Robert Bennett: Media are failing in Rice coverage

Published: Monday, Dec. 3 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

This June 7, 2012 file photo shows U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice listening during a news conference at the UN. Republican opposition to Rice's possible nomination to be secretary of state began to crack Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, as Sen. John McCain said she was "not the problem" in the White House's explanation about the Sept. 11 attack in Libya and he could be persuaded to swing behind her potential promotion.

Bebeto Matthews, Associated Press

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Some portions of the American media establishment remain obsessed with issues of race and gender, seeing and condeming bias where none exists. Current proof of this can be found in the discussion of the possible appointment of Susan Rice as Secretary of State.

Susan Rice is our ambassador to the United Nations in New York. In the weeks leading up to the election, she was the Obama administration's primary spokesperson on the question, "What caused the attacks that overwhelmed embassy security guards and killed our ambassador and other personnel in Bengazi, Lybia?"

Republicans were charging that the embassy should have been better prepared and protected; Rice's response, offered repeatedly on Sunday talk shows, was that the attacks were a spontaneous — and therefore unforeseeable — reaction to a hateful anti-Muslim video clip produced in the United States. In much of the press corps, her explanation was accepted as "conventional wisdom" and went unchallenged.

Now we know that there were no spontaneous street demonstrations there; the video clip played no role whatsoever. The attack was planned by al Qaeda leaders and carried out on Sept. 11 as a reminder of what they had done to us in 2001. Ambasssador Rice's repeated representations to the contrary were wrong. That's why her possible appointment to replace Secretary Hillary Clinton stirred reactions on the part of two Republican senators with foreign policy backgrounds, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, who questioned the wisdom of her choice and demanded that she explain herself.

Amazingly, for doing so, the senators were branded bigots. Why? Simple: they are old, white males and Susan Rice is a young, African-American female. Case closed.

Such a claim is easily refuted nonsense. Both senators enthusiastically supported the appointment of a secretary of state, before Hillary Clinton, who was young, African-American, female and also named Rice. Those who insist on raising issues of race and gender in this case can be fairly charged with trying to divert attention away from the real issue, which is Ambassador Rice's behavior in a controversial circumstance.

The charge of racism and sexism on the part of Rice's questioners is further discredited by the fact that Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — white, but clearly neither old nor male - spent over an hour with Susan Rice, one on one, and emerged from the session saying she still has doubts about Rice's fitness to serve. Her comments must be given serious consideration.

I understand that the confirmation process is not a choosing process; that must remain a presidential perogative. If a president cannot have complete control over who will occupy policy-making positions in his administration, he cannot be held accountable for their actions. For that reason, while I was in the Senate, I always gave presidential appointees the benefit of the doubt and voted to confirm many nominees whom I would not have picked had the choice been up to me. A president is entitled to great deference in this matter.

But deference is not the same as blind acceptance. The confirmation process should not be a mere rubber stamp. It gives the country a chance for a second look at a controversial choice, and Susan Rice's past behavior has made her controversial. Responsible commentators in the media, even as they express support for her, as is their right, should acknowledge that there are legitimate questions to be asked. Raising inflammatory and easily disputed charges of racism and sexism against those asking them is not good for Ambassador Rice in particular nor the country in general.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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