Can Conservatives Swiftboat Obama Over Benghazi?
It hasn’t happened yet. Because everyone is sticking with the narrative they prefer.
Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.
Six days ago, Charles Woods turned on his radio and heard an update on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in Benghazi. Charles’s son, Tyrone Woods, had been killed that day, jumping into the fray after hearing that the American consulate had been attacked. The father, who had chosen not to speak to the media, listened to the news and grew incensed.
“They mentioned that the president had live feed, that he watched my son being killed,” Woods would tell Fox News weekend host Jeanine Pirro. “That he watched this whole battle that lasted seven hours. And he chose to do nothing.”
Woods called the station and got on with the host, Portland, Ore.-based conservative talker Lars Larson. In calm, even tones, he described the unimaginably sad story of his hero son taking a job despite the danger, responding to people who were “crying for help,” and being left to die by his own country. “The whole feeling I got about this when it happened was ‘we’re not getting the truth,’ ” said Woods. He described the president shaking hands “like a dead fish,” which maybe made sense, with “this information coming out about videos being live-streamed, calls for help coming to the White House.”
Over the rest of the week, Woods talked to Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Geraldo Rivera, and Laura Ingraham to tell and retell the story. When Obama talked to him, “it wasn't in a powerful voice,” said Woods to Hannity. “It was more of just a whiney little voice—‘I'm sorry.’ You know? And I could tell by his voice he wasn't even sorry.” In the Ingraham interview, Woods says that the president couldn’t even look him in the eye.
The Woods interviews are devastating. No one whose blood runs warm can listen to them without reacting. On Facebook, conservatives have started meme-ifying Woods quotes and Benghazi rumors, altering Obama’s campaign slogan (Forward) to read: “COWARD.” For years, conservative critics of the president have portrayed him as a valor-stealing wimp who’s actually ashamed of his country. Now they believe his government told Tyrone Woods to stand down, denied all requests for backup as Woods defied the order and fought, and then sat back remorselessly as good men died.
But has anybody else—anybody who wasn’t already inclined to distrust Obama—bought into this story? Not really, no. The Romney-Ryan ticket has nixed Libya from stump speeches. On Friday, when a Denver TV interviewer asked Obama about the “stand down” theory, and the president dodged, the Romney campaign commented on Obama’s other answers and ignored “Benghazi-gate.” Today, a new Pew poll on the election finds that Obama’s numbers on foreign policy and leadership have ticked up since mid-October. Whom do voters “trust to make wise decisions about foreign policy”? A four-point Obama lead has become an eight-point lead.
The support for Obama’s foreign policy decision-making becomes even stranger when you consider how long this narrative has been building. Over the summer, with great hype and a boost from Karl Rove’s tweets, the Special Ops OPSEC Education Fund launched and pledged to expose “how President Obama and those in positions of authority have exploited their service for political advantage.” Its latest ad, which went up on Oct. 3, rattles off some of the ways—“Hollywood producers briefed,” “administration leaks investigations,” “SEAL Team Six exposed.”
Nobody from OPSEC got back to me when I asked whether that Libya ad would be joined by a new ad, making the “Obama stood down” case. But maybe this is the problem. The argument that Obama is listless and credit-stealing began before there was any good evidence for it. Ever since the Benghazi attacks, every fact or rumor has been slotted into the argument.
Put the emphasis on “every rumor.” The most chilling parts of Charles Woods’ story are in dispute. That’s good news for anyone who doesn’t want to think that the government is run by sociopaths. Woods, for example, says that a surveillance drone gave a “live-stream” of the attacks for seven hours. There were two waves of attacks. According to CBS News, a surveillance drone was flown over Benghazi “hours after the attack began.” Emails to the State Department, the ones that had diplomats reporting (not accurately) that a local terrorist group had taken credit, also suggest hours of confusion. And the White House completely denies the theory that the president watched the attacks while bouncing a tennis ball against the wall or something. “The Situation Room part is completely wrong,” says White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. “No one watched video of the attack at the White House as it happened.”
Whether you believe that depends on whether you believe anything this White House says. “Benghazi-gate,” like so many other stories of 2012, reads differently to people who accept different sources of authority. The most lurid, infuriating version of the Benghazi story appeared days after Woods started talking to the press, in a Fox News exclusive. In this version of the story, the CIA tells Woods to “stand down”—something the CIA denies. But the administration doesn’t sit out the crisis. “An American Quick Reaction Force sent from Tripoli had arrived at the Benghazi airport at 2 a.m.,” reports Fox, “and was delayed for 45 minutes at the airport because they could not at first get transportation.”
That reads like a failure. The fact that Ambassador Christopher Stevens had asked for more security at the consulate, and that this security was denied, was a failure—bad at the time, unconscionable in hindsight. And there’s an undercurrent of scorn for Obama shared by conservatives and by skeptical veterans that colors the whole story. No Easy Day, the pseudonymous memoir of a SEAL Team Six member, ends with an anticlimactic story about the president awarding the Presidential Unit Citation. According to the author, Obama gave an address “straight from the speechwriter playbook.” Biden “kept cracking lame jokes that no one got.” They sound just like the schmucks who can’t even give proper handshakes. Later, after a promised party at the White House never happens, the author’s friend “Walt” laughs off the very idea that Obama can be trusted.
“You believed that shit. I bet you voted for change too, sucker.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.