Bubble, Bubble

The Saudi tale—and lots of other emerging stories—could give the Bushies real trouble.

Summer's gone and the 2004 presidential race is officially under way, which means it's hunting season for the media. All the candidates are in the crosshairs now, and any one of their heads would look swell on a newsroom wall. But, as always, the biggest game of all is the incumbent. And suddenly, against all odds, the president's starting to look a bit vulnerable.

Have you noticed? Since Labor Day, there's been a boomlet in dark, quasi-scandalous news about the administration. It doesn't add up to much yet, but the leading media indicators on President Bush have turned unmistakably downward in the last few weeks. It was as if, all at once, the news class realized that without something fresh and juicy, this was going to be one boring race. And, voila , exactly the kinds of stories we're going to need to make the next 14 months interesting have started sprouting all over the place. We're not talking artificial, trumped-up news, either. Some of this early stuff shows promise.

The most intriguing items are a couple of nebulous 9/11 tales clearly timed to coincide with this week's anniversary. (This itself is evidence of the media sea change that's happened since a year ago, when the terrorist attacks were still a recent memory and it was culturally incorrect to be gunning for the commander-in-chief.) One, a Vanity Fair piece by Craig Unger, breathes new life into an old story about how, in the days immediately after 9/11, more than 100 elite Saudis, including members of the bin Laden clan, were, as the magazine puts it, "whisked out of the U.S. on private jets. No one will admit to clearing the flights, and the passengers weren't questioned. Did the Bush family's long relationship with the Saudis help make it happen?"

The story doesn't definitively answer that question. What it does do is dramatically raise the temperature around this touchy issue, with enough suggestive material to make any reasonably curious soul want to know more. There are no fewer than four photos of the president or his father spending time with members of the Saudi royal family, and the text is studded with emphatic reminders of their cozy relationship, such as: "The Bush family and the House of Saud, the two most powerful dynasties in the world, have had close personal, business, and political ties for more than 20 years."

The piece has piquant quotes on the mysterious flights by former National Security Council official Richard Clarke, and it also gives the story an indignant populist spin. "Only a few days earlier," Unger writes, "some planes, such as the one carrying a heart to be transplanted to a deathly ill cardiac patient in Olympia, Washington, had been forced down in midflight."

In picking up the VF story, some other news outlets echoed this theme. Here, for example, is the New York Daily News: "If his name was Mike bin Laden, he could have been among the 140 prominent Saudis the White House allowed to fly home from cities across America immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center. But he was just Mike Brown, a former New York City firefighter turned Las Vegas emergency room doctor whose brother had last been seen leading Ladder 3 into the north tower."

When NBC's Tim Russert asked Secretary of State Colin L. Powell about the VF story last Sunday, Powell's answer was one of those shaky, I-don't-have-the-details evasions that makes you go hmmmmm.

Dovetailing with the VF story is the new book Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11, by Gerald Posner. Most of it is a rehearsal of familiar 9/11 reporting, until you get to the astounding final chapter and its allegation that several Saudi princes with ties to 9/11 were fingered last year by a Qaeda operative in U.S. custody. Not long afterward, the book contends, the three princes, who were all under the age of 45, died within days of each other. One, a 25-year-old, was reported to have died of "thirst." A high Pakistani official accused by the same captive later died too, in a plane crash.

Perhaps you've seen Posner retelling this 007-ish story with Katie Couric ... or Chris Matthews ... or Joe Scarborough ... or Andrea Mitchell. For some reason, NBC and its cable sister MSNBC have been especially taken with these Saudi stories. Posner is good at it, conceding at every chance that the story is based on just a few unnamed sources, and that there are good reasons to be skeptical. His reputation as a debunker of conspiracies—he's written previously about the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King—only strengthens the pull of this tale.

Whether or not Posner's book gets it right, the broader Bush-Saudi story, which was on the cover of Time this week, clearly has legs—long, shapely ones. And there are lots of other emerging stories out there, stuff that could give the Bushies real trouble in the not-so-distant future. The Washington Post reported last weekend that the Homeland Security Department is a mess. The Iraq headlines grow bleaker by the day. The Bush environmental record is being teed up for major media scrutiny, and I wouldn't bet on a passing grade.

When I went looking for Time's Saudi story online this week, the magazine's home page was featuring a large photo of Yasir Arafat over the headline, "Arafat Trumps Bush in Mideast Power Game." And right next to it was a Time "quote of the week," Dick Gephardt's line about Bush being a "miserable failure on foreign policy."

A dull presidential race? Not if we can help it.