The term "swiftboating" became part of popular American political jargon after the 2004 presidential election. The phrase comes from the organization the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" smear campaign against then presidential candidate John Kerry's military service in Vietnam and subsequent antiwar activities. The term has come to mean political attacks that come from unreliable sources, or even just ad hominem attacks and smear campaigns of a political nature.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the focus of many such attacks after the Democrats regained control of the house and the senate in the 2006 election. The media has exacerbated the effect these attacks by reporting on the GOP’s claims in a one sided fashion, or by creating their own attacks in the form of sideways accusations and unsubstantiated claims.
Leading up to the 2006 election, the media repeatedly stated that the American public strongly sided with Republicans on matters of national security. These statements echoed the advantage that Republicans had in public opinion polls in the 2002 election on matters such Iraq and Terrorism, but these reports bore no resemblance to the polls taken leading up to the election.[i] Public opinion sided with the Democrats leading up to the election.
For example, CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux reported that "national security" or "terrorism" are Republican "strengths." Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s "Hardball" stated "Republicans know from the polls they got two strengths right now" - "terrorism" and "taxes." He then quickly added: "Whether the current polls back that up or not."[ii]
Speaker Pelosi’s clothing seemed to have fascinated the media. There were endless references to Pelosi’s clothing leading up to and after the election, and presumptions as to the manufacturer of each particular item. This had the effect of belittling and marginalizing the speaker, reducing the importance of her role as a leader to merely the insignificance what she was wearing.
A USA Today article from November 8, 2006 described Pelosi as the "Armani-clad daughter of an old-fashioned Baltimore politician."[iii] The Associated Press reported on November 10, 2006 this headline, "Election Scorecard: Arctic caribou, Armani suits win; Big Oil, foot-in-mouth disease lose." The author, Calvin Woodward, said "Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi has an Armani suit so nice she's worn it for years - a blue-gray pantsuit and complementary blouse seen in her first news conference since Election Day and as far back as 2003." He appears to be taking to focus off of Pelosi and putting it on her blue-gray pantsuit, and he is apparently complimenting the pantsuit - but also pointing out that it is old at the same time.
On NBC's Today show on November 11, 2006, co-host Campbell Brown discussed how "Nancy Pelosi's very poised, wearing the beautiful Armani suits, never a hair out of place." On November 20, 2006, Newsweek magazine stated that Pelosi was formerly thought of as a "Shrewish San Francisco liberal," but that now the conventional wisdom was that the "Armani grandma will be history-making Speaker." (The author felt comfortable discussing both her clothing and her status as a grandparent, both subjects not brought up about any of the male politicians.)[iv]
On November 12, the NBC news program The MacLaughlin Group, Washington Times editorial director Tony Blankley said that Pelosi "dresses a lot better" than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Seemingly a compliment, this statement is merely demeaning to Pelosi, reducing the importance of her office to her choice of clothing.
This focus on Pelosi’s clothing by the media did not go unnoticed. Mike Luckovich described the situation in an editorial cartoon. In the first panel of the cartoon House Speaker Pelosi says from the podium, "In my first 100 hours, I pushed through a minimum wage bill, an ethics bill, a bill addressing prescription drug prices." In the second panel a newscaster reports, "In her first 100 hours, she wore Prada, Versace, and Armani."[v]
The media has gone out of its way to conflate the fact that Pelosi is a woman with the false assumption that women in general are emotional and unstable. On November 16, CNN political analyst Bay Buchanan asserted that Pelosi's "judgment is based on emotions and not good sense."[vi] On the November 18 edition of MSNBC Live, news anchor Contessa Brewer spent an entire segment discussing whether House Speaker Pelosi's feeling would affect her leadership ability. She wondered aloud if Pelosi's "personal feelings [were] getting in the way of effective leadership" and if men were "more capable of taking personality clashes." Throughout the segment she indicated that as a woman, Pelosi would have difficulty controlling her emotions.
