Graydon Carter Shows How Bush Makes Lies Seem True, and Just What
We've Lost on Bush's Watch
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Like so many others, Graydon Carter reached a point where he had had
enough. As editor of Vanity Fair and a seasoned journalist, he
took a stand. His magazine has run three stories this year, totaling
75,000 words, on the Bush agenda and the careless havoc it has wreaked
worldwide. Carter also came out with the polished and persuasive
We've Lost, a BuzzFlash premium.
Here he explains why and comments on how Bush continues to get away
with it. As he sees it, the Bush campaign has eliminated policy issues
and distilled this presidential election down to: Do you like this guy
or do you like that guy?
Graydon Carter also is executive producer of the award-winning documentary 9/11, the
father of four, and a New Yorker.
* * *
BuzzFlash: Many people are surprised that you, the
editor in chief of Vanity Fair, have taken such a strong critical
position of the Bush administration. Most of the mainstream press has
avoided casting a critical light, or publishing the sort of truthful
exposés that have appeared in your magazine. Explain to us how Vanity
Fair, which isn’t a political magazine per se, offers perhaps
the most scathing critiques of the Bush administration.
Graydon Carter: I think it began in the build-up to the war in Iraq,
which I saw as both optional and potentially destructive, and its elements
unnecessary, at least at that time. The reports from the weapons inspectors
said there were no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein was not a
credible threat to us at that point, nor was he an active enemy of ours at
that point. And all the tension that was dragged away from Afghanistan made
that area of the world even more of a terrorist breeding ground. Furthermore,
Saddam Hussein had no connection to the terrorists of September 11, and no
major connection to terrorism at all.
BuzzFlash: Many people forget this, but during the build-up to the
Iraq war, critics pointed out that the inspectors hadn’t found any
weapons of mass destruction and called for restraint until WMDs were found.
But the administration’s response was that since the inspectors couldn’t
find WMDs, it was proof that Saddam was only hiding them.
Graydon Carter: Everything is counter-intuitive in this administration.
I try to maintain a centrist line in our reporting. We did probably 20 stories
on the Clintons, and I don’t think they liked one of them. But I thought
the decision to invade Iraq was made at a critical juncture. Since I have
a platform, I thought I would speak my mind, because I felt very strongly
about the build-up to the war. I felt that it could have ramifications not
only for years, but for decades potentially.
BuzzFlash: In your new book, one of the statements that jumped out
was this quote of yours early on that begins: “That reckless, unnecessary
and unforgiving decision to wage a war of choice with a country that was
neither an enemy nor a real threat is at the very root of all that we’ve
lost during George W. Bush’s Presidency.”Although your book talks
about the environment, the economy, the judicial system and health care,
the decision to invade Iraq is the epitome of how this country is fundamentally
going in the wrong direction in your view.
Graydon Carter: There’s probably nothing more serious that you can
do as a leader than to take your country into war. And to take your country
into war on a bone pile of false assumptions, without any clear sort of strategy
for maintaining the country after you’ve taken it over, or managing it
toward a democratic state, is irresponsible. The administration used the war
as a diversion so that the domestic agenda received very little attention during
the half-year building up to the war, and the year since. The thing now is
Americans basically have almost moved on from the war in Iraq. Iraq plays almost
no part in this presidential campaign.
BuzzFlash: Did you anguish over the decision to list the names of
the American soldiers who died in Iraq, as well as listing the names of soldiers
from other countries?
Graydon Carter: No. To me, it’s the most powerful thing in the
whole book because it is what war looks like. When you look at those names
and those ages, and they are from all different ethnic groups and religions
of America, those young kids, some older people, it’s even more horrifying.
It was like a printed version of the Vietnam Memorial. When I look at that,
I think: God, that could be my kid.
BuzzFlash: In deciding to print the names, was part of the reason not only
to honor the soldiers that died in the war, but also a response to the Bush
administration’s refusal to present photographs of flag-draped coffins
coming home or attend ceremonies for soldiers who have died in combat -- essentially
avoiding any kind of visual accountability for the true cost of the war?
Graydon Carter: Completely. The New York Times ran a double-page
spread recently of photographs of the war dead, and Ted Koppel did it on
the one-year anniversary. Last December as I recall, Vanity Fair listed
the names of some 800 soldiers who were killed, and I thought it looked powerful
to visualize what those numbers really meant and that we were talking about
lives. I also thought it was important to list the number of coalition soldiers
who have died. All of a sudden, you realize a thousand great Americans have
lost their lives on a war that did not necessarily have to be fought, when
they could have been sent to Afghanistan to fight an authentic war on terrorism.
