Schwarzkopf interview neither tough nor soft


March 27, 1991|By Michael Hill

The meteoric rise of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to mythological status doesn't get slowed down at all by the hour-long "Talking with David Frost" interview that will air on PBS tonight.

While Frost doesn't adopt the hem-kissing, hero-worshiping posture that has become so common among those who dare to approach the military hero of the Persian Gulf, he clearly tries to steer clear of the confrontational style that so many in the press adopted during the war.

Instead, he conducts the interview -- taped in Saudi Arabia a week ago, airing tonight at 8 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67 -- with something of a diplomatic mein, a we're-above-it-all-now approach, trying to get himself up onto Schwarzkopf's cushy cloud instead of attempting to get the general to descend to the land of mere mortals once again.

It was probably wise. Trying in any way even to hint that you are questioning Schwarzkopf's hero status these days would be like taking on Albert Einstein in physics -- you're bound to lose.

Instead, Frost opts for simply getting Schwarzkopf on the record. He talks about exactly when he came up with the strategy of coming around the Iraqis' right flank, the speedy move through the desert that met almost no opposition and made Iraqi resistance futile.

He gets Schwarzkopf to say that CNN shouldn't have aired the video of the downed American pilots reading statements calling for an end to the war. The general says that this aids and abets the enemy's transgression of the Geneva accords.

At that point Frost could have come back at him, noting that the Iraqi propaganda strategy backfired on Saddam Hussein, that it was the international outrage at seeing those videos -- in large part over CNN -- that caused him to quickly abandon such abuse of the POWs.

But instead, Frost simply tries to stake out a middle ground in the press versus the Pentagon war, saying that the American public does have a right to know, but that that right can be delayed.

Frost gets Schwarzkopf to talk about Saddam, which he does in very personal terms, calling him a man who has no respect for human life.

And Schwarzkopf makes clear that he has no sense of guilt over the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died of the fire that he rained down upon them, that those deaths were caused by the actions of their country, not of his weapons. Yet he again displays his evident compassion when he talks of the scores of deaths among the Americans he commanded.

It has been reported that Schwarzkopf has an exceptionally high I.Q., and his quick, on-target, clear, concise and yet complex answers do nothing to dispel that part of the myth.

Only once does he give an answer that seems unbefitting such intelligence. Frost notes that Schwarzkopf is a religious man and then asks if God was on his side in this war. You expect him to say that he would not presume to understand the infinite wisdom of the Supreme Being, but without hesitation the four-star general replies, "He had to be."

He cites as proof the overwhelming quality of the victory and the low number of coalition casualties. Such thinking could be extrapolated to mean that God was on the side of the Germans when they went into Poland, or Italy when it invaded Ethiopia.

To place God on the side of overwhelmingly victorious armies seems a dangerous position, not in keeping with Schwarzkopf's compassion and understanding. You want Frost to follow up, to challenge that position, to ask whose side God was on when Schwarzkopf fought in Vietnam. But he doesn't.

If there's one arena other than the battlefield where you don't want to take Schwarzkopf on, it's on television. This guy is a natural. He's got the physical presence of a lovable, huggable teddy bear and the stern gruffness of the grizzly version. The combination of image and text was made for TV.

There's a reason his "mother of all briefings" at the war's end was such a hit and that Barbara Walters' interview with him sent "20/20" ratings through the roof.

CBS ought to talk to this guy about taking over for Dan Rather. Maybe that $3 million a year salary might make him think about retirement. Would he be great, or what? He has total credibility -- he's at least as objective about the American troops as tear-filled Rather was when he was in Kuwait -- and you couldn't imagine some struggling presidential candidate like George Bush trying to ambush him.

So, one day the tough questions will come. One day someone will wonder if it was really a stroke of tactical genius that won the ground war so quickly or the fact that the enemy didn't fight. One day someone will ask if we were bombing and killing an army that was just trying to retreat and surrender. One day someone will ask if this was a war or a massacre. But not today.

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