BREWER: "Brad, do you see that there is a difference between the men-run leadership posts? I mean, are they more capable of taking personality clashes, setting them aside, and saying, ‘In order for me to get ... from point A to point B, I've got to set aside my personal feelings towards this guy’?"[vii]
Much has been made of Pelosi’s demeanor. She has been called cold, ruthless and calculating. (These are all attributes that can be considered positive in a man, especially a male politician.) In an interview with Mike Barnicle on November 13, 2006, Hardball's host Chris Matthews asked if Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive speaker-elect of the House of Representatives, was "going to castrate Rep. Steny Hoyer."[viii] This was an obvious attempt by Mathews to call Pelosi a "bitch" in a sideways fashion.
On CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, CNN correspondent Lisa Sylvester stated that, despite Democratic campaign promises to "implement all of the 9-11 Commission recommendations," Democrats are "now conceding that's harder than they thought."[ix] The show never explained or attributed this quote to anyone. During this segment a caption read across the bottom of the screen that read "Do-Nothing Dems?" This was a reference to the infamous "Do-Nothing Congress" of 1948 (80th United States Congress) that only met for 110 days, and was seemingly only interested in pro-business legislation.
This caption was significant for more than one reason. The program was accusing the Democrats of not doing anything while they were in power. The problem with this assertion is that on the date that this television program ran (December 19, 2006) Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic run congress (110th United States Congress) had not yet taken power- and wouldn't for another two weeks. They were accusing the 110th Congress of being a "Do-Nothing Congress" before they had ever even convened!
The other reason this caption was significant at the time was that the previous Republican led Congress (109th United States Congress) had been called a "Do-Nothing Congress" because they not put through any significant legislation, were considered a "rubberstamp" for the president, and had convened over the previous year for only 103 days, 7 days less than the "Do-Nothing Congress" of 1948. The 109th Congress set a new record for the least amount of days convened in a year.
The Washington Times published a story on February 1, 2006, titled "Speaker pursues military flights," which claimed that Pelosi had been "pressing the Bush administration for routine access to military aircraft for domestic flights, such as trips back to her San Francisco district." Pelosi is "demanding permanent access to a large military jet for herself, her staff, other Members and supporters."[x] As with a smear of Barack Obama a week earlier from the Washington Times, the story is unsubstantiated and based entirely on quotes from unnamed sources.
Of course, the central claims of the Washington Times piece are false. Remember that former Speaker Dennis Hastert also used military aircraft to travel to and from his district. Providing a plane for the speaker of the house is a requirement of the Patriot Act, and thus the whole matter is actually point of law, not a demand or desire of Speaker Pelosi.
It was the House Sergeant at Arms, not Pelosi, who initiated the inquiries into the use of military aircraft. House Sergeant at Arms Wilson Livingood issued a statement that said, "In December 2006, I advised Speaker Pelosi that the US Air Force had made an airplane available to Speaker Hastert for security and communications purposes following September 11, 2001." Additionally, Livingood writes, "I offered to call the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense to seek clarification of the guidelines [which governed Speaker Hastert's use of a plane]."
Livingood had requested a larger plane because the distance between the capitol and Pelosi home district was far greater than was Hastert trip. Only a larger plane could make the trip without refueling.
The media gave considerable attention to this story, and consistently ran only one side of the story, that is the Washington Times version of the story. For example, CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight ran the unsubstantiated version of the story for 6 nights without explaining the truth, repeating the attack and reiterating the inaccuracies. Dobbs ran the story all that time despite the fact that it had been debunked the same day it was printed.
The US News & World Report, an infinitely more respectable news source than the Washington Times, ran a story[xi] on the subject that was virtually ignored by the television media. The story not only pointed out the inaccuracies of the Washington Times story, but gave insight into the motivation behind the story in the first place.
One of the lesser-known aspects of the "Air Pelosi" controversy is the degree to which the fuss is payback for the House speaker's decision to hold legislators to a five-day workweek instead of the three- or four-day schedule adopted by the Republicans in the past.
