I’ve already posted my thoughts for Veteran’s Day in this space; President Bush, meanwhile, got an early start on his Veteran’s Day festivities by refusing to use Saddam Hussein’s seized assets to compensate 17 Gulf War I P.O.W.s who were tortured by Saddam Hussein. Federal law allowed them to sue the regime and to access its seized assets, but here’s what White House Press flack Scott McClellan had to say about that:
Scott, there are 17 former POWs from the first Gulf War who were tortured and filed suit against the regime of Saddam Hussein. And a judge has ordered that they are entitled to substantial financial damages. What is the administration’s position on that? Is it the view of this White House that that money would be better spent rebuilding Iraq rather than going to these former POWs?
I don’t know that I view it in those terms, David. I think that the United States — first of all, the United States condemns in the strongest terms the brutal torture to which these Americans were subjected. They bravely and heroically served our nation and made sacrifices during the Gulf War in 1991, and there is simply no amount of money that can truly compensate these brave men and women for the suffering that they went through at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. That’s what our view is.
But, so — but isn’t it true that this White House —
They think they’re is an —
Excuse me, Helen — that this White House is standing in the way of them getting those awards, those financial awards, because it views it that money better spent on rebuilding Iraq?
Again, there’s simply no amount of money that can truly compensate these brave men and women for the suffering —
Why won’t you spell out what your position is?
I’m coming to your question. Believe me, I am. Let me finish. Let me start over again, though. No amount of money can truly compensate these brave men and women for the suffering that they went through at the hands of a very brutal regime, at the hands of Saddam Hussein. It was determined earlier this year by Congress and the administration that those assets were no longer assets of Iraq, but they were resources required for the urgent national security needs of rebuilding Iraq. But again, there is simply no amount of compensation that could ever truly compensate these brave men and women.
Just one more. Why would you stand in the way of at least letting them get some of that money?
I disagree with the way you characterize it.
But if the law that Congress passed entitles them to access frozen assets of the former regime, then why isn’t that money, per a judge’s order, available to these victims?
That’s why I pointed out that that was an issue that was addressed earlier this year. But make no mistake about it, we condemn in the strongest possible terms the torture that these brave individuals went through —
— you don’t think they should get money?
— at the hands of Saddam Hussein. There is simply no amount of money that can truly compensate those men and women who heroically served —
That’s not the issue —
— who heroically served our nation.
Are you opposed to them getting some of the money?
And, again, I just said that that had been addressed earlier this year.
No, but it hasn’t been addressed. They’re entitled to the money under the law. The question is, is this administration blocking their effort to access some of that money, and why?
I don’t view it that way at all. I view it the way that I stated it, that this issue was —
But you are opposed to them getting the money.
This issue was addressed earlier this year, and we believe that there’s simply no amount of money that could truly compensate these brave men and women for what they went through and for the suffering that they went through at the hands of Saddam Hussein —
So no money.
— and that’s my answer.
There are a couple more things worth noting about this exchange, even if it is really best passed over in silence.
The Internet is a great thing in a lot of ways. One of the things I think is great about it is the emergence of the posted press conference; it’s often a bit maddening, but ultimately quite worthwhile, to read these things from time to time. This is a classic case in point: most of the stuff in this press briefing will, at best, make it to the back page; and all of it will be filtered into short little sound bites. But a reading of the raw press briefing provides a great little reminder of the absolute cognitive bankruptcy of modern politicos’ interactions with the public: when the policies of the administration are being seriously challenged for obviously valid reasons, the press secretary simply repeats the same insipid line over and over and over again. In this modern world of Talking Points and Power Point and Bullet Lists, with much of the most serious political discourse conducted over brief television and radio news spots, political reason-giving has largely been replaced by incantations of a canned "message" that are dutifully repeated by reporters (who would have nothing else to print if they didn’t repeat it, anyway). This degradation of public discourse crosses ideological lines, but the present administration has made a very thorough art of it—with preselected audiences and press conferences that are produced like a particularly sentimental big-budget Hollywood production.
Reading transcripts is one important way to see this—just as it is one important way to see the empty bullying and slipshod argument that pervade televised
debate—because the act of reading forces an engagement with, and an attention to, logical structure that listening often does not. (That doesn’t mean that oral debate, televised or otherwise, is hopeless; it just means that when it does degrade, print is a good way to get a proper perspective on it.)
And reading this transcript, you also get the overwhelming desire to hit them with one obvious question—one that I’m surprised none of the reporters got around to asking. Every time McClellan regurgitates the line that
we believe that there’s simply no amount of money that could truly compensate these brave men and women for what they went through and for the suffering that they went through at the hands of Saddam Hussein, doesn’t every neuron in your brain just flare up with the question: You may not think the money will ever be enough, but who the hell are you to tell the soldiers who sued for compensation that they shouldn’t get any at all?