Mad As Hell

How I got a disturbing view of Brent Bozell’s undying rage

Warning: some of the material in this article is not suitable for small children.

Last night I appeared on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor, debating Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center (he’s the one with red hair and a beard; you may have seen him). If you’re not familiar with the MRC, they’re one of a number of well-funded conservative groups established to complain about liberal media bias. If tomorrow’s lead story in the New York Times were headlined, “Bush Is Second Coming of Christ,” Bozell would say with complete conviction that it showed their blatant liberal bias, because they didn’t compliment the color of the President’s tie. Ironically, despite the liberal stranglehold on the press, Bozell himself has no trouble garnering media attention; a Lexis-Nexis search reveals that he gets quoted in one media outlet or another about once every three days.

Bozell and I were there to discuss the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. I’ve been on O’Reilly four times now, and the format is always the same: I’m the sacrificial liberal, there to be tag-teamed by the host (in this case guest host John Gibson) and the conservative guest. We’ll get to what happened on the air in a moment, but what is of more interest is what happened afterward.

Although Bozell and I were both in the Fox studios in Washington, we sat in different rooms to tape the show. After we finished, both of us returned to the green room to remove our makeup. Upon my arrival there, my feeling – as it usually is in this kind of situation – was that it wouldn’t do much good for either of us to continue our argument off the air. I feel as passionately about politics as anyone, but let’s face it, Brent Bozell and I are not going to convince each other of anything. In person, I try to be polite to everyone, even those whose political views I find repellent. Perhaps a little naïvely, I thought Bozell would feel the same way; we’d wipe our faces, wish each other good evening, and be on our separate ways.

But alas, it was not to be. The moment I walked in, Bozell looked at me angrily and said, “That was horseshit, what you said!” I reconstruct here the rest of the discussion as best I can recall. Although I wrote it down on the way home, a word here or there may be less than precise. Rest assured, though, the nasty parts from Bozell are verbatim:

WALDMAN: What part of it? 

BOZELL: You’re a liar!

WALDMAN: What are you talking about?

BOZELL: That stuff about Kerry!

WALDMAN: What, about atrocities?

BOZELL: He called them war criminals!

WALDMAN: He didn’t accuse any individuals of anything.

BOZELL: You’re a liar!

WALDMAN: He never accused those guys of anything.

BOZELL: John Kerry is a liar, and you’re a liar!

WALDMAN: What are you talking about?

BOZELL: Fuck you!

At that, Bozell stormed out. I should note that throughout this little argument, I remained calm, partly in an attempt to diffuse Bozell’s boiling rage, but also because I was genuinely having a hard time figuring out what he was trying to get across. Bozell, in contrast, looked as though his head was about to explode, his voice growing louder and his face redder. I would say that I was afraid he was going to take a swing at me, but I don’t think “afraid” is quite the right word. I’m quite a few years younger than Bozell, and though I suspect he fights dirty, I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, so I’m pretty sure I could take him. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.

I had never met Bozell before, though I had seen him on television. He always struck me as a rather angry fellow, but how one comes across in a five-minute segment on television doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s true personality. And I have no reason to think he doesn’t love his family, pay his taxes, and have a genuine desire to make his country a better place.

But there’s something very disturbing about looking right-wing rage in the face. After all, Bozell should be a happy man. Not only do his conservative compatriots control all three branches of government, but his years of work browbeating the media have paid off handsomely. The mainstream press in America is gripped by cowardice, terrified at every turn that Bozell and his supporters will come down on them with an avalanche of emails, phone calls and letters charging them with liberal bias. Over the course of his presidency, George W. Bush has gotten more respectful press coverage than any president since John F. Kennedy. And recent years have seen the rise of a powerful, profitable right-wing media in which Bozell’s views get wide airing. In many ways, Bozell has won the war he’s been fighting for so long. Yet the fire of anger burns within him unabated.

Much has been made of liberals’ anger at President Bush, and that anger is certainly real. But if Bush loses in November, that anger will dissipate. You’ll be able to find liberals angry about one issue or another at one time or another, but you won’t find them simmering with a generalized fury. But many conservatives remain angry, even at the height of their power. They’ll be angry if Bush loses, and they’ll be angry if he wins.

