Bill, Karl and War Revisionism

In the course of a few days, two of the country's best-known political figures—Bill Clinton and Karl Rove—have both offered their own new versions of the politics surrounding the war in Iraq. The only problem is that their revisionist accounts are hard to square with almost everything that has been said or written before.

Clinton is being widely criticized by bloggers and political foes for claiming, while campaigning for his wife in Iowa, that he "opposed Iraq from the beginning." His comments are seemingly contradicted by a well-documented historical record—showing the former president explaining his position quite differently at the time.

"Saddam is gone and good riddance," Clinton said in an April 16, 2003, speech in New York. Clinton defended president Bush's decision to go to war, even though no weapons of mass destruction had yet been found. "I don't think you can criticize the president for trying to act on the belief that they have a substantial amount of chemical and biological stock ...That is what I was always told."

Jay Carson, a Clinton spokesman, was quoted this week as pointing to other comments Clinton made shortly before the war, in which the former president suggested U.N. inspectors should be given more time to look for weapons. But even the most cursory Lexis-Nexis search shows that Clinton never publicly distanced himself from Bush's overall approach before the war. "I think he's doing the right thing right now," Clinton told CNN interviewer Larry King on Feb. 6, 2003. Moreover, he continued to defend Bush—and the congressional vote to authorize the war that his wife supported—even as it became clear in the late spring of 2003 that the U.S. occupation was not going well.

"I supported the president when he asked for authority to stand up against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Clinton said in a college commencement speech in Mississippi on May 18, 2003.

Meanwhile Rove has engaged in some equally startling revisionist history.

In an hourlong interview with Charlie Rose that aired Nov. 21, the night before Thanksgiving, the former presidential strategist (and now an occasional NEWSWEEK commentator) claimed that "one of the untold stories about the war" is that the White House never wanted the Congress to vote on the resolution authorizing the president to wage war in Iraq before the 2002 midterm elections. Rove said he would tell the full story in the book he is currently writing. But he offered the first eyebrow-raising glimpse in the Rose interview.

"I just told you the administration was opposed to voting on it [Iraq] in the fall of 2002," Rove said.

"Because?" Rose asked.

"Because we didn't think it belonged within the confines of the election. There was an election coming up within a matter of weeks. We thought it made it too political … It seemed to make things move too fast. There were things that needed to be done to bring along allies and potential allies abroad."

Rove's comments seem to fly in the face of a barrage of White House speeches and pronouncements pushing for a quick vote on the Iraq war resolution in the fall of 2002 to deal with what Bush called a threat of "unique urgency." The White House launched its campaign for an Iraq war resolution by calling congressional leaders to a meeting with the president on Sept. 4. At the meeting, just two months before the midterm elections, Bush first told them of his intention to press for an Iraq war resolution before they adjourned. Two weeks later, the White House sent its sweeping draft war resolution to Capitol Hill, and began pushing aggressively for a vote right away, before members went home to campaign. "I appreciate the fact that the leadership recognizes we've got to move before the elections," Bush said at a White House ceremony on Sept. 19. All of this was no accident: at an earlier Sept. 3 strategy meeting of top White House advisers, then White House chief of staff Andrew Card "said the game plan was to ask Congress to vote on a formal resolution authorizing military force in Iraq before the midterm elections," wrote journalist Bob Woodward in "Plan of Attack," a book about the run-up to the Iraq War that benefited from direct access to key participants.

In another account, laid out in "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War" (co-written by Isikoff), a top White House aide at the time said the president's advisers specifically wanted to use the pressure of the upcoming election to force skeptical Democrats to back the president—or face being portrayed by Bush as soft on national security. The campaign calendar was driving the timing of the vote on Iraq, said the former aide, who asked not to be identified talking about internal strategy sessions. "The election was the anvil and the president was the hammer," the aide said.

Rove's comments are even more surprising because much of the evidence for the White House political strategy was readily available at the time. It was Rove himself who laid out the administration's plans to emphasize national-security issues against the Democrats in the fall elections that year. "We can go to the country on this issue," Rove proclaimed at a Republican gathering that January, because the American people "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America."

When Bush launched his lobbying campaign for a war resolution in early September, it was prominent Democrats, including then House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi and then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who expressed concerns that Congress was being stampeded into voting on an Iraq war resolution without having time to carefully evaluate the intelligence. "I know of no information that would suggest the threat is so imminent that we have to do it in October," Pelosi was quoted in a Sept. 11, 2002, Los Angeles Times story that ran under the headline, CONGRESS BALKS AT RUSHING VOTE. In the same story, Daschle said: "It's so important that we do this right, not rush to some judgment." The most charitable explanation of Rove's comments may be that he was trying to suggest it was Republican leaders in the Senate, more than the White House, who wanted an Iraq War vote before the elections—in hopes of bolstering the GOP's chances of recapturing the Senate. And it is certainly true that by early October, some Democratic leaders, notably then House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, supported a quick vote in order to take Iraq off the table as an issue in the fall campaign.

But today, some of Rove's old foes are anything but charitable. "Rove has either a very bad memory or he's lying," said Daschle in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. (In an unaired portion of the same Charlie Rose interview, Rose also commented on a recent excerpt from Scott McClellan's forthcoming book in which the former White House press secretary asserted he had been provided with false information when he told reporters Rove and former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby were "not involved" in the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson's identity. Rove said McClellan's remarks had been "misinterpreted" and then added: "The fact of the matter is that I told Scott something that was absolutely true. And it's been borne out by the facts. I did not knowingly disclose the identity or name of the CIA agent." According to testimony at Libby's trial, Rove did, however, confirm the leak of Wilson's identity to columnist Robert Novak and then volunteered the same information to Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper.)

Even one of Rove's former White House colleagues seemed puzzled by his remarks on the Iraq War vote. "This is the first time I've ever heard Karl say that," said former Bush counselor Dan Bartlett. (He added that he didn't want to comment further until he had a chance to consult his files.) Rove did not respond to an e-mail request for comment. As he told Charlie Rose, he's saving his version for the bookstores.