BuzzFlash: The book is broken down into several chapters per subject.
What would you say are the most significant losses to the environment under
the Bush administration?
Graydon Carter: It’s so broad. From the first day they got into office,
the administration began a series of rollbacks or eliminations altogether of
environmental protections, some of which were coming on board, and some of
which have been on the books for 30 years. These protections have been fought
over so hard by environmentalists over these last three decades.
In any case, where the Bush administration had a choice between the basic commonweal
of America or their largest group of campaign donors -- the oil, logging, drilling
and gas industries -- they chose their campaign donors almost every single
time. The ramifications for the environment are so far-reaching. The international
treaties we’ve broken, such as Kyoto, have left the entire planet imperiled
because America cannot or will not carry its load on reducing greenhouse emissions.
It’s then very hard to expect developing countries to.
BuzzFlash: While writing and researching the book, what incident or
statistic unnerved you the most?
Graydon Carter: Well, there were two things. We all follow the Supreme
Court, but I rarely follow the developments of the federal courts below.
The Supreme Court hears a hundred-odd cases a year, and the federal courts
-- the series of courts right below it -- hear upwards of 30,000 cases. And
those things can range from environmental issues, to workers’rights,
to minority rights, to women’s rights. They have every bit as much
impact on our daily lives as the major decisions by the Supreme Court. What
the Bush administration has done is pack those courts with right-wing jurists
who can serve for life. So, long after Bush is out of office, a conservative
and right-wing federal judiciary will still be with us.
The other thing that I found most upsetting was the fact that we sent young
men and young women off to war in that rushed campaign to get into Iraq. We
sent them ill-equipped, with not enough Kevlar vests to protect soldiers from
the rounds of an AK-47. About half the soldiers in Iraq had those, and the
other half had Vietnam-era flack jackets, which are way out of date. Only 15
percent of the soldiers had armored Humvees.
I think that when you send people into combat, A), you’ve got to make
the right choices of why you’re going in there, and B), you’ve
got to make sure they are equipped with the most modern gear humanly possible.
BuzzFlash: The administration has been able to turn that against Senator
Kerry, saying he voted against giving our soldiers armor and protective clothing,
when really the issue was that Bush didn’t supply it to the troops
in the first place.
Graydon Carter: Exactly. Also, the administration is brilliant at
rhetoric. They can make white seem black very easily to the voters. The fact
is that this presidential election is basically not about the issues. It’s
about: Do you like this guy or do you like that guy? Is this guy going to
make you feel safer, or is that guy going to make you feel safer? It’s
very little about who’s the best steward of the economy or the environment,
or any of the other issues that the federal government is responsible for.
BuzzFlash: Since you are the editor of a mainstream magazine, how
do you respond to the ridiculous notion that the press has a liberal bias?
Do you just tune it out now?
Graydon Carter: No. I don’t detect a liberal bias in the press
at all. The BBC did a study of commentators on the three major networks in
the months leading up to the war, and they found that of 800-odd commentators,
only four were anti-war. The Republicans are very good at making the press
cower a bit. And the press bends over backwards so far not to be perceived
as liberal that they’re either in the center or they’re very
agreeable to the far right.
BuzzFlash: Why do you think that more journalists and editors aren’t
offended by the way the Republican Party and the right wing essentially challenge
the media by their assertions that there is a liberal bias in the mainstream
Graydon Carter: Well, first of all, I think that increasingly large
chunks of popular media are owned by fewer and fewer people. That is probably
a problem. Secondly, I think that the administration was very crafty in labeling
any kind of dissent after September 11 as the work of the unpatriotic. A
lot of journalists got into trouble for saying anything that wasn’t
actually in line with the Republican wishes at that time. I think now the
press is slowly beginning to take a far more skeptical view of the Republican
BuzzFlash: You mentioned earlier that there’s not a discussion
about who is more qualified to be a steward of the economy or who is more
capable on other issues. How do you explain the polls that show that Americans
agree with you and your book -- that we’re heading in the wrong direction
-- but nonetheless, Bush is slightly leading in the polls? Do you think it’s
mass ignorance? Is it mass disinformation? Is it mass apathy? Is it just
that Americans don’t know the truth?
Graydon Carter: I think George Bush is one of the great campaigners
in modern history. I think he’s very good at marshalling whatever talents
he has toward presenting an image of a man with a more common touch than
John Kerry. On the other hand for John Kerry, it’s very hard to be
the opponent in an election where issues don’t even appear on the table.
