U.S. "smart bombs" weren't really so smart. Iraq's mobile Scud launchers weren't really destroyed in large numbers. There were far more civilian casualties in Baghdad than the Pentagon had acknowledged during the war. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was admittedly "suckered" in failing to ban Iraqi helicopters from the skies immediately after the war, thus enabling Hussein's forces to massacre thousands of Kurds.
"But people thought they had seen the war with their own eyes," says Edward Kosner, editor and publisher of New York magazine. "They saw the U.S. achieve our basic objective of getting Iraq out of Kuwait. With U.S. casualties very light, nothing else really mattered, and there was little room for recriminations," whether they involved secret, allegedly illegal policies before the war or misleading information during the war.
Many journalists agree:
* Iraqgate and critical analysis of the war itself "complicate what was a very simple story," says Michael Kinsley, a syndicated columnist. "We were mad at Hussein. We went to war. We won."
* The national mood was not to "besmirch something that was fine and beautiful," Safire says.
* "Most people tend not to hear things they don't want to hear," says Seymour Hersh, an author and former New York Times reporter.
Moreover, Hersh says, the press corps had been "cowed by 12 years of press spin control by the Bush and Reagan administrations," and--as with Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal--most reporters were not eager to go after Bush on Iraqgate.
But the explanation is more complicated than that.
As election polls have repeatedly shown in recent months, most people seem to care about only one issue now--the economy. The economy is a complex story, but it can be reduced to a very simple story: People need jobs. People need money.
Most voters don't seem to care what the President did for Hussein three or four years ago--or what he knew or didn't know about Iran-Contra when Reagan was President; they want to know what the President--whoever he is--is going to do for them right now.
Even in more receptive times, Iraqgate would have been a complex story to communicate to the average reader and viewer, though. It involves foreign banks, international subterfuge and a large cast of largely unknown characters, operating in secret over several years' time. It's not a the kind of "sexy," simple story, with instant titillation and a clear resolution, that generally makes for immediate impact. Many journalists say all that helped keep the story from making a big splash on television--and that kept it from registering significantly with the American public.
But Douglas Frantz, a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, believes that the complexity argument is a "cop-out."
Along with Murray Waas, a free-lance writer who brought the original Iraqgate documents and other information to The Times, Frantz has written and reported most of the paper's Iraqgate stories, and he doesn't think Iraqgate is much more complex than many other stories he's written over the years.
"All the important characters are Americans, and they're figures who are involved at the highest levels of government," Frantz says.
Many in the media disagree with Frantz on the complexity issue, but--more important--they also point out that, unlike either the economy or the Gulf War, Iraqgate has no real personal resonance for most news consumers. In the war, many people personally knew some of the troops sent overseas, and many others worried about whether the war might expand and whether Iraqi terrorists might strike targets in the United States. With the economy, people worry about losing their jobs and paying their bills.
Iraqgate is just another (alleged) government scandal, though--and one involving a faraway country at that. Most Americans are notoriously uninterested in other countries unless it directly affects them--as in a war or, in the mid-1970s, the Arab oil crisis.
"The value of the dollar relative to foreign currencies is important to the United States, but it doesn't seem important or relevant to most people here until it affects them personally--when they're traveling abroad or planning to do so soon," says Daniel Wegner, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
That's one reason that the famine in Somalia and the violent unrest in Bosnia-Herzegovina "took weeks and weeks to bang into peoples's consciousness" here, in the words of columnist Kinsley.
"There's no suggestion of Americans going over there to fight," says Morley Safer of "60 Minutes."