Bill Grigsby: Back to BushCo Basics
Back to BushCo Basics
By Bill Grigsby
The White House communications department is mired in what appears to be the political equivalent of an acid freakout. Their war is going badly. Still. That’s one thing you can count on. And that freedom ‘upside’ in Iraq is beginning to look more like the kind of anarchy that the White House no doubt envisioned when the president signed Executive Order 13303. Social security ‘reform’ (i.e., that long-term insolvency requires urgent private diversion of payroll taxes) is in a coma. President Bush has embraced a little too comfortably his slacker role. Playing a round of golf after Katrina struck was risky politically, but after a tragedy of that magnitude who knew when he might make it back out on the links? Cindy Sheehan’s protest made the president look scared and immature, prompting the White House Smear Network to work overtime while G.W. pretended to be extremely busy. Anti-diplomat John Bolton’s first dive into the UN pool was less a cannonball than a belly flop. The Supreme Court battles are shaping up just as it appears the President’s election capital has been spent (mostly on ‘reforms’—protection of campaign donors from frivolous lawsuits, protection from the scourge of filing for personal bankruptcy, and the 2005 Social Security Scare Tour). Hurricane Katrina was a natural, human and political disaster, providing the public with a glimpse of just what happens when you combine vanity wars with, in Frank Luntzs’ focus group-tested phrase, ‘limited, but effective government.’ And as if that weren’t enough, and—worst of all for the White House media maw—Bush’s approval ratings are sinking to new groundbreaking lows for a second term president.
So, when faced with political meltdowns on multiple fronts, what should we expect from the White House? Well, most of us revert to what we know best in crisis situations, and what this White House knows is media management. Bush began responding to the hurricane last week by waxing technical about oil pipelines and refinery capacity. After all, approval ratings seem somehow tied to the price of gasoline. And if there’s anything this president truly knows something about, it’s how to talk about oil, even if it’s snake oil. His tone was, well, too technical, and so we got the stirring and daring Mission Accomplished Video. No wait! I mean the Air Force One flyover, with the White House-approved photo of the president, in full frown mode, staring out the window of the cabin and later describing the scene like a high schooler warming up a refugee camp crowd with graphic descriptions from the ‘Faces of Death’ video. Then there were the allusions to bygone party times in the Big Easy. Right demographic maybe. Wrong audience, though.
Then the commercial media seemed instantaneously distracted by pictures of looting and foraging. The analysis of the situation did begin to focus on some actual substantive, neglected issues—the dismantling of FEMA, the undercurrents of racism in preparedness and media coverage, the painful lag between the storm and flooding and any appreciable relief presence, the sick, poor, starving and weak, apparently accessible to photographers but not government relief workers, the ‘no net loss of wetlands’ fiasco, the numbers of National Guard deployed to Iraq, the disturbing parallels with the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the numbers of uninsured who will be unable to rebuild their lives without some public assistance, the environmental ‘takings’ issues involved with multi-billion dollar private development within fragile ecosystems, and, well, we’re back to the ‘limited but effective’ rhetoric that was supposed to be the rallying cry for the 2006 midterm elections.
Then the White House began rolling out its strategy for recovery—not of New Orleans, because governance has never been its strong suit—but of sinking approval ratings, trying to minimize the political fallout by sending out its cabinet secretaries and media foot soldiers with talking points and saturating the Sunday news shows. The White House, which preaches accountability of teachers, civil servants, and labor unions, is ‘looking forward, not dwelling in the past’ (a reconstruction of which would point too many fingers toward administrative neglect, abuse and abandonment). Bush even added a throwaway line about ‘faith-based organizations’ and ‘armies of compassion’ mobilizing, as if the public agencies were sitting on their public thumbs waiting for the proper forms to be returned in triplicate. National Review editor Rich Lowry exploited the tragedy to repeat his mantra that poverty is caused by out-of-wedlock births. Just think: with higher marriage rates in New Orleans, everyone could have been heading for their summer homes on the Cape in late model Hummers instead of getting trapped in their attics in sewage-infested waters. Then there was the ‘We won’t let bureaucracy get in the way of helping the people.’ The White House knows how the public despises large, unwieldy bureaucracies (in democrat-leaning states—Mississippi’s bureaucracy apparently functioned like clockwork). With the exception of the 17-headed Department of Homeland Security, of course.
So, expect more media management. Heartwarming stories of survival, the cruelty of nature, but no pictures on the news and little attention focused on a body count that may triple that of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Be wary of economic growth statistics over the next few months that include reconstruction-related employment without factoring in the devastation. Expect that the White House will write off Louisiana in the 2006 midterm elections, but the GOP will exploit the ‘bureaucracy’ rhetoric to try to score political points, while commercial media dutifully reports. The feds will provide relief, but one gets the feeling it is less for Louisiana or Mississippi than for the television cameras and the rest of the country, using tragedy among the rural and urban poor in the South to shore up electoral support in battleground states and Congressional Districts. Get the president back on a script, back on the Luntz playbook of opportunity, ownership, limited government, tax relief, hope and freedom. And change the subject. And expect corporate media to do what it does best—sell audiences and crank out unthreatening, context-free reporting, while the corporate looters—financial, insurance, pharmaceutical, petrochemical, agrofood, mineral, health care, defense—redouble their lobbying efforts and gird their loins to grab for bigger slices of the shrinking pie. As Lily Tomlin once said, no matter how cynical you become, you can’t keep up. There is always the possibility that this tragedy will lead the White House to engage in honest and open debate, transparent decision making, and reflection on mistakes and how best to avoid repeating them (remember: breathe during fits of convulsive laughter).
Yet outside the world of corporate media, most things are beyond White House control. The weather. Climate. Price of petroleum. The economy. World public opinion. It’s worth noting that the last time Bush’s approval ratings were so was around September 10, 2001. Strange they seemed better prepared for something at least slightly less predictable. The stark difference between media management and governance becomes painfully evident when several crises confront public leaders simultaneously. The nomination of John Roberts for Supreme Court Chief Justice buys some time, no doubt in the hopes that the White House communications team can sweep away some of these messes and clear any roadblocks that might slow the right wing political agenda (mainly tax cuts and continued appropriation of public assets and resources by private industry), allowing Dan, Karl and the Communications Team (once again!) to plan a strategy to fight for a more conservative nominee. It will be interesting to see how the ‘limited government’ pitch is spun amid Katrina’s wake, amid the growing national debt, a major city in ruins, and an unpopular war whose primary beneficiaries include Halliburton, Paul Wolfowitz, Ahmad Chalabi, Iran and al Qaida.