Nightline Coddles Murtha & Treats Him as Sage Hero After ABC Had Castigated Cheney

Exactly two weeks after ABC’s Terry Moran, on the December 19 Nightline, pounded away at Vice President Dick Cheney on the treatment of detainees and the eavesdropping story, an interview in which Moran condescendingly proposed to Cheney that the VP’s refusal to refute prisoner-abuse allegations and “surveilling Americans” by the Bush administration, left Moran ashamed of a country he would not want to “pass on” to his daughters, the Monday night broadcast delivered an obsequious session with Democratic Congressman John Murtha. Moran plugged the two-part segment : "Just ahead on Nightline, we'll have a Marine's lonely stand. Lawmaker John Murtha like you've never heard him before. Why this Vietnam combat vet says he'd never sign up for Iraq."

Jon Donvan, who conducted the taped interview in Murtha’s office, never challenged him as he touted Murtha’s “remarkable” comments and how his criticism of the Iraq war came “like a thunder clap” -- as if the media didn’t create the storm. But Donvan didn’t hesitate to try to discredit Murtha’s critics. Donvan contended that “the White House and its supporters set out immediately to smear Murtha's standing as an American” and insisted he’s “protected by his reputation from any smear campaign that wants to suggest he is anti-American or chicken because everyone knows that he is neither.” Donvan maintained that “Murtha's resume on defense is unassailable.” After Murtha agreed with Donvan’s proposition that it was “a wrong war to go into from the beginning," Donvan gushed: "It's very rare, very rare to hear anybody in politics come out and say 'I made a mistake.'”

Donvan also set up Murtha with a “chicken hawk” line of attack: "Do you think in the end that the enthusiasm for going to Iraq that the President had would have been different if, like you, he had actually ever seen combat? Or if Dick Cheney, like you, had ever actually seen combat or Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz or Feith, men who wanted to go to war and had never seen combat?” (Complete transcript, and a link back to Nightline’s hostility to Cheney, follows.)

After treating Murtha’s November attack on the Iraq war as a “thunder clap,” Donvan conceded his perspective is more than a year old: “In fact, he appeared on our airwaves in mid-2004, making essentially the same argument, that the U.S. military mission in Iraq was falling apart."

Nightline’s December 19 edition with Cheney aired at about 1am EST December 20, after Monday Night Football. The January 2 episode with Murtha was also delayed by football -- this time by a college football bowl game -- to about 1:25am EST January 3.

An excerpt from the top of my December 20 NewsBusters item, “ABC’s Moran Suggests He’s Ashamed of Nation Bush-Cheney Will ‘Pass On,’” which is posted with a video clip:
In an interview conducted Sunday in Iraq with Vice President Dick Cheney, and shown on Monday’s Nightline, Terry Moran decided “to put this personally” and condescendingly proposed to Cheney that the VP’s refusal to refute prisoner-abuse allegations and “surveilling Americans” by the Bush administration, leaves Moran ashamed of a country he would not want to “pass on” to his daughters. Moran asked: “I'd like to put this personally, if I can. You're a grandfather. I'm a father. When we look at those girls and we think that the country we're about to pass to them is a country where the Vice President can't say whether or not we have secret prisons around the world, whether water-boarding and mock executions is consistent with our values, and a country where the government is surveilling Americans without the warrant of a court -- is that the country we want to pass on to them?" Moran followed up by declaring that thanks to administration policies, “it's not the America we grew up in" and he countered Cheney’s defense of tough anti-terror policies: "Even if it's changing who we are?"

Moran’s contention, that Cheney and Bush are changing America for the worse, came during a series of questions about prisoner treatment which Moran fired at Cheney as the two sat outside on stools at a military base in Iraq. Moran demanded: "Should American interrogators be staging mock executions, water-boarding prisoners?” Cheney answered: "I'm not getting into specifics. You're getting into questions about sources and methods and I don't talk about that, Terry." In mock indignation, Moran retorted, before Cheney cut him off: "As Vice President of the United States you can't tell the American people whether or not-" Moran also pursued questions about whether “the United States maintain secret prisons around the world?" And: “Does the International Red Cross have access to everyone in U.S. custody, as we are obliged?"...


