Tuesday, 7 December 2010

“A Dubya in the Headlights”, by Joseph R. Hayden (Lexington Books)

Hayden-DubyaInTheHeadlights

President George W Bush and the Media

A Dubya in the Headlights trains a critical eye on the curious interaction between America’s forty-third president and the people who write about him, talk about him, photograph him, and draw him. Hayden details a rough, often tense, relationship between George W Bush and media outlets from CBS to the New York Times to The Tonight Show. He also challenges what until recently was the conventional wisdom about Bush’s public relations – the notion that the White House was a masterful manipulator of the media, a Machiavellian puppet-master. According to Hayden, those types of characterisations are not just overly generous; they are distortions and a cop-out for the press. Focusing in particular on the period since Hurricane Katrina, this lively and timely volume details the pattern of mistakes made by the Bush administration in carrying out its communication strategy and offers a clear portrait of a president stumbling from one crisis to another.

In his introduction, Hayden paints a picture of a president hostile to the media and the necessity for a president to deal with them. George W Bush, he writes, “did not understand national news media, he did not like them, he did not want to deal with them.” Because of this dislike, Bush had a “barely existent relationship with the press”, and the limited relations would be “characterized by mistrust and suspicion”. This, of course, would lead to difficulties in conducting the work of the White House, as well as – at times – create a distinctly hostile atmosphere for the president.

There are a number of media-related controversies that occurred during the Bush presidency, all of which are discussed and analysed in this volume – they range from the trivial, such as relying on “faux journalists” in the press corps (including Karen Ryan, Armstrong Miller and Jeff Gannon – who get a good chunk of a chapter late in the book); to the extremely serious (Katrina, Iraq, and so on). In each of the chapters in this book, Hayden takes one theme or issue as its centrepiece and builds a convincing and well-detailed argument. The chapters are introduced well, before the author provides considerable evidence and examples to support his thesis and conclusions.

Hayden starts his analysis of George W Bush’s relationship with the media with a quick look at the 2000 presidential campaign, which laid the groundwork for much of the media’s impression and frequent caricature of Bush for the duration of his presidency.

“[Bush’s] interaction with the media was plagued from the start by chronic problems and liabilities, ones he never solved or conquered. Instead, they came back time and again to damage him politically and expose him to a long-term relationship with journalists that has been extraordinarily dysfunctional.”

During the campaign, Al Gore also made many missteps, of course, but “Bush seldom came across as confident, smooth, or in control.” It was only in carefully controlled or scripted situations when he was able to perform best, otherwise

“he often lurched in awkward and embarrassing fashion. He frequently sounded unprepared. He rarely seemed knowledgeable, engaged or sharp.”

From the campaign onwards, President Bush would give birth to a lucrative sideline in “Bushisms”, as journalists like Jacob Weisberg of Slate.com began to collect Bush’s malapropisms and vocal hiccups – it resulted in a “cottage industry” springing up that benefited from the president’s vocal mannerisms and mistakes. Hayden includes many of these in the chapter devoted to this element of the media during Bush’s presidency.

“Bush... seemed nearly incapable of speaking in public without butchering the English language, without misspeaking, without uttering startling, Yogi Berra-like pronouncements.”

The chapter is quite funny, of course, as it allows the reader to reminisce about the funnier moments of Bush’s presidency. The chapter is not, however, just about the president’s vocal flubs – Hayden also discusses some other authors who have written about George W Bush, be they positive supporters (e.g. Fred Barnes, David Frum) or vocal opponents (e.g. Ron Suskind). He discusses some authors who also tried to be unbiased and objective (e.g. Robert Draper). From his analysis, Hayden finds that the greatest consistency between almost everyone who’s written about Bush, is that they are disappointed by the president’s “remarkable lack of curiosity”, exhibiting a “vacuousness not easily overcome” – although, of course, supporters try to dress this up as folksy charm or a praiseworthy belief in the president’s gut instincts (see what Charles Pierce has to say about that in Idiot America). Detractors certainly have more material to support their case than do Bush’s supporters.

The Silent Treatment

Because of Bush’s dislike and distrust of the media, there were frequent instances at the beginning of his presidency when the media were simply locked out. This was both surprising and also detrimental to Bush’s ability to convey proper messages to the electorate.

“Relations between presidents and the press have always been uneasy and not infrequently tend toward the turbulent. While journalists and politicians may cozy up to one another, they are seldom satisfied with the result.”

