John McCain vs. Susan Rice: Battle of the Sunday TV Stars

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 19 2012 7:12 PM

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Why John McCain is beating Susan Rice in the war of the TV talk fests.

Senator John McCain.
Sen. John McCain.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Susan Rice is still the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She’s yet to be nominated for anything else. But the campaign to stop that nomination is chugging along from bluster to bluster, farce to farce. Peak farce seemed to come last week, when Sen. John McCain missed one of the briefings about the attack on America’s consulate on Benghazi because he was in the Senate Radio-TV Gallery demanding answers on Benghazi.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

We topped that pretty quickly. On Sunday, McCain appeared on Face the Nation to re-re-re-demand answers from Rice. It was his sixth appearance this year on the show. Rice had hit the studio only on Sept. 16, and she hadn’t called the attacks terrorism, and McCain would not let her forget it.

“I’m curious why she has not repudiated those remarks,” McCain told Bob Schieffer. “On this show, the Libyan national president, obviously, said it was al-Qaida.” How could she make amends, and prevent the shrunken Republican minority from filibustering a possible nomination for secretary of state? “Maybe she could start out by publicly coming back on this show and saying, ‘I was wrong, I gave the wrong information on your show some several weeks ago.’ That might be a beginning.”

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That answer was meant to reiterate how seriously we should view the stakes in Benghazi-gate. It also revealed the munchkin size of the scandal. It is not, right now, about how Ambassador Chris Stevens warned that the consulate was ill-prepared for an attack, or how the administration didn’t respond with more security, or whether help was slow to arrive on Sept. 11 when pinned-down diplomats begged for it.

No. It’s about the Sunday shows. Rice, who has been a future candidate for secretary of state since roughly her first lunch with Barack Obama, did all the Sept. 16 Sunday shows to deliver talking points. She claimed that the “current best assessment” had a protest getting “hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists.” Asked if it was terrorism, she dodged, even though some in the intelligence community were ready to call it that.

McCain doesn’t trust Rice, and he likes the idea of John Kerry—who’s more respected now than he was when he lost the presidency—becoming Secretary of State. He claims that veterans are coming to him, demanding more answers on Benghazi, which sounds true. He doesn’t currently control a committee that could get more answers. But he is the president-for-life of that sovereign state inside I-495: Meet the Pressistan. What better way into the story than this, a scandal that was by and for the Sunday shows?

By saying that, I don’t mean to minimize those shows. Meet the Press, the highest-rated of the Sunday talkfests, gets more than 3 million viewers per week. The total audience for the five shows that Rice went on—Meet the Press, Face the Nation, This Week, Fox News Sunday, State of the Union—is around 12 million, assuming that Tivo-armed viewers watch them all. At their best, these shows trip up politicians who could bolt from some less-prestigious interview that isn’t intro’d by classical music. At their worst, the shows host powerful people as they spread knowing lies to further their agendas. At their most meh, they allow hacks to dispense their talking points.

The Rice story has pitted a master of the genre against a dabbler. McCain hasn’t just appeared on Face the Nation six times this year. He’s appeared on the competing shows 14 times. In Maureen Dowd’s column on the contretemps, a helpful “administration official” trashes Rice for trying “to go out and close the stature gap” as she jockeyed for State and was “focused on the performance, not the content.”

The Anonymous Official’s theory: Rice should have pushed back on her talking points and been free to discuss the developing information about possible al-Qaida links to the Benghazi attack. Some analysts in the pipeline didn’t want that information out there on Sept. 16. She didn’t contradict them.

But this is the question—and it’s an uncomfortable question, if you impart great power in Sunday talk shows. So what? One theory is that Rice’s “extremists hijacked a protest” spin was an attempt to cover up a story that could damage the president’s re-election. “The narrative was wrong,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on Sunday’s Meet the Press. “There were some policy decisions made based on the narrative that was not consistent with the intelligence that we had.”

Which policy decisions? He didn’t say. McCain has insisted that the “hijack” talking points were a result of “either a cover-up or incompetence.” What would a cover-up have achieved, though? Kicking the Benghazi story from mid-September, when Romney was reeling, to some uncertain time closer to the election? When the voter heard about this scandal, why would a successful terrorist attack by random extremists make him less angry than an attack by al-Qaida? The Rogers-McCain argument is that the second scenario contradicted the “narrative,” the Obama line that al-Qaida had been “decimated.” But the attack had already done that job, with or without the talking points.

That’s the surreal part of this Sunday-morning quarterbacking. The Sept. 16 Susan Rice interviews have been compared to Condoleezza Rice’s prewar interviews about Iraq. In Dowd’s column (titled, naturally, “Is Rice Cooked?”), we’re told that Bush’s Rice “sold her soul” while Obama’s Rice merely “rented” it. But that’s a little pat. The problem with Condoleezza Rice’s TV interviews is that they urged along a war. “There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons,” said Rice in September 2002. “But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

One month later, the House of Representatives voted for authorization of force against Iraq. That turned out to be more dangerous than a “narrative.” But in Meet the Pressistan, all that matters is whether your talking points were skewed, and whether there’s a senator ready to jump into the other chair to call you on it.

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