Some of the issues may come up in the debate. But I have yet to see George
Bush talk about the economy other than we’re coming around the corner
or prosperity is dead ahead. The cost to the American public from the tax
cuts, and the fact that there are obviously enormous trade imbalances, and
there’s now an enormous budget deficit, matters very little. The fact
is that we are well on our way in this country toward a flat tax, which even
in its nomenclature, sounds like something that’s fair for all. It’s
completely not fair, and it will squeeze the middle class. But again you’re
not hearing discussion about these issues that contradict the Bush administration’s
BuzzFlash: It’ll certainly be crucial for both candidates to
make their case to the American people during the debates. Any time Bush
is criticized, he’ll dismiss or rebut the criticism, calling it negative
campaigning or a slime tactic. Do you think the general public can see the
difference between sharp criticism on someone’s record vs. negative
campaigning? What about your book? Will people see it as a hatchet job on
the Bush administration?
Graydon Carter: I’m not aligned with John Kerry. I’m probably
more in the center, like a lot of Americans -- liberal on some issues, conservative
on others. I mean, I’m 55 you know -- I’m not a 25-year-old anymore.
I think you could do a similar book on the Clinton administration, actually.
It would be probably not as harsh, but it certainly would not be positive.
There were a lot of things the Clinton administration could have done, but
didn’t because they got enveloped in the scandal in the second term.
I think the Bush administration might have some surprises that they are not
prepared for if Bush gets a second term, as well.
BuzzFlash: Would you say that journalism needs to figure out a way
to catch up with how political parties run their operations on a day-to-day
basis? It seems that one of the problems is that somebody says something
-- maybe it’s dishonest or out of context -- nonetheless, newspapers
go ahead and print those assertions and then rely on other spokespeople or
the opposition, whoever that is, to essentially rebuff the arguments made.
Newspapers will print a lie just because some talking head said it, as opposed
to not running the story and peddling the lie to begin with.
Graydon Carter: Paul Krugman, in one of his columns, wrote about “the
tyranny of evenhandedness”-- that evenhandedness treats all comments
coming out of either camp with the same degree of importance. And not all
comments are worthy comments. I think the one thing this election has done
is completely and utterly legitimized the Internet. If I were a young journalist
now, that’s where I would focus. I would think that is where you can
write your piece, say your mind, and possibly make a name for yourself, because
it’s faster than newspapers. It is more free-flowing. I think people
who read things on the Internet are more open to new ideas than they are
from newspapers and magazines or television. And I think that it basically
added a complete other level of media coverage that will be three times as
powerful and influential the next go-around.
BuzzFlash: Do you believe that media is even more powerful than elected
officials, in the sense that media allows lawmakers and politicians the ability
to get their message across?
Graydon Carter: It depends. I think that there’s a lot of media,
and basically it operates almost like a utility now-- it’s not as examining
as it used to be. Up until 15 years ago, there were federal doctrines of
fairness -- you had to present the news in a balanced manner. I think the
media, specifically television, has contributed to this divisiveness in American
politics because if you watch any political show, they don’t want people
who have moderate views, or are in the middle, or can see both sides of a
situation. They want somebody from either the far right or the far left,
and then they set them off like two gladiators.
Because of that, I think Americans at large have become just as fixed in their
own sort of thinking and in their own private discussions. People feel very
strongly about George Bush or very strongly against George Bush. I think a
certain aspect of political punditry has contributed to that over the years.
Remember Eric Severeid on CBS News? They used to call him Eric Several-Sides,
because he could talk about an issue and give both sides and wrap it up in
a three-minute piece of commentary. I think you miss that on the nightly news
and on the evening political shows.
BuzzFlash: What’s been the response of your Vanity Fair readers
with respect to your reporting on the Bush administration? Are people seeking
those stories out because they’re not finding them in other publications?
How has your reporting played with the demographic that the rest of the magazine
Graydon Carter: When I started doing this, the mail against me ran
three to one. Now it’s running about even. I’ve found that the
readers absolutely love the stories we’ve done, and in the next issue,
we have this huge story called “The Path to 9/11.”So we will
have done three stories this year totaling about 75,000 words. You take these
large subjects and put them in a narrative form that can help explain the
complex issues of our age -- I think the readers appreciate that. I think
being older, some readers would just as soon I not write about the Bush administration.
After this election, I’ve said everything I can say, and it’s
time to move on and just cover it the way we covered it before the war, which
is some things they’re going to be doing right, and some things they’re
going to be doing wrong.
BuzzFlash: Mr. Carter, thank you so much for your time.
Graydon Carter: Great pleasure.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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