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Dawn of the dead
Wide-awake after four years of slumber, the mainstream media is finally turning on Bush

When a civilian-defense-department aide was caught last week rehearsing — or at a minimum, coaching — battlefield troops in Iraq before a special live video-teleconference session with President Bush, the would-be feel-good broadcast morphed into a public-relations nightmare.

The NBC Nightly News led with the snafu while Andrea Mitchell rubbed salt in the wound, declaring the incident "a rare look behind the curtain of a White House trying to sell an increasingly unpopular war." Across the dial on ABC World News Tonight, the news wasn’t much better for Bush as Terry Moran described the staged Q&A as an example of how badly the administration needed "a public-relations success at home for this embattled president." A bit later in the evening, on MSNBC’s Countdown, Washington Post staffer Dana Milbank ventured that the botched chat between the commander in chief and his soldiers was emblematic of how things were going at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days.

"This is a White House that did everything right in terms of imagery and now they’ve lost their mojo," said Milbank. "I think what you’re seeing here is a White House at 38 points in the polls ... and they don’t really know how to run from behind."

In fact, Bush’s phonied-up pep rally was a veritable perfect storm of White House headaches. First, there was the bad issue — a war the American public increasingly dislikes. Then there was the bad execution — a logistical embarrassment from an administration that had made a fetish out of message discipline. Finally, and perhaps most important, there was the bad karma — a Beltway press corps long outmaneuvered and disrespected by the White House is now smelling blood, baring its fangs, and moving in on its prey.


For the Bush administration, menacing signs are everywhere. From the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina to the furor over unqualified Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, from the bloodshed in Baghdad to the Plamegate scandal engulfing Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, the embattled White House finds itself on the defensive and on the run. Gallup polls show the country turning thumbs down on the president’s handling of big issues such as the economy, Iraq, and Katrina. The president’s job-approval numbers — once a stratospheric, record-breaking 90 percent in the aftermath of 9/11 — have now plunged below 40.

From Richard Nixon’s Watergate disaster to Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra fiasco and Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal, second terms have historically been full of headaches and political turmoil for modern American presidents. And with Bush looking very vulnerable now, the media assault has begun. Some observers believe the tide turned when the public cheered outraged journalists’ willingness to challenge administration officials aggressively in the aftermath of Katrina. Others say the stunning onslaught of friendly fire — the angry response of Bush’s conservative base to the Miers nomination — was a pivotal moment. What is certain is that the news media — playing their traditional role as followers rather than as shapers of public currents and perhaps itching to even the score with a White House that has tried to marginalize them — have become greatly emboldened by mounting evidence of presidential weakness.

"We’re in a period of time that there is a conventional wisdom that Bush is on the ropes," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. "I think, based on my experience, that the media tend to move in lockstep as conventional wisdom on a story develops."

A less analytical and less polite version of those sentiments is offered by Chuck Todd, editor in chief of the daily political newsletter, the Hotline.

"I think we’re in classic feeding frenzy," says Todd. "Will we get to the point where we’ll Jimmy Carter–ize him? That’s the Jimmy Carter factor when the press won’t even let you run a staged event properly."

Evidence of the "Jimmy Carter factor" is growing abundant.

Today show co-host Matt Lauer — who won’t make anyone forget Edward R. Murrow — suddenly got dogged during an October 11 Bush interview in Louisiana, asking whether his repeated trips to the region are more show than substance, pressing him on the growing conservative revolt, and asking whether he is worried about Rove’s repeated trips before the grand jury. The next day in the Washington Post, Milbank wrote an unflattering story about Bush’s telling nonverbal behavior during that interview, describing them as "a blur of blinks, taps, jiggles, pivots and shifts ... the body language of a man wishing urgently to be elsewhere."

The morning after the networks pounced on Bush’s rehearsed chat with the troops, the front-page headlines in both the Washington Post (SCANDALS TAKE TOLL ON BUSH’S 2ND TERM) and the New York Times (JITTERS AT THE WHITE HOUSE OVER THE LEAK INQUIRY) adorned stories highlighting uncertainty and weakness at the upper levels of government. Newsweek’s POWER OUTAGE cover story declared that "sky-high gasoline prices, the massive cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast and ever-gloomier public assessment of the war in Iraq ... have combined to weaken Bush’s reputation as a strong leader and leave him vulnerable to the kind of second-term fiascos that tend to befall all presidents."

Meanwhile, some of White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s briefings have begun to take on that lions-versus-Christians feel, with the beleaguered McClellan flashing an uncomfortably toothy grin as he tries to fend off a newly energized White House press corps. (Recent example: Question: "Scott, why did the administration feel it was necessary to coach the soldiers that the president talked to this morning in Iraq?" Answer: "I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re suggesting.")

The liberal press is celebrating. In an October 14 piece for the online version of the American Prospect, columnist Terence Samuel cheered a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicating Bush had dropped to a 39 percent job-approval rating and declared, "Oh, how the winds have shifted and how ill they blow for the majority [party]."

The conservative press is hedging its bets. In a New York Times op-ed, National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru went to pains to explain why "disillusioned" and "betrayed" conservatives are "thinking more and more about life after President Bush."

The elite media are shaking their head in wonderment. "The Republican implosion has come with startling speed," declared George Packer in a "Talk of the Town" item in the New Yorker.

The big problem for Bush is that the implosion has numbers attached to it.

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Issue Date: October 21 - 27, 2005
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