Downing Suggests Critical Generals Have Axes to Grind, Holt Plays Down Middle

April 15th, 2006 8:16 AM

Different day, different Today show anchor, different attitude. As we documented yesterday,
Couric's Complaint: Why Won't Rumsfeld Critic Bash Bush Too?, when Katie Couric hosted a segment on the matter of the retired generals calling for Donald Rumsfeld's ouster, she chose as her guest one of the generals calling for Rumsfeld's head. Her most notable contributions to the discussion were to invite her guest to take a shot at Pres. Bush as long as he was at it, and to ask why he didn't come out sooner with his criticism so he could have 'shaped public opinion far earlier.'

This morning it was Lester Holt's turn in the Today show host seat. Now, it might just be in the normal course of the news cycle that his guest was a former general who is opposed to Rumsfeld's departure. But there was no mistaking Holt's even-handed treatment of the issues, in stark contrast with Couric's cheerleading for the Rumsfeld-must-go crowd.

Holt set the tone with his introduction of retired U.S. Army general and an NBC analyst Wayne Downing: "To be clear from the outset he is not one of those generals calling for Rumsfeld's resignation."

Holt began with a two-part question. The first part put the fundamental issue in neutral terms, the second, interestingly, questioned the appropriateness of the generals' actions:

"Is the criticism of Rumsfeld valid, and is it appropriate for these retired flag-ranked officers to be calling for his resignation?"

Downing began by acknowledging "we all know mistakes were made after we started this war. I think there's no doubt about that and certainly that's something that retired guys and active duty guys talk about."

But then: "the second question, though, is a key thing. Is it appropriate to raise these issues in a public form by retired generals? I don't think it is. My comment to these generals is 'at ease'. At ease means, let's shut up, let's be quiet. This thing is serving no purpose. You have a stated thing calling for Rumsfeld to resign, that's not the issue. I mean, they know that Secretary Rumsfeld is not going to resign. He's not a quitter. They also know that this president is not going to fire him because that's not the president's style. He's intensely loyal to those who served him and who serve him like Rumsfeld does. The issues are other things."

Holt did press the matter in these terms: "Let's talk about those issues, though, because we know there have been missteps in this war, and many people would think, here are some officers who are directly involved in the war. Shouldn't we be valuing their input? Do they not bring something to the table that you may not hear in the usual partisan channels?"

Downing: "Lester, this is not the forum, the public press is not the forum because they know what they have called for is not going to happen."

Downing then made his most intriguing comments, implying that a number of the Rumsfeld critics have ulterior motives:

"One of these guys is writing a book. One or more of them have political aspirations. One of them has had his favorite program, the program that he worked on for the last three or four years while he was in the military, skewered by Secretary Rumsfeld. Others were not promoted for one reason or another."

Rather than attacking Downing's allegations, Holt recapitulated them: "So you're saying they could have axes to grind?"

Holt later offered up on his own a theory suggesting that the generals' criticism might have been motivated by something other than disagreement with Rumsfeld's military tactics: "When Secretary Rumsfeld came into office as Defense Secretary, he came in forcing a new culture essentially saying the Cold War is over. We need a leaner, meaner, more lethal force. He brought that to Afghanistan. He brought that to Iraq with perhaps not the success that he expected. Is part of what we're seeing perhaps a sense of toes that were stepped on and a sense of folks who did not want to see those cultural shifts?"

Downing: "Well, not necessarily with these particular six generals. I think there are others that felt that way and there is some resistance to Secretary Rumsfeld because he has forced people to change and people don't want to change. I think it's very appropriate."

Concluded Downing: "He's done a lot of things right. There have been mistakes, Lester, but this whole thing of bringing this into a public forum, putting it all over the press, it serves the military profession not well nor do I think it serves the country well."

Holt's performance this morning was typical of his standards of down-the-middle journalism that others at Today and NBC would do well to emulate.