What actually happened on the air

As is usually the case, the discussion that took place on the air was not particularly edifying, and there are things I might have added if I had to do it over again. There was one thing I said that is inaccurate: I said that “all” of the men who served on Kerry’s boat are supporting him; in fact, 11 of the 12 men who served on his boat are supporting him, and one, Steve Gardner, is not.

As I tried to say, all the talk about whether Kerry deserved his medals is really just a canard. The fact is that the members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their supporters aren’t mad because the injuries for which he received his Purple Hearts weren’t severe enough, they’re mad because Kerry spoke out against the war. Specifically, they’re angry that he said atrocities were committed, and that he personally saw atrocities. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether Kerry deserved all his medals.

As far as I can tell, some Vietnam vets have made the following connection: I was in Vietnam at the same time as Kerry, and at one time or another participated in operations with him; he says he saw atrocities; therefore he has accused me personally of committing atrocities. I could certainly understand how one would be angry and insulted at being accused of committing atrocities, but as far as I can tell Kerry has never accused any particular person of committing atrocities.

Veterans can claim that no atrocities ever took place during the Vietnam War if they’d like (and I’d be interested to hear them make that argument), and they can even try to show that Kerry never witnessed any atrocities, but no individual can claim that Kerry has accused him personally of being a war criminal. Among the torrent of hate mail I’ve received since my appearance last night, a number of Vietnam veterans have expressed their anger at Kerry; one wrote, “I served in Vietnam and still do not like his calling all of us murderers, rapists, etc.” The bitterness and anger is certainly heartfelt, but I am unaware of a quote in which Kerry said that every single person who served in Vietnam is a murderer and/or a rapist. Some people obviously think he did, but that doesn’t make it true.

As for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, their fifteen minutes are almost up.

Here is the transcript of the show:

JOHN GIBSON: And thanks for staying with us. I’m John Gibson in for Bill O’Reilly. And in the FACTOR FOLLOW UP segment tonight, the real fallout from the swift boat controversy. A new study says the anti-Kerry ad from the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is making some independent voters, who were previously leaning towards Senator Kerry, second guess their vote. This could spell big trouble for John Kerry. 

Joining us now from Washington is Paul Waldman, the editor of Gadflyer.com and the author of “The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World,” and Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center and author of “Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media.”

So Brent, this ad is apparently — well, a new study shows that it does have some effect on independent voters. So does that mean we’re going to see more of it?

BRENT BOZELL, “WEAPONS OF MASS DISTORTION”: I suspect so, because as I understand it, they’re pretty well heeled. You know, the interesting thing is that this is a group that did a national press conference on May 5th to talk about this issue and were completely ignored by the media, with the exception of Fox that covered and CBS that absolutely slammed them.

But ABC, NBC, CNN all ignored them. So they put up a Web site. Suddenly, they’re raised a million dollars, they go out with an ad, and now come the networks all attacking them for doing an ad. It’s remarkable.

GIBSON: You know, Paul, it seems to me that you can see there is an effect on the Kerry campaign, because all of the sudden, there is this ad attacking George Bush in the same way. Is that the measure of the effectiveness of the ad against Kerry?

PAUL WALDMAN, GADFLYER.COM EDITOR: Well, to an extent. But the idea that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth haven’t gotten enough media coverage is just ludicrous. I did a Lexis-Nexis search this morning. There have been over 500 newspaper and television stories about them and the advertising.

GIBSON: Since the ad.

BOZELL: Since the ad.

WALDMAN: Yeah, so they are all over the place. They’re getting coverage in every major news outlet.

GIBSON: Yeah, but Paul, you’re making Brent’s point for him. They have a news conference; nobody pays any attention to them. They put an ad on the air, and suddenly they get some juice.

WALDMAN: Well, that’s often the case, because political journalists are always interested in advertising. And you’re right, it does indicate that they’re being successful, because the Kerry campaign is being forced to talk about it. And the Bush campaign is only too happy with this.

I mean, obviously, they don’t really want to talk about Iraq, they don’t really want to talk about the economy, or healthcare, or any of these things if they can get the discussion on whether or not, you know, John Kerry had one medal or…

GIBSON: Yeah, but Paul, wait a minute. Paul, wait a minute. It was John Kerry who went to the Democratic Convention and said, “John Kerry reporting for duty.” I mean, he wrapped himself in the flag.

WALDMAN: There’s no question that his service is a legitimate issue. But the question is not so much whether we’re talking about his service. The question is, are the things that they’re saying accurate? And a lot of the things that are in that swift boat veterans ad are not accurate. You know, you have this parade of guys saying, “I served with John Kerry.” Well, you know, that’s true in the same sense that I spent last night with Condoleezza Rice.

We were both in Washington, just in the same sense that these guys were all in Vietnam at the same time as John Kerry, but they weren’t actually there. They don’t actually know what happened.

GIBSON: Brent, you checked the bona fides of these claims. What do you think?

BOZELL: Look, these are people, many of them who were with him. These were people who treated him. These are people who have the right to speak out. It’s kind of interesting, going back to the media for a second here that the media, which your other guest says they care about advertising. What about caring about the truth?

What about getting to the bottom of this story, especially when a presidential candidate has wrapped himself around this issue. He’s invited the scrutiny. You know, for three years, they’ve been pounding George Bush on the National Guard service, why? Because Terry McAuliffe, the DNC chairman, made a statement. Now you’ve got 200 people who were in Vietnam, some who were alongside with John Kerry, making a statement, and they’ve been ignored. Suddenly, they come out with an ad. Now they’re attacked.

GIBSON: Paul…

WALDMAN: The idea that they’ve been pounding the president on National Guard service is absolutely false. When you go back and look at the coverage in 2000 when this might have been an issue, it was barely covered at all, a few stories. They didn’t really investigate it with any kind of aggressiveness. It was only later on in this campaign that it actually came up again. So that’s just not true.

GIBSON: But Paul, wait a minute…

BOZELL: They’re still asking for his dental records.

GIBSON: Paul, look, I think even if you support Senator Kerry, you’ve got to admit that there are veterans out there who served with him in the sense that they served at the same time, in the same general place, or did the same kind of service, like they were swift boat commanders, who are forever, forever angry with him for what he said when he came back to this country and testified before the Senate and wrote a book.

And that may have formed their opinion, and that may be the reason they’re still angry with him. But they are angry at him now as they were 30 years ago, and the question to you is, do they have a right to speak and say, “I’m mad at him, I’ve been mad at him for 30 years, and I don’t want him being president?”

WALDMAN: Of course, and you put your finger on the key point. They’re not mad because, you know, because his injuries for his purple hearts weren’t severe enough. They’re mad because he came back and he was an opponent of the war afterwards…

(CROSSTALK)

GIBSON: He came back and he slimed them.

BOZELL: That’s right, that’s right.

GIBSON: He slimed them.

BOZELL: They’re mad at him because, among other reasons, he accused them of killing women and children. That’s why they’re mad at him.

WALDMAN: And that’s something that happened in Vietnam.

(CROSSTALK)

BOZELL: Don’t start this nonsense.

GIBSON: Paul, are you doing the same thing, which John Kerry appeared to be doing in 1971 when he made that testimony, confabulating real facts about Vietnam — some soldiers did that — and saying, “The people I served with did that, the people I worked with saw that, I saw that happen?”

WALDMAN: Yes, but he never talked about any particular individuals in that. He said that he saw those kinds of things, and as far as I know, nobody has refuted that.

BOZELL: Of course they have. All these Vietnam veterans didn’t do that, come on. Cut it out. All these people said exactly that. It didn’t happen, and they challenged him. They asked him, “Give me an example.” This goes back to 1971. He couldn’t provide a single example. Don’t start this nonsense again.

WALDMAN: Which one of these guys who were involved with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth say that Kerry personally accused them of an atrocity? Who was that?

BOZELL: John O’Neill.

GIBSON: No, but the point is that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are saying, “We were out there running these same operations as John Kerry. He says these atrocities happened. We were there. We didn’t see them happen. We didn’t hear about them. We weren’t ordered to do them. We think he’s confabulating his real experience with stuff he read about in the news.”

WALDMAN: Yes, but none of these guys was on his boat. You know, yes, they were in the same area or in Vietnam…

GIBSON: Yes, the next boat… next boat over.

WALDMAN: So they weren’t there with him every day. The guys who were on his boat are all supporting him.

GIBSON: All right, gentlemen, thanks a lot. Brent Bozell, appreciate it. Paul Waldman, thank you. The voters will sort this out as we proceed toward election day. Right back with a Florida ballot measure requiring teen girls to tell mom and dad if they want an abortion. The ACLU and others are outraged. We’ll debate whether mom and dad should know before their grandchild is aborted right after this.

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