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Lies, damned lies, and now a word from the vice president

  + HE CAN'T SAY THAT ON RADIO, CAN HE?     Admire him for nothing else, the man is obdurate -- which, of course, is a ten-dollar word to say that he's either a pig-headed fool or a damnable liar.

There on the airwaves was the Vice President of the United States once again repeating the same-old, same-old about the reasons behind the urgent need to invade Iraq. "Remember Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist, an al-Qaeda affiliate?" Cheney told Rush Limbaugh on April 5. " He ran a training camp in Afghanistan for al-Qaeda, then migrated after we went into Afghanistan and shut 'em down there, he went to Baghdad. He took up residence there before we ever launched into Iraq, organized the al-Qaeda operations inside Iraq before we even arrived on the scene and then of course led the charge for Iraq until we killed him last June."

It was a jaw-dropping statement on so many levels. First was the hardcore lie, that al-Qaeda was in Iraq prior to the invasion. The CIA knew before the war that there was no relationship between Saddam and al-Qaeda, and offically published that finding in a 2005 report. The Senate Intelligence Committee made the same conclusion in 2006. The Pentagon released new documents further disproving an al-Qaeda alliance the same day that Cheney appeared on Limbaugh's show.

Then there were the scattershot untruths about Zarqawi, whom the Bush administration has always portrayed as Osama's lieutenant in Iraq and go-between with Saddam. Yes, Zarqawi was in Iraq before the invasion, but Saddam's government rightly viewed him as a dangerous terrorist and sought his arrest. Zarqawi was a jihadist who almost made bin Laden look like a religious moderate. A follower of the ultra-orthodox Salafism sect of Sunni Islam, Zarqawi viewed all Shiites as heretics who should be killed. He sought to overthrow the government in his native Jordan and his purpose in Iraq was to recruit followers for his own groups, while trying to foment Sunni-Shiite civil war on the side. Zarqawi was more adversary than ally of Osama, and didn't join the al-Qaeda franchise until October 2004, and then only under terms that left him completely independent. The alliance between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda remained shaky, with the bin Laden crowd nervous about the jihadist who mainly wanted to slaughter fellow Muslims and seemed to enjoy personally sawing off the heads of hostages on camera. (For much more on Zarqawi, search out "The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi" in the July/August 2006 Atlantic Monthly.)

Most significant of all, however, is that such remarks were even made in the year 2007. These were not statements about fresh current events, where all the facts might not be known and could be honestly interpreted differently. This was not a testament of someone's personal opinion with which anyone can disagree, like Bush endlessly repeating, "I believe the world is better off without Saddam Hussein." No, these were outright, pustular lies about historical facts. Nor did these lies didn't spill from mouth of a PR stooge or subordinate flunky -- they came directly from the thin lips of Vice President Cheney, arguably the most powerful man in the world.

But does it really matter? After all, Cheney's churned out all of these deceits before in speeches and interviews. Before weighing the question, consider what happened the very day before Cheney's comments, when shock-jock Don Imus called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed ho's." It was a profoundly ugly thing to say, and despite almost two weeks of intense pundit jawing, few understand the context of what really happened. This was no isolated slip of the tongue; the insult varied little from the usual schtick on that show, where producer/sidekick Bernard McGuirk would make an outrageous racist/sexist comment (here, he led in by calling the Rutgers team "some hardcore ho's") and host Imus would usually recoil in faux disgust and horror. He should have been nationally condemned a thousand times before; there is some irony in that he finally landed in trouble for merely adding an adjective to the regular spew.

The Imus controversy has also exaggerated his importance. Yes, he had a nationally-syndicated broadcast that was simulcast on MSNBC, but his audience was constrained by an early morning timeslot; the "nappy" comment also came near the start of that day's show, at 6:14AM, probably heard mostly by groggy commuters before their first cups of coffee. If vigilant Media Matters blogger Ryan Chiachiere hadn't happened to be listening in that morning before dawn, Imus would still be on the air.

By contrast, Rush Limbaugh is the undisputed king of talk radio with a midday listenership of over 13 million Dittoheads -- 6x larger than the "Imus in the Morning" show. The veep was standing on a public podium with an enormous nationwide audience, not just addressing his usual closed-door crowd of conventioneers or party stalwarts.

Hooray that the little-heard Imus broadcast has sparked a long-overdue national dialogue on racist and misogynist speech. But can't we also spare some outrage over the undeniable fact that Cheney lied, and about something extremely important -- the reasons why our nation went to war? The Big Lie doesn't come any bigger than this.

Alas, the Imus story apparently sucked every last molecule of outrage from the airwaves and ink of the mainstream U.S. press. Democratic senator Carl Levin penned an excellent op/ed in the LA Times, "Tell us another one, Mr. Vice President," that was picked up by just a handful of papers nationwide. CNN and other cable broadcasters played clips of Cheney's appearance on the Limbaugh show, but to spotlight other comments on the broadcast critical of Pelosi's trip to Syria.

"By all accounts, Dick Cheney is one of the most powerful vice presidents in our history, if you define power as influence over policy," wrote Sen. Levin in his editorial. "We need to ask ourselves: What does it mean for our country when the vice president's words lack credibility, but he still wields great power?" It is a profound question that urgently deserves at least a fraction of the time spent denouncing the disgrace that was Imus.   (April 17, 2007)

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