On Tuesday the New York Times ran an op-ed piece in which a couple of academics and a former defense department official proposed some questions for General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who’d flown in from Iraq to be grilled by Congress.   

Because that was the point of their visit, right? To face tough questions from the people’s representatives? The nation’s at war. The people running it are accountable. Petraeus and Crocker didn’t come all this way just so three candidates for president could strut their stuff.

But did the coverage focus on the questions and the answers? No. Tribune headline: “Gen. Petraeus answers his next boss: Presidential candidates take turns grilling commander.” Sun-Times headline: “Top Iraq general faces next commander in chief.” New York Times headline: “At Hearings, a Chance to Explain Iraq Views and Audition as Commander in Chief.” 

Those headlines would do if senators McCain, Clinton, and Obama had led the questioning. The coverage offered no evidence that they did. The Tribune article (top story in the Wednesday paper) offered details on a “complex, often indirect discussion” between Petraeus and the three senators who seek the White House. Note the verbs employed: “. . . said McCain. . . . McCain’s assertion. . . . she said. . . . Clinton said. . . . Obama acknowledged. . . . Obama told Crocker. . . . McCain said. . . . Clinton argued. . . . Obama contended. . . . Obama also suggested. . . . McCain said…”

Did any of the three senators ever actually ask the two witnesses anything — in the old-fashioned sense of not knowing but wanting to find out? The Sun-Times wasn’t reassuring. Here I read that “McCain asked questions designed to support his argument that the United States should maintain its troop presence in Iraq.” But that would be the sort of question to which the desired answer is “Doggone right!” “You said a mouthful,” or “I couldn’t have put it better myself.” 

Meanwhile, “Clinton argued” and “Obama pressed.” 

The Times story (registration is required for this and other Times sites) told us that McCain “said there was significant progress in Iraq” and that Clinton disagreed, but that the two of them “reserved their real fire for each other.” Meanwhile, Obama called the war a “massive strategic blunder.” But finally, a breakthrough. The Times reported, “‘What conditions would have to exist for you to recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working?’ Mrs. Clinton asked General Patraeus, with only a slight edge of exasperation in her voice.” An actual question had been cited in a newspaper! It sounded rhetorical — according to the Times Clinton promptly declared that the conditions “are unclear, they lack specificity.” But a rhetorical question beats none at all. Another such question was attributed to McCain. Wondering about the recent fighting in Basra he asked Patraeus, “What’s the lesson that we’re to draw from that, that 1,000 Iraqi army and police deserted or underperformed?” and then told the general, “Suffice it to say, it was a disappointment.”

In a separate story, “Petraeus Urges Halt in Weighing New Cut in Force” (this was the page-one story, to the Times‘s credit), Clinton “cited,” Obama “restated his view,” and McCain “argued.” A sidebar was labeled, “What the Candidates Said.”

Eventually I found something wonderful on the Times Web site — video links to and full transcripts of the interrogations of all three senators. Give them credit. McCain gave a nine-minute statement in which he praised Patraeus and Crocker to the heavens, but then he settled into seven minutes and 40 seconds of innocuous questioning. Clinton spoke of her reservations about the war for four minutes and 38 seconds and then asked questions for another eight and a half minutes. As for Obama, he plunged right into his Q & A. After five minutes he called it off, asked the chair’s indulgence, and for the next eight minutes and 16 seconds made a “couple of key points” about Iraq that demonstrated how troubled he is. At one point he even posed a question to Crocker, though he allowed that “maybe it’s a rhetorical question” and told the ambassador “you don’t necessarily have to answer it.”  

Maureen Dowd wrote a column for the Times’s oped page that focused on the testimony and pretty much ignored the candidates. In her account, “a confused Chuck Hagel asked the pair. . . . Senator Biden asked a trenchant, if attenuated, question. . . . Senator John Warner asked the essential question,” and Barbara Boxer was the “voice of reason, [asking] ‘Why is it, after all we have given, . . . it’s the Iranian president who is greeted with kisses and flowers?'” 

As a rule of thumb, questions from noncandidates don’t seem to be as newsworthy as nonquestions from candidates.