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Media That Claimed Bush Chilled Speech Strangely Quiet Under Obama

Beginning just days after 9/11, media regularly worried about Bush chilling speech. Why are they so eerily quiet about Obama’s attacks on free expression?


On September 30, 2001, Maureen Dowd published a column in The New York Times in which she lambasted the Bush administration for creating a climate where she said speech was restricted. A mere 19 days after Islamist terrorists had launched their most successful attack against the U.S., Dowd sounded the alarm.

Her primary example was actually not quite accurately conveyed. The real story is that Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer had critiqued a Republican congressman’s bigoted remarks against turban-wearers as well as comedian Bill Maher’s comments that the U.S. military was cowardly while terrorists had the virtue of bravery. Louisiana Rep. John Cooksey had said, “If I see someone come in and he’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked.” Maher had said, “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, that’s not cowardly.”

Asked about those comments during a presser, Fleischer had called for prudence saying, “I’m aware of the press reports about what he’s said. I have not seen the actual transcript of the show itself. But assuming the press reports are right, it’s a terrible thing to say. And it’s unfortunate. And that’s why there was an earlier question about, “Has the President said anything to people in his own party?” There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.”

Many people lost their minds. For years after that. Dowd’s column probably started it all, but even years later New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said Fleischer “ominously warned” Americans to “watch what they say, watch what they do.” He accused him of telling Americans “to accept the administration’s version of events, not ask awkward questions.”

A few years after that, then-New York Times columnist Frank Rich said Fleischer “condemned Bill Maher’s irreverent comic response to 9/11 by reminding ‘all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.’ Fear itself — the fear that ‘paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,’ as FDR had it — was already being wielded as a weapon against Americans by their own government.” These are just three examples of prominent columnists from one media establishment. Over at The Washington Post in 2009 (!), the imaginative Dana Milbank said of Fleischer’s remarks that they were “intended to be chilling” and that he “was basically telling people ‘we’re at war; shut your mouth.'”

Dissent, we were told time and time again during the Bush presidency, is the highest form of patriotism.

Fleischer, for his part, has said his words “could have been more carefully chosen,” but that “my remarks urged tolerance and openness and were addressed to those who made statements and threatened actions against Muslims or Sikhs in America.”

The media and various other progressives also were upset by Bush’s remarks from his September 20, 2001, address to Congress in which he bluntly said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Dowd said, “Even as the White House preaches tolerance toward Muslims and Sikhs, it is practicing intolerance, signaling that anyone who challenges the leaders of an embattled America is cynical, political and — isn’t this the subtext? — unpatriotic.”

Dissent, we were told time and time again during the Bush presidency, is the highest form of patriotism.

Is Dissent Still Patriotic?

Cut to last week when Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) explained why he was one of the rare, unquestioning supporters of President Obama’s proposed Syrian refugee policy:

Which is nothing at all compared to what Obama said about how people opposed to his policy distractions needed to watch what they said and did because they were helping recruit terrorists. Really:

I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s coming out of here during the course of this debate.

This is years after both Hillary Clinton and Obama were featured in a video the Obama administration aired in Pakistan. In that video, which was a response to the incendiary, anti-Islam video made by an American, Obama claimed that in the U.S., “we reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” Clinton said of the U.S. government, “we absolutely reject its content and message.”

Except that our country doesn’t reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. In fact, we state quite clearly that we believe everyone has the right to denigrate the religious beliefs of anyone, from Mormon to Methodist to Muslim. And the U.S. government has no business weighing in on videos made by Americans and has no right to try to get Google to pull it down when people object to it.

Obama further “chilled” religious and political speech by saying before the U.N. that “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”

An Obama official just last week made ominous comments about critics of Islam when he said that the massacre of Charlie Hebdo employees had a “legitimacy” and certain “rationale” to it.

In these cases, Obama officials have gone far beyond admonitions to prudence and lobbed direct assaults against principles that underlie multiple aspects of the First Amendment. I’m sure I’ve missed Dowd, Krugman, and Rich’s columns sounding the alarm.