Due to the Bush White House’s obsession with (some might say ‘addiction’ to) secrecy,

“the national press corps quickly came to view the entire Bush Administration as squelchors of information – unhelpful, contemptuous, and always adversarial. This toxic relationship would come back to burn the Bush presidency.”

The president also had to contend with a rapidly changing media environment – one that had, since the 1980s, been evolving at a considerable pace, growing more complicated and also revolutionized by the proliferation of online news sources and the rise of opinion journalism. The mushrooming of information technology in the 1990s spawned a huge number of media outlets from which readers and viewers could draw their news and therefore opinions on any given policy. It also makes the White House’s job that much harder:

“The fragmentation renders each individual media organisation correspondingly less important, for it’s one thing for a politician to try to influence three television networks and a handful of national publications, but what do you do about a thousand political blogs? Commanding media space and attention is much more challenging in the twenty-first century.”

To refer back to opinion journalism, here is Hayden’s critique:

“the centrist, neutral, or ‘objective’ approach has been radically challenged by what is sometimes called ‘opinion journalism’, and that species of information operates more on the fringes than in the middle, more with emotion and innuendo than with facts or investigation” [see, for example, Fox & MSNBC]

“the shady art of fulmination has influenced television news profoundly and even affected print journalism to the point that news sometimes seems to have been trumped by views.”

This “fulmination” and preference for views over news can most noticeably be found on the Web, “which is notoriously dominated by ranting viewpoints and righteous denunciation” (I’m sure we can all identify a couple of sources that make our blood boil...).

War on Terror, Iraq

Hayden devotes a handful of good chapters to the War on Terror and Iraq – discussing the run-up to these events and also the fallout afterwards – specifically, the “frequent mistakes and miscalculations” by the Bush team. Hayden does put the Bush years into wider perspective, however:

“Perhaps any American president would have erred in similar ways at the time. But seen as part of a larger pattern of administration practice, these communication lapses show recurring themes in the Bush record: lack of preparation, lack of careful consideration, lack of precise execution.”

According to Hayden, the lead up to the Iraq war is the biggest failure of the American press corps “to do their duty as vigilant watchdogs of the public trust”. If you’ll permit a personal reflection, I remember being rather confused by the speed with which the administration’s attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq – this is partly because I was at the time relying on just two news sources (TIME and Newsweek) while studying for a year in Japan (I didn’t have an internet connection at home, either). The seemingly sudden shift in focus was jarring, and it has also meant I’ve been distinctly unimpressed by the conduct of the media on this issue (something I’ve included in my PhD thesis).

“Rather than keep the White House accountable for statements that turned out to be erroneous, misleading, or wholly deceptive, the national press corps largely lay down and kept quiet, when it didn’t actually help the administration get away with various misdeeds. The news media, in this view, were snookered into supporting the rationale for going to war.”

One should not overlook the role of “journalistic enablers” (e.g. Judith Miller) who effectively abdicated their journalistic responsibilities to swallow whole what the administration fed them. Hayden includes in this chapter details of the roles of Ahmed Chalabi, the ‘Cabal’ (or the Office of Special Plans), and the jingoist speeches Bush gave during this time, as a means for painting a doomsday scenario as an outcome if action was not taken against Saddam Hussein’s regime. In a later chapter, Hayden describes the “Troop Tricks” the administration used to pump up support for the troops, the wars, and not coincidentally the administration who instigated the conflicts.

While most political and journalism analysts focus on the failure of the press during this period, Hayden also points out that, ultimately, Bush “paid a heavy price for success in that initial battle. In the overall war for public opinion, he has lost mightily.”

Ultimately, Hayden’s conclusion of the Iraq media war is:

“That meticulous planning went into the communication effort there was no doubt. The September rollout, Powell’s U.N. speech, the Mission Accomplished stunt – all were carefully choreographed and, at times, ably executed. But, as with most other elements in the Bush White House, the overwhelming emphasis was on process, on tactics, on the little pictures that wagered on short-term gain.”

The high stakes and long-term potential for catastrophe were ignored by White House strategists and operatives. The focus on short-term vignettes, of course, has become overwhelmingly characteristic of media and politics in the United States. In the Obama age, it seems almost the only political commentary is short-term, uninterested in long-term consequences or trends.

Re-Reporting Vietnam: Media Wars over Iraq & the White House

Hayden devotes two chapters to the media’s “obsession” with Vietnam, and the saturation-level usage of that war as a comparative study for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as discussing how the Vietnam lexicon is used too often to describe the current conflicts. After offering a brief history of Vietnam and what it has meant for American foreign policy and media, he moves on to the post-9/11 examples and discussion. The Vietnam-obsession “distressed a lot of writers, because, among other things, they feared the past was distracting the country from dealing with the present.” Hayden analyses the importance of Vietnam as a campaign issue in 2004, and how it affected each candidate: for John Kerry, it allowed him to paint himself as a decorated war veteran who had become disillusioned with the war and then came home to help end it. For the Bush team, it was less beneficial, considering the President’s muddled National Guard record – therefore, as all good political operatives would, they chose to tear down the virtuous image Kerry’s team created.

After the Storm

A particularly good and detailed chapter deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

After briefly mentioning Cindy Sheehan’s protests against the Iraq War outside Bush’s ranch, and the White House’s ineptitude in dealing with the fallout, the author proceeds to discuss what he sees as the turning point in George W Bush’s relations with the press. “Katrina seems to have jolted American journalists out of their post-9/11 daze”, and “exacted a heavy price on the president.”

Impressions of a “bubble” and “White House indifference” made the press “aggressively” question “the federal government’s response, its effort, its motives, its compassion.” Following the devastation of Katrina, “criticism of other Bush legacies likewise increased”. It was a stark turning point in the reporting of Bush presidency, and “a pattern was becoming evident: government neglect on an epic scale.”

“after Katrina... The media woke up from its 9/11-induced spell to find, to detail, and to proclaim the notion that the Bush administration was basically incompetent; that the president was less like Machiavelli and more like Scaramouche, less a master manipulator than a buffoon; that for years there had been a faltering ignoramus in the White House – a Dubya in the headlights.”

I should take this opportunity to address something in the synopsis, related to the above quotation – that of George W Bush as “Machiavellian puppet master”: I don’t think many people thought the President himself was the brains behind the outfit. Indeed, there was plenty of material published suggesting the strings were being pulled by Cheney, Karl Rove, the president’s “handlers”, or a shadow neoconservative cabal within the administration. I’ve not read many (if any, now that I try to recall) accounts of George W Bush himself being identified as a press manipulator extraordinaire... Hayden does address this impression, as mentioned above, stating instead that the Bush White House was mostly inept, and giving the reader the impression that, when a media strategy succeeded, it was more down to luck and outside forces, rather than any brilliant mastermind within the administration.

After Bush’s re-election, Hayden explains, he attempted to change the media perception of both himself and his administration. He did this by trying to appear more in front of the press, increasing access, and so forth. What did not change, however, was the secrecy and the administration’s “penchant for dishonest tactics”. For the Bush administration, as time progressed,

“the time-honored democratic political strategy of influencing public opinion included recurring bouts of dissembling and distortion. Some of that misinformation was large in scale, some of it small, perhaps little of it directly the original decision of the president himself.”

In the final chapter of the book, Hayden takes a look at the Bush administration’s late-term obsession with Bush’s presidential legacy and what was done to polish past policies and decisions. The author takes a look at the legacy Bush has had on Hollywood, taking a look at a selection of movies about the War on Terror, all of which include commentary on the methods and machinations of the Bush years. Hayden also takes a quick look at the media’s Bush post-mortems.

If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that Hayden focuses too much on just George W. Bush’s administration. The volume would have benefited from a more generalised introduction and conclusion – something that spent more time locating Bush’s presidency within the history of Presidential media relations. While he does mention, from time to time, the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, I think the reader would benefit from a little more historical context. This book is, in other words, an excellent and extensive case study for a wider piece of research on the American presidents and how they have dealt with the media.

One of the great strengths of the book is Hayden’s level of research, and the convenient presentation of source material after each chapter. His writing style is fluid and accessible, his chapters very well- and logically-structured, and he avoids almost all academic dryness in his descriptions and analysis. This is, as the synopsis proposes, a ‘lively’ volume – helped along in no small part, of course, by the chapter about Bushisms, which lightened a potentially over-serious volume. Hayden maintains a journalist’s objectivity for the most part, but there are times when he cannot help but voice his disappointment – be it with Bush or the media.

A Dubya in the Headlights is a highly recommended book on the president’s relations with the media during the George W Bush years, of considerable value to anyone studying the media, George W Bush, the presidency or the early 2000s.

Also try: Matt Latimer, Speech-Less (2009); Julian Zelizer ed., The Presidency of George W Bush (2010); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); George W Bush, Decision Points (2010); Scott McClellan, What Happened? (2009); Mike Loew, Thanks for the Memories, George (2009)

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