This week brought the long-awaited congressional testimony from General David Patraeus. Subsequent chatter centered on Iraq War policy, but a sub-narrative emerged in the media: should Democrats condemn a MoveOn.org advertisement? MoveOn's Tom Mattzie defends the controversial ad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: General Petraeus believes we have now reached the point where we can maintain our security gains with fewer American forces. He has recommended that we - BOB GARFIELD: That was the President Thursday, commenting on the congressional appearance of General David Petraeus. Some likened his testimony this week to that of General William Westmoreland's 40 years ago.
True, both were put in the hot seat to defend a problematic war policy but, really, Petraeus was depicted by the President and the press more as Moses than Westmoreland. SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: He is a determined, resourceful and bold commander. MALE CORRESPONDENT: One of the most respected, independent-minded men, a father figure on counterinsurgency. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: — the general who came in and devised a team of intellectuals to surround him and support him MAN: The most talented person I ever met in my life. MAN: Right, right. BOB GARFIELD: Petraeus was now in the front line of the war at home, and, like Moses - we like that analogy - he stood in the shallows, ready to part a sea of suspicion. But even before he opened his mouth, the tide was already rising, as advance word of his testimony leaked out. GEORGE STEPHANOPOLOUS: Today's new ABC News poll shows that he's facing a skeptical country. MALE CORRESPONDENT: — finds that more than half of Americans expect Petraeus to exaggerate progress in Iraq, and two-thirds say it won't make any difference. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] [OVERTALK] KEITH OLBERMAN: A majority of Americans assumed, going in, it was a cheap sales job. BOB GARFIELD: The powerful online liberal advocacy group MoveOn fired off a full-page newspaper ad with the general's picture and the words "General Petraeus or Betray Us?" Suddenly the ad was the big story. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Is this the gift that keeps on giving for the Republicans? They keep hammering on this. MALE CORRESPONDENT: And then, frankly, it will strike a lot of fair-minded Americans as sort of a below-the belt kind of attack before we've even had a chance to hear it. WOLF BLITZER: In this ad, “General Petraeus or General Betray Us,” are the Democrats overplaying their hand if they go ahead with this line of attack? BROOKE GLADSTONE: The ad was a blunt instrument in a battle that has intensified in response to a more Democratic Congress and a more disillusioned public. We'll look first at the antiwar front. Tom Matzzie is the Washington director of MoveOn.org, also the campaign manager of an affiliated group called Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. He says the ad did what it what it was meant to do. TOM MATZZIE: It got a lot of attention and raised important questions about the facts which General Petraeus couldn't seem to register in his testimony this week. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think making Petraeus the target was the right strategy? TOM MATZZIE: Well, there's a couple of things that were behind the strategy. The first thing is we had to raise questions about what he was saying. He was saying that violence is down in Iraq. In fact, this has been the bloodiest summer yet since the war began.
The second thing that's important is Democrats were asking questions about the war while the Republicans were ranting about a newspaper ad, and that sort of a contrast is, I think, very harmful to the Republican message. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, the problem with antiwar movements - take Vietnam - is that the people protesting in the street aren't necessarily the kind of people that mainstream Americans can identify with. They're seen as disrespecting our institutions, which is what you seem to be doing when you label a respected military man who disagrees with you essentially a traitor. TOM MATZZIE: The Washington chattering class has this fidelity to certain norms for, you know, political discourse. But let's be straight about it. In a democracy you have to be able to question the uniformed military. We appreciate their service. We honor their sacrifice. But, especially for the generals, there needs to be accountability for their actions. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don't you think that the Petraeus ad, which takes a cheap shot, basically, at his name by rhyming it with "Betray us," is likely to alienate the very moderate Americans that you're seeking to enlist to your side? TOM MATZZIE: Well, some people probably won't like the ad, but they probably hate the war in Iraq more. The ad's value was that it was able to echo [?] a message about questions. If it was just a soft step, no one would have heard about it.
You know, let's be clear. The ad did not call General Petraeus a traitor. It said, "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" It had posed a question about whether or not the general in his testimony was going to betray the confidence of the American people. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you also work with an organization affiliated with MoveOn called Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. How does its tactics differ from MoveOn's? TOM MATZZIE: MoveOn is a grass roots membership organization. Americans Against Escalation in Iraq is more like a presidential campaign in its tactics. Americans against Escalation in Iraq has P.R. professionals who are working every day to make sure when there are newspaper reports that come out, if the facts are wrong, those reporters get phone calls and they're told, here, go look at this GAO report. Go look and see what the other experts are saying and fix what you're reporting on.
And a big part of it is about the media. In a lead-up to the war in Iraq, most media outlets did not do their job in questioning the assertions of the Bush administration, and at this point in our history, we're not going to let that happen again. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You explain the need also to give the media metaphors to report on. What are some of the metaphors that you've put forth? TOM MATZZIE: John McCain walking through a Baghdad market covered with body armor, surrounded by 100 Marines, a couple of helicopters. You know, that is a metaphor for someone who's out of touch with the facts.
So sometimes we create the metaphors. We, you know, got the photos, and not just the tight shots but the wide shots that showed him surrounded by, you know, a battalion of Marines. We made sure that TV producers saw it. We made sure that print reporters saw it, radio producers. And then it was posted on widely read blogs and the video was made available on YouTube.
And then, you know, our P.R. professionals just kept hammering at it, talking to reporters and getting the word out about it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know you're always on the ready for one of these things. Do you see one coming around the corner? Are you looking at the debates? TOM MATZZIE: Yes. There's already been a couple that happened this week. General Petraeus, when asked by Senator Warner whether or not the war in Iraq is making us safe, saying, I don't know, with kind of a shoulder shrug. You know, we seized onto that, circulated the video all over the country. That became the headline news on Tuesday night.
And John Boehner, in his trip from Iraq, said that the war in Iraq was a small price to pay. You know, I think for military families who have lost a loved one, that's a serious insult. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom, thank you very much. TOM MATZZIE: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Matzzie is the Washington director of MoveOn.org and the campaign manager of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq.