The President’s annual State of the Union address is coming up. It is one of those rare moments in the political calendar when the networks are willing to interrupt their diet of reality shows for a serious discussion of where the country is or should be going. And, as usual, it will be followed by a Democratic response, this year by Tim Kaine, the newly-minted governor of Virginia, whose principal credential is that he is not currently on anyone’s list for higher office.
But what will he — and the Party — have to say? Do the Democrats have an alternative strategy for running the country? I’ve been listening and I certainly haven’t heard it. Yes, House Minority leader Nancy Pilosi keeps repeating her mantra about the Republican “culture of corruption” on Capitol Hill and yes, the man from 2,000, Al Gore, has been calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the Administration’s domestic wiretapping program… but to little effect.
The search for a Democratic Party program is so desperate, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who would like to be its standard-bearer in 2008, is running a contest on his website asking for “ten words that define the party’s message.” He’s got his own list, including such chestnuts as “meaningful opportunity, personal security and individual responsibility.” Hard to argue with those, but they seem unlikely to mobilize the masses.
The timing for a full-throated Democratic counter-attack to the Republican agenda would seem to be irresistible. The Administration is being battered in the polls on everything from the deficit to the lobbying scandals to its mismanaged execution of the Medicare prescription drug plan. This is an election year, with at least the chance to crack the Republican monopoly in Congress, and yet the Democrats are curiously quiescent.
The reason, I think, is Iraq. Like Senator John Kerry in the 2004 campaign, the party has so far been unable to explain credibly what it would do differently to extricate the U.S. and its soldiers from that quagmire. None of its presumed potential candidates, Hillary Clinton included, can point to a way out of a conflict that has cost more than 2,300 lives and, according to Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, will ultimately drain the treasury of one-to-two trillion dollars. The best the Democrats have managed so far is a resolution in the Senate declaring that the administration’s Iraq strategy needs to change and that 2006 is the year to change it.
That’s a position, not a policy. And until the Democrats find their voice on Iraq, the public may not be prepared to listen to them on much else.


Update on Terence Smith

The text below was posted byJim Romenesko on his widely-read website yesterday.

Posted By: Jim Romenesko

I asked Terence Smith about his “NewsHour” retirement and the next chapter of his life. Here’s his reply.

At my initiative and after nearly eight years with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, I have stepped down as Media Correspondent and Senior Producer.

I’ll continue to be available to contribute to the broadcast as a Special Correspondent, but I expect to spend more time writing, speaking, traveling and teaching.

In addition, I am already contributing commentaries to National Public Radio, publishing free lance pieces, moderating panels and serving on boards ranging from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science.

I have launched a website,, and a blog, of course, and will continue to fill in as a substitute host on The Diane Rehm show on NPR. Beyond that, I want to save plenty of time for tennis, skiing and sailing.

You asked about my thoughts about the industry.

After 20 years in print with The New York Times, and 20 in television with CBS and PBS, I see the news business as more vital, more central and more troubled than ever. The industry is changing with frightening speed, booming in a few sectors like public radio and the internet, hurting economically in others such as newspapers and network news, and under pressure ethically throughout. But at the same time — we shouldn’t lose sight of this — it is vastly more diverse, professional, educated and influential than it was when I first went to work with a bunch of other white guys as a reporter for the Stamford Advocate in Connecticut straight out of college. I think American journalism gets more intriguing, more important and more challenging all the time.

Last month, for example, I was in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates at an Aspen Institute forum on U.S. and Arab media that looked hard at the stereotyping, intolerance, bigotry and outright ignorance that emerges in each side’s reporting on the other. The 31 participating journalists and academics, Americans and Arabs alike, held up a mirror to each other and found more similarities than differences.

Next fall, I am scheduled to be at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, conducting a 10-day journalism seminar for reporters in that incredible country. Also in the fall, I will spend two weeks on the campus of my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, as journalist-in-residence, among a generation that is better educated and more questioning than any that have come before.

Finally, I have in mind two books, one on the Middle East and one on the Chesapeake Bay, that I would like to get written in the next couple of years.

So, after 40-plus years in daily journalism, and suddenly freed from the familiar demands of a daily deadline, I find there is no shortage of things I want to do, only the time to do them.

Redskins Advance

The Washington Redskins’ victory against Tampa Bay tonight demonstrates that a brilliant defense can be better than an average offense, and that Washington is, indeed, a more cheerful, upbeat, optimistic place when the ‘Skins are winning. On to Seattle.



The leadership changes announced at the Wall Street Journal this week are more than another shuffle in the executive suite. The Dow Jones board of directors voted to replace journalism’s power couple — Peter Kann and his wife, Karen Elliott House, chairman and publisher respectively, with 47-year-old Richard Zannino, a senior Dow Jones executive, and a player to be named.

Peter and Karen are both journalists, very fine, Pulitizer-prize winning journalists, who were examples of Dow Jones’s long tradition of promoting journalists from the field to the front office. Mr. Zannino, who seems to be widely liked, is a businessman pure and simple. His major professional credential is his experience with Liz Claiborne, Inc. He may be exactly what the beleaguered Dow Jones needs at this difficult time in the newspaper business, and no doubt he will carry out the cost cutting and other measures that Wall Street wants to see, but something has been lost in this transition.

Having watched both Peter and Karen in the field, I have a sneaking suspicion that both were better reporters than executives. Perhaps now they will have time to get back to what they do best. They are a class act.

