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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Conservative spin befuddles the media

WASHINGTON

WEAK IN THE face of The Great Conservative Attack Machine, two of America's more beleaguered institutions are now struggling with its equally ugly sibling, The Great Conservative Retreat Machine.

From pre-Iraq War British government memos to an autopsy report in Florida to the release of all the scraps of John Kerry's military records, conservatives are attempting to argue the opposite of what they recently claimed .

In the political world, the consensus is that it's working and that those beleaguered institutions, namely the news media and the Democratic Party, are once again flat-footed or worse.

The Bush administration insisted three years ago that war with Iraq was essential to halt Saddam Hussein's program developing weapons of mass destruction. Faced first with no evidence after the war and now with documents from Tony Blair's government detailing US hype, deception, and lack of preparedness for the war's aftermath, the same people are now using almost identical words to mask today's absurd realities.

Administration and Republican congressional leaders also spent virtually all of March in rhetorical unison, spreading the lie that the late Terri Schiavo was a responsive, feeling, communicative person and thus worthy of federal intervention to fix a legal case against her husband so that her feeding tube could remain in perpetuity. Sworn testimony and unanimous rulings to the contrary from judges were then used as the basis for a vicious attack, again by the right-wing chorus, on the very concept of an independent judiciary.

Faced with elaborate medical evidence of a person with half a brain and no eyesight, there was a skillful combination of the preposterous claim that only the truth was being sought and unctuous assurances from Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who told a national television audience last week that he had put the episode behind him and moved on.

For nearly a month during last year's presidential campaign, the news media and conservative activists trumpeted ''charges" that Senator Kerry's record for valorous service in Vietnam was a fraud. The absence of evidence, except to the contrary, was no hindrance to the attack machine's operation; and the presence of Kerry's records is no hindrance to a decision by all those parties to last year's outrage to simply stand mute today. Today's political and media silence would appear to suggest that both players realize that last year's real fraud by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was just politics. And we wonder why so few people bother to vote.

Democrats and their progressive allies fume and blog, and the news media, having largely repeated the attack machine's lines, switch roles and ''report" the opposite. In the case of the Downing Street memos -- a thick package of detailed accounts of top-level Bush administration plans and thoughts -- there is first silence and then a chorus of the worst excuse in journalism: I did something on that in 2002 and this is old news.

It took one of Congress's best analysts of the absurd, Representative Barney Frank, to define Bush's Downing Street response. As a reading of the White House record this month shows, the indications of an artificial blending of intelligence analysis with war-making intentions and negligence where the war's aftermath was concerned were false, but anyway it's old news and not important. At a rump hearing by Democrats looking to give the memos more publicity, Frank didn't have to wonder aloud how both statements could be true. The only things that appears to matter politically is that both statements are repeated.

Except for a few holdouts on the loony right, the Schiavo autopsy was so definitive there was no refutation possible, no room for ''I'd do it again." But neither has there been any acceptance of responsibility, much less apology from Frist for offering a phony diagnosis based on her staged hospital video, or from House majority leader Tom DeLay for his claim that speech-therapy was what Schiavo needed.

Where Kerry is concerned, the right-wingers behind the slander directed at him all hid, while the news media demonstrated their fervor for seriousness by emphasizing that his military files included his Yale grade-point average.

What too many people don't realize is that the Retreat Machine is simply the pause before the next round of attacks. According to the buzz there's a ''hot" book coming in days that will ''destroy" Senator Hillary Clinton's plans to be president. Can't wait.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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