Boston When I was 22, I went directly from being a history major in college to being a researcher at Newsweek. The moment of culture shock came late one Friday night when I was reluctant to put my red line of approval under some data.
Deadline loomed and a more experienced and harried fact-checker said to me in exasperation: "You know, it doesn't matter if it's right, as long as you have a source for it."
The dubious hint from this journalistic Heloise was that no one got into serious, job-ending doo-doo as long as they had a citation. It was OK to print something wrong as long as you could shift the blame.
I have been thinking of that fact-checker over the past week. I wonder if she went on to a career in the White House.
Today, the search for the elusive weapons of mass destruction has become the search for the elusive accuracy of 16 little words in the president's State of the Union address. The words under the microscope are these: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
It turns out that the Niger-uranium connection was as phony as those Nigerian e-mails asking for money. The only true thing we learned is that "yellowcake" isn't a Betty Crocker mix.
Last week, the administration admitted it shouldn't have put the sweet 16 into the speech. CIA Director George Tenet confessed, sort of, that it was his fault for not excising them. And then the credo of the infamous fact-checker took over.
Condoleezza Rice said, "the statement that he made was indeed accurate. The British government did say that." Donald Rumsfeld said, "People think it was technically accurate." And Ari Fleischer added, "No one can accurately tell you it was wrong."
So here we are. The AOL News line is flashing "Another Day, Another Death." We haven't found weapons of mass destruction. Saddam is on the loose. The postwar meter is running at $3.9 billion a month. Meanwhile, the White House has gone from saying their facts were right, to saying you can't prove they were wrong and, anyway, we had a British source. Never mind that the source is in trouble over its own "dodgy dossier."
Despite all this, there's one thing I can agree with. As Rice put it, the idea that "the president of the United States took the country to war because he was concerned with one sentence about whether Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Africa" is "ludicrous."
It was far more than one sentence. What matters isn't the footnote, but the overall case for war. And the case for war was, at heart, fear.
One year ago, Iraq was just another point on the "axis of evil." But in October, Bush warned a country still reeling from 9-11 that if America didn't confront Iraq it would "resign itself to fear." In the State of the Union address he added: "Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein."
The fear dossier was built on WMDs and there's no W with more MD than a nuke. So long before the Niger fiasco, Rice said famously, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
I'm not one of the folks Bush accuses of wanting to rewrite history -- "revisionist historians is what I like to call them." Yes, Saddam had chemicals and wanted nuclear weapons.
But as Bush himself said, "Saddam Hussein was a threat to America and the free world in '91, in '98, in 2003."
So what made this despot (as opposed to other despots) a target for war (rather than containment) in 2003 (rather than 2001 or 2005)? What made it critical enough to go to war virtually alone?
The rationale -- if not the reason -- was a clear, immediate Iraqi threat. The president used fear writ large to justify pre-emptive war as "anticipatory self-defense."
This is a policy that depends -- far too much -- on trust and on straight information. Now, proof has gone down the drain with the yellowcakes. Some 56 percent of Americans polled by CBS now think the administration overstated its case. Less than half think Iraq was a threat that needed immediate action.
In the meantime, nukes are rattling in Iran and North Korea. We have no idea if our intelligence is "darn good" or damn skewed. We're left to pick up the rising bill and weigh the shrinking credibility.
In the midst of this, Donald Rumsfeld declares the political storm over: "End of story." Someone get that man a red pencil and a much better source.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.