The humble beginnings of ‘Bush unleashed’

BY ALLISON WHITE

While last week focused on the future – the next two years of “Bush Unleashed” — some of the most interesting political commentary in recent days consisted of looks to the past — to the Bush candidacy and to the Bush war effort. While these expositions offer a look at the development of George W. Bush from pol to statesman, the more interesting theme is the development of the media’s perception of President Bush, from poseur to President.

The widely-anticipated HBO documentary, Journeys With George (which will run through the month), chronicles the 2000 Bush campaign through the lens of Alexandra Pelosi, NBC news producer (and daughter of Democrat House Leadership hopeful Nancy Pelosi). While promo spots focused on moments of cartoonish Dubya-tude — mugging for the camera; spelling out “Victory,” YMCA-style; blindfolded, exclaiming “I can’t hear you, ’cause I can’t see” — the full feature focused less on Bush’s faux pas and more on Bush’s political maturity and the media’s relationship with him.

From Pelosi’s vantage point (namely, the back of a press plane, marked as much by its political coverage as by drinking and cavorting worthy of Hunter Thompson’s 1972 campaign chronicle), President Bush appears a novel, albeit charming, lightweight — as reflected in Pelosi’s late-campaign poll of her fellow reporters, which predicted Al Gore as the likely victor. A reporter compares the Bush campaign to a bologna sandwich: “A white bread candidate with a baloney message, with cheesy advertising.”

But by November, the reporters who spent a full year following the President came to realize that they had been duped by Dubya, their coverage of Bush colored by the rose-colored shade of a candidate whose down-home congeniality lowered their guard and dulled their critical instincts. Their film ends with Pelosi’s observation: “It’s funny if you think about it. We all got some good laughs at his expense. But in the end, who are we? He’s the 43rd President of the United States.”

Bill Sammon’s new book, Fighting Back picks up where Pelosi leaves off.  Fast-forwarding from November 2000 to September 2001, following Team Gore’s attempt to de-legitimize Bush’s Florida victory (the focus of Sammon’s previous work, At Any Cost), the Beltway focused on stem cell research, a dwindling economy, shark attacks and oft-laid, mislaid interns.  Against this backdrop, Sammon (White House correspondent for the Washington Times, whose right-wing bias was uncomfortably apparent from time to time throughout the book) examines two counterpoints to the Presidency: First, a media establishment that, in the style of Pelosi’s campaign press corps peers, sneers at the President (as exemplified by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, whose “press pool” reports drip sarcastic contempt toward “our maximum leader,” “the compassionate president”), and second a core of Democratic consultants — Bob Shrum, Stan Greenberg and James Carville — who see Bush (compared to Bill Clinton) as “over-matched — [like] where you have a strong power forward against a weak guard — and they don’t match up.”

On September 11, however, the paradigm shifts instantly. No longer can the press and the “loyal” opposition treat Bush as a lightweight — in the words of Carville (the Cajun noticeably less ragin’ at Election 2002), “Disregard everything we just said! This changes everything!” The change that Carville feared comes to instant fruition: Under threat of war, the President achieves instant legitimacy. The public rallies around Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, and Democratic opposition is subsumed to the unified war effort. The mealy-mouthed media’s criticisms (e.g., that the military warn Afghani targets of bombing raids with prefatory leaflets) earn it the sarcastic rejoinders of not only Rumsfeld but also the writers of “Saturday Night Live.” At a time when the President’s stature is secure, the media and the Left are utterly neutralized. Dems defer to Bush’s decisions; press pool reports speak in reverential prose.

Those who chronicle the presidency often focus on a moment in time at which a candidate, aware of his imminent ascendancy to the presidency, experiences a noticeable shift in demeanor and temperament — the moment a man becomes The Man. This theme owned the early parts of George Stephanopolous’ Clinton memoir, “All Too Human,” as well as myriad other Presidential retrospectives. The theme also arises in the latter portion of Pelosi’s film. Sammon drills the President on this, and Bush admits that he has grown in his perception of the role of a president. But for as much as Pelosi and Sammon consider this question, their end product leaves one to wonder if, perhaps, what they see as the President’s growth and maturity is in fact less a change in the President and more a change in the press: Bush didn’t grow into the presidency so much as the press grew to accept Bush as president.

In times of economic prosperity and international tranquility, the thought that the president could unilaterally label our enemies “evildoers” without extended internal dialogue was unthinkable. But amidst the “cloud of war,” the public needed a leader who could see things in black and white and act accordingly — and, at that moment, the “silly simplicity” of Dubya became the “decisive vision” of President Bush. The press arrived at the shocking realization that the President need not be a policy wonk, a Rhodes Scholar, or even (gasp!) an Ivy League lawyer. Rather, when a leader surrounds himself with trusted minds, sometimes it’s good enough for the President himself to be a bold, decisive.… American. To those aggressively pursuing Ph.D.’s in social engineering, this may be a disconcerting assertion. The Democratic Party (inside and outside of the Beltway press) spent two years hiding from that reality. But last week, the voters made sure they heard it, loud and clear.

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