But Pelosi has been attacked by GOP legislators for extravagance and hypocrisy, since she has criticized Republicans for taking too many perks when they controlled Capitol Hill.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow has sided with Pelosi. But GOP insiders say the issue has a lot to do with Pelosi's work-week requirements, which many legislators consider a PR stunt that imposes a real burden on them getting home to be with their families and constituents.
That said, the aircraft fuss has become "an irresistible target" for the GOP legislators, says a Republican insider.
It bears explaining that Pelosi changed the work week at the house fron a 3 day week to a 5 day work week, and with less time off for vacation. Previously, the work week "started late Tuesday and ended by Thursday afternoon," reports UPI, but Pelosi had changed things in the house, and representatives are now "expected in the Capitol for votes each week by 6:30 p.m. Monday and will wrap up about 2 p.m. Friday."[xii]
Rep. Jack Kingston warned that the "The K Street money is going to drift away from us." Meaning that he felt that the K-Street lobbyists would abandon the Republican Party because they would not have time to consult with them.
"Keeping us up here eats away at families," Kingston said. "Marriages suffer. The Democrats could care less about families -- that's what this says."
Kingston is famous for being against raising the minimum wage because it would be bad for consumers and the economy.[xiii] During the recent debate over minimum wage issues, Kingston remarked that if people want to get out of poverty, they need to work longer hours and get married.
On March 24, 2007, the House passed the U.S. Troops Readiness, Veterans’ Health and Iraq Accountability Act.[xiv] The bill stipulates, among other things, that the Bush Administration must meet current Department of Defense standards for troop readiness, the Iraqi government must meet key security, political and economic benchmarks, and provides funding for the Veterans Administration to reverse some of the cuts made by the executive branch in the past few years.
This bill also signified the first piece of successful legislation to stand defiant against the president's war policy since the beginning of the conflict. The vote in the house was close, only 218 to 212, not enough to block a promised veto.
Despite Bush's promise to veto the House Iraq bill, this bill was still a major victory for Pelosi. Repeatedly the media mischaracterized the House and Senate bills as efforts to "stymie" Bush's request for war funding, and endanger the troops. An ABC News.com headline repeated Bush's assertion that Democrats are "undercutting troops." NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams suggested the Iraq spending bills would leave them "high and dry in the middle of the fight."
In April 2007, The White House lashed out at Speaker Nancy Pelosi for daring to visit Syria. White House spokesperson Dana Perino said:
I do think that, as a general rule — and this would go for Speaker of the House Pelosi and this apparent trip that she is going to be taking — that we don’t think it’s a good idea.
I’m not sure what the hopes are to — what she’s hoping to accomplish there. I know that Assad probably really wants people to come and have a photo opportunity and have tea with him, and have discussions about where they’re coming from, but we do think that’s a really bad idea.
The press has repeated statements by politicians and pundits alike about how it has been reported that Pelosi is trying to usurp the authority of the president, she is coddling terrorists, or she is trying to set foreign policy in the region separate from the state department.
All of these reports are going unchallenged overall, despite the fact that the White House had a delegation of Republicans in Syria already. At least five Republican congressmen had visited Syria within the previous month. This was not mentioned to the press by the White House, nor has the press reported on this fact overall despite the fact that this is common knowledge among Washington reporters and the Associated Press. Pelosi had rebutted this false characterization early as April 2.[xv]
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Monday shrugged off White House criticism of her upcoming trip to Damascus. Speaking hours after arriving in Lebanon, Pelosi indicated the Bush administration was singling out her trip to Syria, but ignoring the recent visits by Republican members of Congress. "It's interesting because three of our colleagues, who are all Republicans, were in Syria yesterday and I didn't hear the White House speaking out about that," Pelosi said; "I think that it was an excellent idea for them to go," said Pelosi, who is to meet Syrian leaders Wednesday. "And I think it's an excellent idea for us to go, as well."
