ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with breaking news tonight: Barack Obama in the Middle East and John McCain taking shots at him back home. This could be a game changer.Cooper is so overjoyed at finding this gaffe that he can barely explain it properly, as he quotes the New York Times and Foreign Affairs and puts the audience to sleep trying to figure out the point of this breaking headline story.
Senator McCain says Obama doesn't understand the significance of the surge. Now he appears to have given critics reason to believe that he doesn't know one of the most basic facts about it, namely when it even began.
Here's what he told CBS' Katie Couric for an interview that aired tonight. He was responding to a question about Senator Obama, crediting the Sunni awakening in Anbar Province with improving conditions in Iraq, not just the surge.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, CBS NEWS)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't know how you respond to something that is such a false depiction of what actually happened. Colonel MacFarland, was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks. Because of the surge, we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others, and it began the Anbar awakening. I mean, that's just a matter of history, thanks to General Petraeus, our leadership, and the sacrifice of brave young Americans.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: In other words, he's saying the surge made the Sunni awakening possible, except the timeline is wrong.
The surge was announced in January of 2007, with troops starting to arrive in early spring. Colonel Sean MacFarland, who McCain mentions, briefed reporters on the awakening back in September of 2006.
Here's what "The New York Times" said in April of 2007 -- quote -- "The turnabout began last September, when a federation of tribes in the Ramadi area came together as the Anbar Salvation Council to oppose the fundamentalist militants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia."
And this from a recent history of Iraq in "Foreign Affairs" magazine: "The awakening began in Anbar Province more than a year before the surge and took off in the summer and fall of 2006 in Ramadi and elsewhere, long before extra U.S. forces started flowing into Iraq in February and March of 2007." We will have more on this shortly.
But, first, let's get you up to speed on the Obama trip, the backdrop for tonight's headline.
After the obligatory Obama worship section of the news comes the meat of the accusation against McCain, as Cooper gathers a group of reliable analysts to back up his McCain-gaffe story. Unfortunately, they are not as excited as Anderson is.
He previews it first when talking to Ed Henry:
COOPER: Ed, in a moment, we are going to talk to you and Joe Klein and David Gergen about what appears to be a pretty big mistake by John McCain tonight, talking about the surge.And a little later:
COOPER: In a moment, we're going to have more with Ed Henry and, as I said, Joe Klein and David Gergen on this apparent gaffe by John McCain. We will talk about the significance of it.Finally, his big moment. After playing the clip again:
COOPER: John McCain apparently confusing the Iraqi timeline. The surge began in early spring of 2007. The Sunni awakening started in early autumn of 2006.Cooper's hand-picked analysts all ignored Cooper's attempt at smearing McCain, usually trying to find othr more TV-friendly ways to do the same thing, and finally Cooper is forced to realize that he had no story.
Let's talk about the political repercussions, if any.
Ed Henry is at the White House. Also "TIME" magazine's Joe Klein, and CNN senior political analyst David Gergen joins us on the phone.
Joe, I don't like to play gotcha. You know, a word slip-up here and there, I usually tend to ignore. But how significant a mistake is this?
KLEIN: Well, I don't know how significant a mistake it is, although it does tend to reinforce my sense that John McCain kind of skims the surface of Iraq....
COOPER: David, David Gergen, given that this is a central attack that John McCain has against Barack Obama, how significant do you think this is?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Anderson, I do think it's a mistake, but I think the bigger mistake today was arguing, as you said earlier -- John McCain said twice today that he personally would rather lose a campaign than lose a war....
But, on this -- on this issue of the gaffe regarding the surge, it's -- when President Bush announced the surge, he acknowledged that there was an awakening among the Sunnis, that there was something going on that was very positive. And everyone since then has understood that what has worked in Iraq is the surge, but it's been with a confluence of other events. It's been the joining together of the surge with other events. Yes, the surge -- and John McCain, as a chief architect, deserves credit for that. But it's also true that it was a confluence.
But, Anderson, where I think this story is probably going to go is toward the issue of age. John McCain nearing his 72nd birthday coming this August, you know, in the last few days has confused the border of Iraq and the border of Afghanistan. Not long ago, he confused Somalia with Sudan.
COOPER: But, David, just to play devil's advocate on this, given the 24-hour nature of these campaigns, it's natural that people would make mistakes if they're being video-recorded every minute of the day, no?
GERGEN: Absolutely. That's absolutely true. And Barack Obama has certainly made his share of mistakes.
And John McCain is given -- he likes to do these impromptu interviews. That's what made him -- as Joe Klein said, at one time, he was the darling of the press because he was so frank and candid, and certainly back in the 2000 campaign, and I think even in this Republican primary season.
But if you're asking -- what you're asking about the political significance of something like this, it goes to the question of how your opponents can use it, and what they can use it as is a way to plant doubts or plant questions in people's minds.
This is -- at one point, this age issue in the 1984 reelection of President Reagan became his biggest vulnerability, Reagan's biggest vulnerability. He went on to win a thumping reelection. And this is not to say that it will penalize John McCain for a long time. I don't think that's the case. But I do think a pattern would -- would allow his opponents to plant those seeds.
HENRY: (after an aside on what McCain's campaign's response to this "gaffe" was):But, in fact, what General Petraeus said in April of 2008 is -- quote -- "The first awakening, which, to be fair, took place -- it started before the surge, but then very much was enabled by the surge, because that enabled us to clear areas over time within Iraq."
So, essentially, General Petraeus is saying it's a little gray, that the awakening started before the surge, but then the surge, once it got into place in 2007, helped the awakening go further.
HENRY: John McCain didn't quite put it that way.
COOPER: And, Joe, that's a fair argument.
COOPER: That's a fair argument, Joe, that the fact that there were troops helped -- that there were a surplus of troops did help the Sunni tribes who wanted to awake.
KLEIN: It wasn't the surplus of troops. It was the fact that Petraeus really knew how to leverage this and move it into other parts of the country.
But, if you want to be absolutely precise about this, the Sunni awakening -- and David Petraeus is absolutely precise about it -- the Sunni awakening began earlier.
Now, to go to David's points, I think that these sort of gaffes aren't very serious. You know, the Iraq-Afghanistan -- Afghani border, everybody makes mistakes like that. Or at least people my age do. And Barack Obama has done it on the trail....
COOPER: We're going to have to leave it there.
But why should anyone think that this indicates media bias?