Selective Memories

With the recent tapering off in U.S. casualties, the war in Iraq has receded—for now—as the dominant issue in Washington. But the battle over the war's origins is as intense as ever. Just in the last few weeks, two of the master spinners in American politics—Bill Clinton and Karl Rove—have offered novel accounts of events leading up to the U.S. invasion in March 2003. The problem is that their new versions are hard to square with the historical record.

Clinton got the most attention last week when he claimed, while campaigning for his wife in Iowa, that he "opposed Iraq from the beginning." That came as a surprise to Hillary Mann Leverett, a former National Security Council staffer who told The Washington Post that the former president had been briefed by the White House about war plans in early 2003; he was so supportive, according to Leverett, that one top aide, Elliott Abrams, came back "literally glowing and boasting that 'we have Clinton's support'." Jay Carson, a Clinton spokesman, insisted the former president had merely listened to a "pro forma technical briefing." But whatever he did or didn't say in private, Clinton barely voiced a word of criticism in public. "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," he said in an April 16, 2003, speech. One month later, at a college commencement speech in Mississippi, he said: "I supported the president when he asked for authority to stand up against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." (Carson says Clinton's position was "always" to avoid military action before weapons inspectors had finished their job.)

Rove's revisionism is, if anything, even more farfetched. In an hourlong Nov. 21 interview with Charlie Rose, 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 wasn't pushing Congress to pass a resolution authorizing military action before the 2002 midterm elections. "The administration was opposed to voting on it in the fall of 2002," Rove said. "We didn't think it belonged within the confines of the election. We thought it made it too political."

Rove's comments seem to fly in the face of White House statements demanding a quick vote to deal with what President Bush called a threat of "unique urgency." Bush called congressional leaders to a meeting on Sept. 4 where, according to Tom Daschle, the then Senate majority leader, the president made clear he wanted Congress to vote before it adjourned. (Daschle says he even asked, "Why the rush?") Rove "has either a very bad memory or he's lying," says Daschle. Two weeks later the White House sent a draft resolution to the Hill, and began pushing aggressively for a vote. "I appreciate the fact that the leadership recognizes we've got to move before the elections," Bush said on Sept. 19.

All this was no accident: according to "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War" (cowritten by the author of this article and journalist David Corn), forcing a vote before the election was exactly the point. A top White House aide at the time, who asked not to be identified talking about internal strategy sessions, explained that the president's advisers wanted to use the upcoming election to pressure skeptical Democrats to back the president—or face being portrayed as soft on national security. "The election was the anvil and the president was the hammer," the aide said.

When Bush launched his lobbying campaign in early September, top Democrats like Daschle and the then House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi expressed concerns that Congress was being stampeded into voting without having time to evaluate the intelligence about Iraqi WMD. "I know of no information that would suggest the threat is so imminent that we have to do it in October," Pelosi was quoted as saying in a Sept. 11, 2002, Los Angeles Times story. In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Democratic chairman Joe Biden urged Bush to follow the path taken by his father during the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War and put off a vote until after the elections—a plea that Biden says got strong "pushback" from the White House. But it is also true that by late September, some Democratic leaders, notably the then House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, supported a quick vote in order to make Iraq less of an issue in the fall campaign.

Rove's comments were greeted with more than a little skepticism. "That is a complete fabrication," says Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel, who recalls urging White House officials to put off the vote. Former Bush counselor Dan Bartlett says, "This is the first time I've ever heard Karl say that." Rove told NEWSWEEK he did not want to say any more on the record. At least for now. As he told Charlie Rose, he's saving his version of events for his upcoming memoirs.