For example, on CNN's The Situation Room on April 2, 2007, CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux interviewed former UN Ambassador John Bolton. Among the questions asked were those about the White House denouncing Pelosi's scheduled trip to Syria. Malveaux did not mention the Republican-led delegation that had been in Damascus the previous day. Malveaux's final question to Bolton was, "Do you think that this also perhaps portends to something that might happen in the future? I'm being somewhat flip, but you know, Syria today, Iran tomorrow. I mean, where does it end?"[xvi]
So it seems to be perfectly OK with the media when Sen. Arlen Specter and others made their own visits to Syria. The message that the media is sending would seem to be clear, it's only OK to go to Syria if you are a Republican.
Among the some of the press and most of the right-wing blogosphere recent photos of Pelosi wearing a headscarf during her trip to Syria has generated a mountain of controversy. It is traditional in most of the Arab world for women to cover their heads, and Pelosi was merely wearing a scarf to adapt to the accepted practices of the region. These are some of the statements made by the right-wing bloggers:
Instapundit: "FEMINIST IN AMERICA, subservient in Syria."
The New Editor: "This picture disgusts me. What message is Nancy Pelosi trying to send? Are women equal to men, or not? Why is modesty foisted only upon women?"
Little Green Footballs: "Pelosi in a Hijab. The modern Democratic leadership. How ... quaint."
So sentiment was running high about Pelosi wearing a headscarf, apparently coddling Muslim leaders in Syria. What was not reported or compared were the many photographs of First Lady Laura Bush wearing a headscarf when she visited the Middle East in 2005. There are also photographs of Condoleeza Rice wearing a headscarf in Tajikastan. The message that the media is sending would seem to be clear, it's only OK to go to wear a scarf in the Middle East if you are a Republican.
The custom of women being required to wear a headscarf is not unknown to the United States. There was a time, not that long ago, when women were required to cover their hair in Catholic churches. Apparently scarves are still a requirement at some shrines in the Vatican.
More so than other politicians, Nancy Pelosi has had to endure the slings and arrows of the media during her stay in office, and especially now that she is the speaker of the house.
i. NEWSWEEK Poll: Too Little, Too Late?. MSNBC.
Washington Post-ABC News Poll. (2006, Oct. 23). Washington Post.
NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, (2006, Oct. 16). Wall Street Journal.
USA Today/Gallup poll. (2006, Oct. 8).
ii. Top election falsehoods, myths, and talking points. (2006, Nov. 3). Media Matters.
iii. Stone, Andrea. (2006, Nov. 9) Pelosi to be first woman to lead Congress. USA Today.
iv. CW: The Great Thumping Edition. (2006, Nov. 20). Newsweek magazine.
v. The Cartoonist Group. Mike Luckovich's Editorial Cartoons. Lukovitch, Mike.
vi. New Democratic House Leaders Chosen. (2006, Nov. 16). CNN.
vii. Gender stereotypes and discussions of Armani suits dominate media's coverage of Speaker-elect Pelosi. (2006, Nov. 20). Media Matters.
viii. Matthews asked if Pelosi is "going to castrate Steny Hoyer" if he becomes majority leader. (2006, Nov. 14) Pelosi to be first woman to lead Congress. Media Matters.
ix. Lou Dobbs Tonight caption: "Do-Nothing Dems?". (2006, Dec. 19). Media Matters.
x. Scarborough, Rowan. (2007, Feb. 1) Speaker pursues military flights. The Washington Times.
xi. Walsh, Kenneth T. 'Air Pelosi': Payback for 5-Day Week?. (2007, Feb. 9). US News & World Report.
xii. Congress in shock over 5-day workweek. (2006, Dc.6) United Press International.
xiii. Makes Me Wish I Owned a Violin Factory. (2006, Dec. 6) Matthew Fleischer.
xiv. The U.S. Troops Readiness, Veterans' Health and Iraq Accountability Act.
xv. Pelosi shrugs off White House criticism of Syria trip. (2007, Apr/ 2). Think Progress.
xvi. CNN's Malveaux parroted White House criticism of Pelosi's Syria visit, but ignored GOP-led trip. (2007, Apr. 2). Media Matters.