Anchor Terry Moran set up the January 2 Nightline:
“As the new year opens here in Washington, the war in Iraq continues to dominate the political agenda. George W. Bush's presidency now rides on success or failure in Iraq. He knows he'll be judged by history, in history by what happens there. So Mr. Bush plans this month to talk a lot about Iraq and try to convince the American people to hang on. Success, he argues, is at hand, and then the troops can come home. Congressman John Murtha wants the troops out of Iraq now. He's become a leading voice in Congress against President Bush's war leadership. Nightline's John Donvan sat down with Congressman Murtha to hear his side of the great debate.”

John Donvan to Murtha in Murtha’s office: “You had to know that for John Murtha to say that, as opposed to Congressman Bill Blogs or Jane Doe, for John Murtha to say it it was going to come like a thunder clap.”

John Murtha: “Even though I thought that it would get attention, I never had any idea it would get the kind of attention that it did get.”

Donvan: “You can admit it. Until about six weeks ago the name John Murtha was probably not necessarily one you recognized unless you were a true political junkie. And then this Democrat decided to stand up just before Thanksgiving and say out loud that Iraq is militarily un-winnable.”

Murtha at his November 17 press conference: “The war in Iraq is not going as advertised.”

Donvan: “Did you write the speech?”

Murtha: “I wrote the speech very carefully, saying that ‘this flawed policy is wrapped in illusion.’”

Video cuts over to Murtha at press conference: “This flawed policy is wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of the members of Congress.”

Donvan: “Did you share your draft with anyone, your family members or your staff?”

Murtha: “My staff only. And none of them agreed with me. All of them felt like now I'm going too far, that I'm making a mistake.

Murtha, at press conference: “Our military's done everything that's been asked of them. The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily.”

Donvan: “Did it matter that Murtha was saying this? It mattered so much that the White House and its supporters set out immediately to smear Murtha's standing as an American. The statement from the President's spokesman suggesting Murtha wants to ‘surrender to terrorists.’ The speech by a Republican Congresswoman who used the 'C’ word.”

Congresswoman Jean Schmidt on the House floor: “He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do. Danny and the rest of America and the world-”

Donvan: “Which set off its own small tempest in the House of Representatives.”

Donvan to Murtha: “You were called a ‘coward.’ You were called a guy who wants to surrender to terrorists, you were called Michael Moore. You were called an extreme liberal.”

Murtha: “Yeah. That's the way they respond to everything. And they made a mistake in responding to me that way.”

Donvan: “Yeah, they did make a mistake, the proof being the speed with which the President himself rushed to set the record straight.”

President Bus, in China: “Congressman Murtha is a fine man. He's a good man, who served our country with honor and distinction as a Marine in Vietnam and as a United States Congressman.”

Donvan, over video of Murtha at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: “‘I disagree with him,’ the President went on to say. But it was a clear retreat based on necessity because Murtha's resume on defense is unassailable. He became the first Vietnam veteran elected to the House. He had also served in Korea. Though a Democrat, he was ready to support Republican “residents when they went to war. Reagan in the '80s, the first President Bush in the 1991 Gulf War. He has the respect of the Pentagon. In short, Murtha is no dove when it comes to the use of American military strength. And that's just it about Iraq, he says. It is sapping America's strength.”

Murtha: “It came about because I went to Iraq, I talked to the commanders, I could see how discouraged they were. Didn't have enough troops to, one commander's responsibility was to guard the borders. He said 'I don't have near enough troops.’ The Marines were going out every day. Every convoy was attacked. Every convoy's attacked every time they brought in supplies. And so I came home then and I started listening to people back here who have sent their sons and daughters, who over three or four times have been deployed, some to Bosnia, then to Afghanistan, then to Iraq, over and over again. And I said, I can't wait any longer.”

Donvan: “Was it a wrong war to go into from the beginning?”

Murtha: “Absolutely.”

Donvan: “It's very rare, very rare to hear anybody in politics come out and say 'I made a mistake.’ Do you have to swallow hard to say that?”

Murtha: “Well, I-”

Donvan: “I mean, is it frankly embarrassing to have to say it?”

Murtha: “Let me tell you, in my career there's been a lot of changes. I've seen changes, and I've seen mistakes that I've made over the years. And I've tried to adapt to those changes. But this was a fundamental mistake here. I felt very uneasy. Many people from the former Bush administration, the first Bush administration, called me and said to me 'don't let this “resident go to war.’"