An Unanswered Question

An Unanswered Question

I have a problem and I need President Bush to help solve it. I still don’t understand — really understand — why we went to war in Iraq.

Even after the President’s series of speeches on Iraq, even after the apparently successful parliamentary elections in that beleaguered country, I am still left with this nagging feeling that I don’t know the whole story of why we went into Iraq in the first place. And I can’t feel any sense of confidence about the whole exercise until the President clears that up.

Originally, of course, the President told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the security of the United States. Frankly, I never understood that. Even if he did have such weapons — as most western intelligence agencies apparently believed he did — he had no means to deliver them 5,000 miles to U.S. shores. WMD’s might have threatened Saddam’s own people, possibly his neighbors and conceivably Israel, but not the United States. And with U.S. planes patrolling his skies and U.N. arms inspectors nosing about, even his neighbors had little to worry about. He was, as the saying goes, “in a box.”

Recently, President Bush conceded that the pre-war intelligence on which he based his rationale for the war was wrong. But he said he would have attacked Iraq anyway, because 9/11 changed his view of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. But how did it change his view, given that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11? The President didn’t say.

Mr. Bush still describes Iraq as the central front in the war on terrorism. That certainly wasn’t the case before we attacked Iraq. Afghanistan was the central front, Al Qaida was the enemy and Osama Bin Laden was its commander.

The President also tells us that a free, independent and Democratic Iraq will serve as a beacon for reform throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Perhaps. But it is by no means clear that a genuine democracy will in fact emerge in Iraq. History shows few examples where Democratic government has been imposed at the point of a gun.

So I am left with that nagging feeling that there were other reasons that motivated Mr. Bush and his advisers in the first place. Reasons they believed, but could not, or did not, articulate. Remember the determination with which they approached the invasion? All through the previous summer and fall, the Pentagon was shipping tens of thousands of U.S. forces per month to staging areas around Iraq. The President repeatedly said the decision to go to war had not been made, but practically it had. Were those troops really going to turn around and come home? They were there and they needed a war to fight.

So what really motivated that fateful decision? Was it a son wanting to finish a job his father had started with the first Gulf War in 1991? Was it a geopolitical move to project American power into an oil-rich region? Was it a desire by the world’s sole superpower to flex its muscles? Was it part of a grand design to impose a kind of Pax Americana? Was it to make the region safer for Israel? Or was it part of a broad, neo-conservative strategy to confront militant islamists head-on?

I don’t know. But if one or all of these factors moved the President originally to commit this nation to such a bloody and expensive enterprise, I wish he would tell us. We deserve to know.

Redskins Mania



The Washington Redskins are on a roll. After a frustrating first half of the season, they have won four games straight, the last two by big margins. If they beat the Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday — and the stars are properly in alignment, meaning the New York Giants lose on Saturday — they could win the NFC east title and sail into the playoffs for the first time in six years.
This may not seem like big news beyond the Beltway. But it is. When the Redskins are winning, the nation’s capital is a different place, a better place. Top to bottom, everybody’s mood brightens. The lobbyists on K Street, the staffers on Capitol Hill, the politicians, the journalists, the cops on the beat — they all smile when the Redskins are winning.
You can hear it in conversations all over town. Iraq may still be a mess, the budget deficit as big as ever, Big Brother still listening, the Republicans still squabbling among themselves, the Democrats drifting, the weather cold, the traffic terrible, but when the Redskins are winning, actually winning, there is something else to talk about.
It is a reminder that Washington is a real place, with real people who care passionately about things beyond Congress or the White House. It isn’t simply a political Potemkin village. It is a city, like Philadelphia or Boston, a place beyond politics.
There was a comparable exciting period last spring. The Montreal Expos were reincarnated as the Washington Nationals and against all the odds, won ballgames. Lots of ballgames. For weeks they were first in their division. The town — remember, that’s cutthroat, take-no-prisoners Washington — was giddy with delight.
Far more than the Redskins, the Nationals were a great leveler for Washington. There were no luxury boxes at ramshackle old RFK stadium. Tickets were relatively inexpensive, especially compared to the Redskins, so the powerful and the proletariat sat side—by-side in the blue plastic seats and loved it.
Of course it was too good to last. The Nationals went into a swoon after the All-Star break and ended the season in the cellar. At the same time, the President’s standing in the polls was plummeting and Congress was descending into disarray. A causal relationship? Who is to say? It’s no sillier than predicting the stock market by the rise and fall of hemlines.
Might it follow, then, that if the Redskins keep winning, the President’s poll numbers will rebound? If the running back, Clinton Portis, has another 100-yard game, will sweet harmony erupt on Capitol Hill? If the Redskins make the playoffs will Judge Samuel Alito breeze onto the Supreme Court? If they get to the superbowl for the first time in 14 years, will peace break out in Iraq?
Maybe not, but why not root for the Redskins and find out?

(Commentator Terence Smith is a former media correspondent for The NewsHour on PBS who has suffered with the Redskins through good times and bad.)

Terry Smith’s Blog

Terence Smith is an award-winning journalist who has been a political reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and television analyst over the course of a four-decade career. He has written on everything from a Bedouin wedding in the Sinai to firefights in the jungles of Vietnam to presidential news conferences in the White House. This is his blog. Check back once a week to read the latest commentary and feel free to post your comments.