ABC Finds Hugo's Human Side: He's a Coffee Addict and Softy for Sinatra?
On ABC's Good Morning America Thursday, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez's wild remarks at the U.N. about Bush being "the devil" were greeted as an opportunity to humanize Chavez. Reporter Kate Snow reported while he was "applauded for his tirade," he is a "cult hero" who "rarely sleeps, chugs 20 cups of coffee a day, and has a soft spot for Frank Sinatra." While co-host Diane Sawyer expressed concern for how "dangerous" Chavez was, her guest, Washington Post reporter Robin Wright, mostly described him non-ideologically as the "a new kind of leadership" and a "different face for Latin America." As they discussed Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Sawyer wondered: "Should we be weaning ourselves from that oil?"
In the 7 am half-hour, Diane Sawyer began: "Well, now those fireworks at the United Nations. The presidents of Iran and Venezuela joining forces to taunt President Bush. Yesterday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, at the podium, created quite the theater, as GMA's weekend co-anchor Kate Snow tells us now. Kate, good morning."
Kate Snow: "Good morning to you, Diane, and it's no secret there's a lot of anti-American sentiment in the world right now. President Bush has quite a few enemies, but the leader of Venezuela is taking Bush-bashing to a whole new level. One day after President Bush addressed the United Nations from the same podium, Hugo Chavez was applauded for his tirade. 'The devil came here yesterday,' Chavez said. 'Right here. Right here. And it still smells of sulfur today, this table that I'm now standing in front of.' The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. couldn't help but react."
John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.: "He can exercise freedom of speech on that podium and, as I say, he could exercise it in Central Park, too, but give the same freedom to the people of Venezuela."
Snow: "But in Latin America, Chavez has become a cult hero. Known for his hot-headed speeches, he reportedly rarely sleeps, chugs 20 cups of coffee a day and has a soft spot for Frank Sinatra. He's even attracted a following in this country. Harry Belafonte has visited Caracas. So has anti-Bush activist Cindy Sheehan. Another friend? The president of Iran, who took on the Bush administration in his own speech at the U.N. just one day earlier. 'Some seek to rule the world relying on weapons and threats,' Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, 'while others live in perpetual insecurity and danger.' They have formed a sort of Bush-bashing brotherhood. Chavez was in Iran this summer, Ahmadinejad in Venezuela last week and both have been guests of Fidel Castro."
To aging ears, that sounds a little like the way incoming Soviet dictators were described and humanized to America in the 1980s, like how Yuri Andropov just loved jazz. The pictures of Belafonte and Sheehan were certainly revealing for conservatives, but the lack of any labeling of anyone in these pictures (or their more colorful Bush-hating remarks) could make the non-political viewer think Chavez just likes calypso musicians and feels bad for mothers of departed soldiers. Then Snow added more (labeled) conservatives to Bolton to balance it out a little:
Rush Limbaugh: "I mean, I'm sorry. I'm outraged by it, but I can't help but laugh."
Snow: "On talk radio, conservatives like Rush Limbaugh slammed the Chavez speech. Some say it will backfire."
Pat Buchanan, conservative commentator: "Some lunatic leftist dictator making those kinds of statements before an unpopular body with the American people like the United Nations. I think the White House has got to be rejoicing."
Snow concluded with more heart-warming details about Chavez's philanthropy for the American poor:
"Now, last winter, you may remember, Chavez's government provided home heating oil at low cost for low-income Americans. He's now pledging to double that program this year. But author Julia Sweig says this whole PR offensive, Diane, really isn't about winning over Americans. It's more about bolstering Chavez's support back home in Venezuela."
Snow did not explain that Julia Sweig is a liberal fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who recently cooed in the Washington Post over former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer's screed about American imperialism: "he ranks among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling, especially for those on the left." His kind of storytelling includes comparing American interventions to beating a child: "You cannot violently overthrow a foreign regime and then expect that that won't have any long-term effect. It's like beating your child every day. You cannot expect that that child is going to grow up normal." Kinzer included Hawaii on his list of disastrous American foreign interventions.
From there, Diane Sawyer interviewed Robin Wright of the Washington Post. (She's the feminist who once declared a few weeks after Anita Hill's testimony that Iran was more progressive on female legislators than the USA.) Sawyer began with some trepidation toward Chavez, but Wright described the Bush-bashers in the most clinical, non-ideological, diplomatic terms:
"Joining us now is Robin Wright, diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post. Knows all about these world leaders and last night, by the way, had dinner with the president of Iran, a special small dinner and we'll hear more about that in a second. But, Robin, there he was at the podium saying those things and the, and the White House, the U.N. ambassador said this is comic strip behavior and yet they applauded. How seriously do we have to take it? How dangerous is he?"
Robin Wright, Washington Post diplomatic correspondent: "Well, I think we have to take it very seriously. We're beginning to see the emergence of leadership in both Venezuela and Iran, both oil-producing countries, they can laugh all the way to the bank, when it comes to U.S. diplomacy, who are really creating a new kind of leadership, not just for their own countries and their own regions, but really for the, the non-aligned movement, the 118 countries that feel they're not represented enough at the United Nations."
Sawyer: "But a lot of people felt blind-sided by this, in a way, because they say we understand that the Arabs and we may seem like adversaries in some situation, but Venezuela? What did, what did we do to Venezuela?"
Wright then played the typical part of the journalist who needs to explain to Americans all the grievances against them, and then said nothing about the actual state of democracy in Venezuela:
"Well, I mean, this is a, this has been a brewing confrontation now for a couple of years. And this is, you know, Venezuela feels--this was the oldest democracy in Latin America, that has become kind of a different kind of face for Latin America. And many countries feel that there--it's time to stand up to the United States, that the United States has become too powerful and, and too aggressive. And he was expressing not just the feelings of people in Venezuela, I think, but, but several in, in developing countries."
Sawyer: "It sort of brings you to the question of oil again. We get 10 to 15 percent of our oil from Venezuela, sometimes as much as Saudi Arabia or right up there with Saudi Arabia. Is this good American diplomacy? Should we be weaning ourselves from that oil?"
Wright: "Oh, well, I think one of the great answers to the issue of terrorism and, and our dependence on the Gulf is the whole issue of oil. Absolutely. Energy has made us dependent on some of, of the world's bad boys."
Sawyer: "I want to hear about your dinner last night. Dinner with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I mean, it's, it's already a startling sentence there. He has said that Chavez is his trenchmate, his warrior in all of this. What did you learn about this other one of the world's great adversaries last night?"
Wright: "Well, it was a polite dinner but it was often very bizarre. There were moments when he would, with someone who, who was familiar and, and survived the Holocaust, and trying to, to deny that it happened, saying that we needed more studies to confirm, we needed evidence, what was wrong with impartial studies of what happened. He was very firm and hard-line on Iran's nuclear program. There was no compromising at all. This was an outreach, but there was certainly no, no attempt to try to bring Americans on board."
Sawyer: "Do you think that he and Chavez think they have the U.S. cornered, in some sense?"
Wright: "I think they feel that the United States is weakened, that it's overextended itself, that its policies have not succeeded, whether it's in Iraq, Afghanistan, winning the hearts and the minds of a lot of countries outside of our European allies."
Sawyer: "And do you think that they will now begin action? What should we fear from them?"
Wright: "I'm not sure that action. I think that there is--one of the reasons you see so, so many angry words is because they don't have a whole lot of, of options right now. But I don't think that either one of them intends to back down and I think they're going to be big players, big adversaries for us in the years to come."