By: Greg Mitchell Exactly three years ago in this space I kicked off a column with, "Al Neuharth tells me that he has written exactly 818 weekly columns for USA Today and his latest, on Friday, which advocated a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq -- and urged President Bush not to seek re-election -- has drawn 'the fifth or sixth biggest reader response' of any of them."
Today, amazingly, the list of pundits, and newspaper editorials, that clearly advocate the start of a pullout, is still quite short.
In that column on May 17, 2004, I observed, "So far, on this issue, among the top names in journalism, Neuharth is pretty much a Lone Ranger, but he has been in that position before. 'I'm just an old fighting infantryman,' Neuharth explains, 'saying our troops don't have a real fighting chance.'"
The USA Today founder added that he feared "it's going to keep getting worse in Iraq."
Ten days earlier, I had written a column that called for at least one major newspaper, on its editorial page, to urge a phased U.S. pullout from Iraq. I claimed that this might spark a long overdue national debate on the subject. At that point, the vast majority of editorials had urged "staying the course," or even sending more American troops.
My column gained wide attention but sparked no significant movement among the top papers. There have been scattered calls for a timetable for withdrawal since, but the vast majority of papers seem satisfied with blasting the conduct of the war, not our continued presence in Iraq.
What that has gotten them is: endless war with no end in sight. History will not be kind, especially with most Americans calling for a timetable, according to polls.
Neuharth, on the other hand, way back then, stated that the Iraq adventure was "the biggest military mess miscreated by the Oval Office and miscarried by the Pentagon in my 80-year lifetime."
My column three years ago concluded as follows. *
Over the phone, Neuharth points out that he does not speak for the USA Today editorial page, but as the newspaper's founder, with a widely read column in the nation's largest circulation paper, his view surely has some impact. Still, he says he is "just another opinion writer" who is "not out to save the world."
But he hopes to influence other opinion leaders. "The more authoritative folks, whether they are editors of papers or political figures, they are a little afraid to say, 'Yes, we need to get out,' because they are afraid of being accused of cutting and running," he says.
"I was a mild critic of the way we went into the war, and I've written that the [weapons of mass destruction] issue was bogus and I was never convinced this was worth going to war for. After the last few weeks with the prison abuses and the retaliation in Iraq, I felt that it was time for somebody to say, 'Look, it's time for us to quit justifying our position and find a responsible way to get out' ... something I'd been thinking about a long time.
"But I have a sense that everyone is afraid to touch it. You're not supposed to be critical of a president in wartime.
"Well, I was in a war and one of the things I'm preparing for right now is the World War II Memorial celebration in Washington later this month, where I am on a panel with Mike Wallace. They are bringing a lot of us old farts back for our swan song. It made me think a lot more about how troops are supported in certain wars and ultimately abandoned in others, as happened in Vietnam -- and I think will happen here. I just think it's inexcusable if a president or secretary of defense doesn't prepare well and can't give full support for troops they send into battle."
Still, Neuharth worries that "media leaders are reluctant to express" a strong view that puts them too far "out front." So he hopes that after his column, and any others that follow, "opinion leaders will look at this more critically as times goes on." He fears "it's going to keep getting worse in Iraq."
He said that one large segment of readers had responded to his column: National Guardsmen and reservists. Fighting in Iraq more than a year after the purported end of the war "is not what they signed up to do," Neuharth comments.