. It is, in fact, the prime object for which governments come into existence.”
In forgetting that, the current administration did not merely damage itself—it damaged our confidence in our ability to rely on whoever is in the White House.
As we emphasized to you here all last week, the realities of the region are such that New Orleans is going to be largely uninhabitable for a lot longer than anybody is yet willing to recognize. Lord knows when the last body will be found, or the last artifact of the levee break dug up. Could be next March. Could be 2100. By then, in the muck and toxic mire of New Orleans, they may even find our government’s credibility.
Somewhere in the city of Louisiana.