The Last Muckraker

By Emily Gold Boutilier / May / June 2005
May 3rd, 2007

Anyone familiar with Seymour Hersh’s byline in the New Yorker and the New York Times will be unsurprised to learn that when he spoke on campus in March, he labeled George W. Bush one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. But beyond the political bash-fest, Hersh, who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, and who more recently uncovered abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, shed light on the frustration he and other journalists face in covering the Bush administration. “He’s inert,” Hersh lamented. “It doesn’t matter what we write. Other presidents have felt the heat. This guy doesn’t.”

Hersh delivered the annual Meiklejohn Lecture to a full house at the Salomon Center, painting a picture of a president so certain he’s on the right course that even the deaths of a thousand more American soldiers would not deter him. “At some level,” Hersh said, “he thinks he’ll be vindicated.”

Hersh detailed his experience covering the Abu Ghraib scandal, disclosing that insiders told him the rules of the prison were to “do whatever you please” as long as no prisoners died. In his talk, Hersh also questioned the rationale for war in Afghanistan, arguing that the Taliban was not united in favor of Osama bin Laden and was open to negotiations. He said that in early 2002, his sources dropped hints that the military was pulling troops out of Afghanistan to prepare for war in Iraq. “Guys were trying to tell me stuff, but I didn’t pick it up,” Hersh said. “As the guys in the field knew, we hadn’t won in Afghanistan.” Meanwhile, Hersh said, inside the White House advisers were losing face time with top deputies if they questioned going to war in Iraq. The message to the advisers, he said, was “You’ve got to drink the Kool-Aid.”

Hersh took questions after his talk, which took place during a late-season snowstorm, but was abrupt, telling questioners to get to the point so he could “get out of here by nine.” One student asked why, despite overwhelming evidence that the war in Iraq was misguided, Americans are not outraged. “You got a professor you like?” Hersh replied. “Please torture him with that question.”

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May / June 2005