Donvan: “And then our conversation took an unexpectedly emotional turn.”

Donvan to Murtha: “Do you think in the end that the enthusiasm for going to Iraq that the President had would have been different if, like you, he had actually ever seen combat. Or if Dick Cheney, like you, had ever actually seen combat or Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz or Feith, men who wanted to go to war and had never seen combat? Do you think it would have made a difference if they'd had that experience?”

Murtha: “Let me tell you, war is a nasty business. It sears the soul and it made a difference. The shadow of those killings stay with you the rest of your life.”


After an ad break:
Donvan: “Have you had any conversations lately with President Bush?”

Murtha: “No.”

Donvan: “Do you expect any?”

Murtha: “No.”

Donvan: “Not for a long time?”

Murtha: “Not for a long time.”

Donvan: “He finally said some nice things about you.”

Murtha: “Well, I don't take it personally.”

Murtha, at press conference: “This is an immediate redeployment of our American forces because they have become the target.”

Donvan, over clips on Murtha on TV new shows: “Jack Murtha's 2005. He calls for redeploying U.S. troops away from Iraq starting in six months, and suddenly he's a political celebrity, showing up everywhere. And as we saw earlier, protected by his reputation from any smear campaign that wants to suggest he is anti-American or chicken because everyone knows that he is neither. But getting known in '05 is not the same thing as getting what you want in '06. It's not at all clear that the Bush administration will not simply ignore John Murtha, as he says it has for quite some time. In fact, he appeared on our airwaves in mid-2004, making essentially the same argument, that the U.S. military mission in Iraq was falling apart.”

Murtha on earlier Nightline: “It goes back to the planning from the very start. And this is the thing, we don't have enough people to complete this mission satisfactorily.”

Donvan: “And more than a year ago he wrote a letter to that effect to the President.”

Murtha: “John, it's interesting, too. When I sent the letter in, I think it was September of '04, seven months later I got a reply from Assistant Secretary and he said everything's fine, we're making progress, 70 percent of the Iraqis like us, and I forgot, oh the other, over 200,000 troops trained.”

Donvan: “Did you feel disrespected?”

Murtha: “Well, I felt like they didn't take it seriously.”

Donvan: “And the truth is as much as his own party respects Murtha, many of its leading figures -- Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton -- have kept their distance from his call for an early redeployment of troops from Iraq.”

Murtha: “I think it's a complicated thing where they aren't sure how long it's going to last. And the timing, just like I waited probably too long before I said anything. And they, once they're done with this recess it will be interesting to see how many of them come back and say something different.”

Donvan: “There is a politically risky side to Murtha's argument and a practical risk as well, with U.S. forces still on the ground. The perception that if the U.S. leaves now, while under fire, that is not victory.”

Donvan to Murtha: “To pull the troops off Iraqi soil now, does it mean we've been defeated in Iraq?”

Murtha: “Yeah, I keep saying we won the victory by defeating Saddam Hussein, by defeating his army. That was a victory. Even though we went in for inadequate reasons, that was still a victory, and we can applaud that. Now turn it over to the Iraqis and let them settle their own problems is the way I would look at it.”

Donvan: “And if the insurgency claims victory and claims that they defeated us?”

Murtha: “Well, that's one of those things where we just have to put up with it.”

Donvan: “It is not a very feel-good answer. But then Murtha believes the U.S. has no truly good options in Iraq. This was Murtha the other day at home in a ceremony honoring young men and women from his district who have been accepted to America's most prestigious military academies. He lamented the fact in our interview that far fewer high school students in his district are even applying for those positions these days. He rates the troops in Iraq very highly, but the Army, he says, is broken, overstretched, under-trained. But then, in a very brief exchange, he said something remarkable.”

Donvan: “Would you join today?”

Murtha: “No.”

Donvan: “Remarkable because here's a man who left college to go fight in Korea when his country needed him and who worries today about recruitment levels and military strength.”

Donvan to Murtha: “I think you're saying that the average guy out there who's considering recruitment is justified in saying I don't want to serve.”

Murtha: “Well, exactly right.”

Donvan: “That shows where John Murtha draws the bottom line on Iraq. Having taken a stand that may not change what happens there but that has certainly changed the nature of how it will be debated here at home. I'm John Donvan for Nightline in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.”

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center