Remember when in testimony before a grand jury President Clinton said, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is?” Remember when in defending fund-raising calls made from the White House Al Gore pointed out the lack of a “controlling legal authority”? If you follow politics even a little bit, you do remember, because these phrases were repeated over and over and over again in the media echo chamber. They were alleged to reveal the essential character of those men. Through sheer repetition, they entered our modern apocrypha. They are now legend.

If you pay heed to current media goings-on, you will see a search underway for a similar soundbite characterization of the current Dem candidates. Every possible verbal contradiction, no matter how technical or inconsequential, is being tossed against the wall to see if it sticks. Every tic, every quirk, is being spun furiously in an attempt to saddle the future candidate with baggage he won’t be able to get rid of. You could say this is being done with the tacit cooperation of the mainstream media, but that doesn’t quite capture it. It used to be that the Republican machine — think tanks, talk radio, websites and magazines — would throw this stuff around until they could, having through sheer force of will created a story out of nothing, plausibly claim that the mainstream media was “ignoring” it; at that point a lazy and cowed media would pick the soundbites up and repeat them uncritically. But at this point, the mainstream media seems to have joined in the game wholeheartedly; it’s become a de facto substitute for substantive coverage. The unbridled glee with which they descended on Dean’s yell to his supporters last week is a crystalline, and nauseating, example.

So you’d think that Bush’s recent statement in his State of the Union that the Iraq war is justified because we have found “dozens of weapons of mass destruction program related activities” would be a gift from God, no?

You’d think it would be fodder for late night comedians. You think it would be repeated and replayed again and again in every news outlet. You’d think it would be a national joke, appearing on bumper stickers and t-shirts.

But it isn’t. In fact, aside from a few lefty blogs — and the ever-reliable Daily Show with John Stewart — nobody has touched it. Bush’s free ride in the media continues no matter how cosmically absurd it all gets. We’re going to go to Mars? OK. No WMD, only program related activities (as Stewart said, “what’s that, buffet service for the scientists?”)? OK. Let’s all keep a straight face and pretend all this is perfectly legitimate, worthy of serious consideration.

The Bush administration exaggerated uncertain intelligence and, in many cases, lied, to convince the country that there was a Sword of Damocles hanging over its head, that it had to rush to war — couldn’t even wait three more months — because the danger was so great. Now it’s clear there was no danger, and they blithely say, well, at least we liberated the Iraqis. It’s a massive deception, a historical outrage, and it’s all crystallized in one phrase: weapons of mass destruction program related activities. But you won’t hear about it on the news.