By: Roger Aronoff
Accuracy in Media
What was behind Mitt Romney’s unwillingness to use Benghazi as an issue in the 2012 presidential race? The recent book, Double Down, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, which purports to give the most detailed account of the 2012 campaign to date, attempts to answer that question. Halperin appeared on The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel earlier this month to discuss the new book.
Bill O’Reilly wanted to know why Romney didn’t go after Obama more forcefully on Benghazi. “He was crazy, because he had the facts in the third debate right at his disposal,” said O’Reilly. “Yes, he got bammed by the press, but [Romney] could have hammered him easy.”
O’Reilly was referring to the Obama administration’s failures surrounding the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. The security failures at the State Department also reflect on Obama’s administration and on Hillary Clinton’s leadership as Secretary of State.
“His campaign was telling him the country doesn’t care about this issue,” responded Halperin, who works for both Time magazine and MSNBC. He added, “…Every political person on his campaign said, the base cares about this, but the polls say we won’t win on this issue, you need to talk about the economy.” In the book, they wrote that “The campaign’s research showed (as did Chicago’s) that Benghazi meant next to nothing to the small slice of voters who remained undecided.”
Actually, a review of polls at the time tells a different story. It meant a lot to the independents—in other words—the swing voters. According to an October 2012 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, 39% of voters said that the U.S. could have prevented the attack in Libya, and 34% didn’t know enough at the time. Obviously, there was room for a little education of the voters here. And an October 2012 CBS/New York Times poll indicated that evaluations of the administration for its handling of Libya are “more negative among likely voters.” Fifty-seven percent of the all-important independents disapproved of Obama’s handling of the Libya attacks.
In the fall of 2012, then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney attacked President Obama for his administration’s initial response to the Benghazi attack. And he got burned by the media, which were more interested in reporting on Romney’s supposed “gaffe” than on Obama’s lack of leadership in a time of crisis. What Romney had said, in a prepared statement the morning after the Benghazi attack, was, “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Heilemann and Halperin at least acknowledged that Benghazi “was a horrendous failure on the part of the administration,” but they argued that “Romney had distracted attention and scrutiny away from the White House. A potentially brutal blow to the president had been deflected by the man who hoped to replace him.”
Then, Romney got burned again in the presidential debates when he accused President Obama of waffling on whether the Benghazi attacks were an “act of terror” or the result of spontaneous protests provoked by the “Innocence of Muslims” film. Candy Crowley, the moderator, just happened to have a copy of Obama’s September 12th Rose Garden speech at the ready when Obama called out, “Get the transcript.” “He did in fact call it an ‘act of terror,’” she replied. “It did, as well…take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape, to come out, you’re correct about that,” interceded Crowley. Romney accurately responded that “The administration indicated this was a reaction to a video and was a spontaneous reaction. It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by a terrorist group.”
Romney felt burned by the debate incident, even though he was correct in his claim. But, “After those two occasions, he was never going to get near it again,” Halperin told O’Reilly.
“In Obama’s Rose Garden remarks on September 12 and two other speeches, the president had used the phrase ‘acts of terror’ in the context of Benghazi,” wrote Halperin and Heilemann in their book. “But on three other occasions when he was asked directly whether the attack was the work of terrorists, he had declined to say yes—fueling charges from the right that the administration was seeking to limit the president’s political exposure.” But this is an incomplete telling of the events as they occurred.
“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for,” said Obama in his Rose Garden speech. His next sentence was, “Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America.” If there was no additional information available, one could argue that Obama was accurate in his claim of having acknowledged that it was an “act of terror,” which is, however, legally distinguishable from an “act of terrorism” or a “terrorist act.”
But Obama then went on CBS “60 Minutes” and addressed a direct question about what he meant that day: he refused to call it a terrorist attack.
Steve Kroft: Mr. President, this morning you went out of your way to avoid the use of the word terrorism in connection with the Libya attack. Do you believe that this was a terrorist attack?
Barack Obama: Well it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans.
That part of the “60 Minutes” segment was held back by the producers until November 4, 2012, two days before the presidential election. Double Down doesn’t even mention this blatant act of media bias, although it does mention the interview as a whole.
As the account above demonstrates, the media played an active role in deflecting Romney’s barbs, not just Romney himself. As for Halperin and Heilemann, they left out key parts of the story in the book, and Halperin’s account to O’Reilly didn’t match up with the facts.