Accountability and Margaret Wente

Deborah Jones

Politicians lose elections when they mess up. Profligate financial
institutions go bankrupt. Academics who publish one point of view and
then change it without explanation are taken to task by peers, who
denounce such work as irresponsible tripe. But some columnists
keep on changing opinions and churning out more and more words without
ever being called to account.

I don’t normally criticize columnists for their opinions (glass houses, stones and all that). But The Globe and Mail‘s Margaret Wente’s latest missive on the United States The lipstick has come off this economic pig,
was so over the top it demands a response — not least because
consistency, or at least thoughtful explanation, should be the most
basic job requirement of a columnist.

Wrote Wente of America’s turmoil: “This financial crisis is the last
nail in the coffin of the Bush era. First, he brought us a disastrous
war, and now a financial quagmire. As investment bankers became
billionaires, the American dream of home ownership for all turned into
an American nightmare. As with the war, the rest of the world will also
pay the price.”

Fair enough — many, many critics have said much the same thing about
the Bush administration for a very long time. So why do I consider
Wente’s column over the top? Because after 9/11 Wente was perhaps the
champion in Canada of President George W. (‘bring ’em on) Bush–and I
think it is intellectually dishonest of Wente to slag Bush
now, when he’s down and out and being thumped by everybody else,
without one word explaining her own turnabout. Even if she had explained her turnabout in a previous column, a word or two
is in order here.

Here are a few examples of Wente’s columns in praise of Bush:

On Oct. 01, 2002 Wente column hewed the Bush line on the dangers of
Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and criticized intellectuals who raised the
alarm, in a column,  “Ms. Atwood and the UN weapons inspectors.

Wente thumbed her nose at those who criticized the U.S. president in, “Bush league? You can forget about that now,
a column published Nov. 7, 2002, that proclaimed  “a dark day for those
who despise George W. Bush.” Said Wente of Bush: “He’s a genuine
idealist, who wants to spread democracy and freedom because he thinks
those things would make people happier and better off and the U.S. more
secure. … There are experts who think this view is stunningly naive,
and that certain regions and cultures (the Arab ones, for example)
simply aren’t up to it. The experts may be right. We’ll find out. …
Meantime, no matter what you think of George Bush, there’s one thing
worth keeping in mind: Everyone so far has spectacularly underestimated

Proclaimed Wente in a pro-war column March 03, 2003, “So long, Saddam! You’re toast:
“Saddam Hussein will be gone in days or weeks, and the prospect fills
my heart with gladness. Bring on the war and get him, fast…”
Even after 2004, when the lies about WMDs had been revealed and the
extent of the Iraq debacle and the truth of Bush as an “idealist” was
already clear Wente wrote a column, “What if there had been no war?”
in which she conceded “The hawks have their tail feathers between their
legs these days,” explained that “Friends of mine ridicule me
mercilessly for swallowing that hokum about WMDs,” but then insisted,
“What if there had been no war? There would not be thousands of people
peacefully marching in the streets of Iraq today to demand direct
elections. There would not be a hundred new newspapers of all political
stripes, or a boom in sales of satellite dishes, or brand-new Internet
cafés on the main street of Saddam’s home town Tikrit. There would not
be 30,000 pilgrims allowed to make the hajj.”

In an Aug. 12, 2004 column
speculating about whether she would vote for Bush if she had a choice
in the 2004 U.S. election, Wente wrote, in part: “But even if John
Kerry wins, I doubt he can deliver. Iran is trying to get nukes.
Someone is planning to drive a truck bomb into a building in New
Jersey, or take a backpack full of dynamite on Chicago’s El, and one
day someone will succeed. Getting rid of George Bush won’t get rid of
all the bad guys in the world. And I’ve got a feeling they don’t care
who’s president.”

Many publications, writers and ordinary people who initially supported
the Bush administration’s War on Terror and then changed their opinion
have explained themselves; The New York Times, for example, embarked on
a public examination of its own work
which it admitted “was not as rigorous as it should have been.” Now
opinions (like Wente’s) are just that — opinions — and perhaps not
subject to the same reporting thoroughness, or standards of rigour,
to which the Times aspires. But for the sake of the Globe‘s credibility, and the credibility of the mainstream media in
— and of Wente’s own credibility  — consistency or
at least thoughtful explanation should be a basic.