Media Misunderestimates Bush… Again

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

During his press conference Tuesday night, President Bush demonstrated once again that he has no intention of allowing the horrific realities of Iraq affect his ideological predispositions. Press coverage of the event expressed surprise at Bush's unwillingness to rethink his policies or even explain them. This is getting tired. The media have 'misunderestimated' Bush consistently since his emergence as a national candidate. Whether one thinks the president to be a moron or a political genius — and I can make the case either way — it is hard to deny that he is anything but an extreme conservative ideologue. Those closest to him know it; but those in the news media don't seem to think the rest of us can handle the news.

In his almost worshipful memoir of his brief tenure as a White House speechwriter, David Frum could not help but admit that he found President Bush too "dogmatic; often uncurious and as a result ill-informed." His pre-9/11 response to international criticism, according to Frum, was to "to tuck back his ears and repeat his offense." Richard Brookhiser, another Bush-admiring conservative intellectual observers, "Bush's faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity: there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey."

Yes, President Bush "grew" in the aftermath of the attacks, but in what direction? Considerable evidence demonstrates Bush simply grew into a more stubborn, determined and single-minded version of his earlier self; "growing," if anything, less flexible, more unilateralist, and more deeply committed to his own belief in his near perfect righteousness. "Ambling though" his personal and professional life until the terrorist attacks, to borrow the title of a best-selling examination of his character and political strategy, the attack on America seemed to imbue the president with eschatological purpose. "I'm here for a reason," Bush told Karl Rove shortly after the attacks, "and this is going to be how we're going to be judged." A close friend of Bush's told one reporter, "I think, in his frame, this is what God has asked him to do." And a "senior administration official," speaking to Bob Woodward explained, Bush "really believes he was placed here to do this as part of a divine plan."

Ideas have consequences.

Listen to Secretary Powell speaking at an Air Force base in Rome in September 2002 with regard to the president's negotiating style. "He tries to persuade others why that is the correct position. When it does not work, then we will take the position we believe is correct." The "correct" position as enunciated by Bush turned out to be one of never-ending war based on the U.S. definition of who is a friend and who is a "terrorist." Lest this sound like hyperbole, consider the following statement: "Our war with terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end…until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." And what if America ends up alienating the entire world in the process? "At some point, we may be the only ones left," Bush told his closest advisers, according to an administration member who leaked the story to Bob Woodward. "That's OK with me. We are America."

Ironically, particularly given the fact that Bush won only 47 percent of the popular vote in the 2000 election, few Americans had any idea of the dogmatism that characterized the Republican candidate before going to the polls. This is in large measure to attributable to the fact that the men and women who report on Bush — and whose job it is to communicate his essential character and political beliefs to the rest of the nation — simply cannot believe that the man they are dealing with is a conservative ideologue, rather than a moderate fellow with conservative leanings. Though polls consistently showed that a majority of voters held views closer to those of Democrat Al Gore — and, indeed, a 52 percent majority did end up voting against Bush — even most of Bush's opponents did not see his presidency as much of a threat to their beliefs. While Bush had the reputation of being a conservative from a conservative state, he did not strike voters as particularly ideologically motivated. The media served his purposes in this regard by focusing not on his record in Texas, nor on the scale of the tax cut he proposed, but on his personal story of youthful dissolution before finding his faith, along with his apparently charming habit of handing out nicknames to everyone he met. George W. Bush, the self-described "compassionate conservative" — was said to be different from the Republican hardliners in Congress who had recently held up the nation's business with a politically-inspired impeachment of the president. True, few people found themselves awed by Bush's intellect; but the argument went that a man who knew himself, as Bush appeared to, was preferable to one who knew many things but needed to rely on pollsters to tell him what to think.

Nothing about Bush's genial campaign — or Al Gore's for that matter — highly motivated Democrats to commit themselves to his defeat. The New York Times reported just before the Election Day that, "The gap in intensity between Democrats and Republicans has been apparent all year," with Republicans fighting tooth and nail for their man, and Democrats taking a more devil-may-care attitude to theirs. Some even shunned him for the chimerical candidacy of spoiler, Ralph Nader. This gap was particularly evident in Florida, as The New Republic Jonathan Chait noted, "when a December 2000 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Gore voters more willing to accept a Bush victory than vice-versa, by a 47 to 28 percent margin." The retiring Democratic Senator and liberal icon Daniel Patrick Moynihan told the Times, "There is no great ideological chasm dividing the candidates. Each one has his prescription-drugs plan, each one has his tax-cut program, and the country obviously thinks one would do about as well as the other."

Bush's victory in the still highly-disputed fight in Florida, despite his evidently having lost both the state and the national election in pure numbers, further contributed to the belief that America's 43rd president would govern from the happy middle of the partisan divide. Bush's popular loss of the popular vote, the clearly political nature of the U.S. Supreme Court's weak legal reasoning to prevent a full count of the Florida votes, and Bush's own calming profession to be "president of all Americans," led the media and hence, most Americans to expect that Bush would follow the course set forth by Moynihan, with policies that differed from those put forth by his opponents only in degree. "Given the circumstances," wrote the pundit Joe Klein in the liberal New Yorker magazine, "there is only one possible governing strategy: a quiet, patient, and persistent bipartisanship."

As we now know, few predictions in recent political history have proven quite so wrong-headed. And yet despite having been misled about both his character and his presidency, the media and the Washington establishment continue to imagine that deep down inside, Bush and company are just like they are. The latest specimen in this species of wishful thought can be found in last Sunday's New York Times in an article by the widely admired author and former reporter James Mann, currently of the Center for Strategic and International Study. In it, the author makes the argument that after a brief sojourn into an ideologically-driven foreign policy, the Bush team is returning to the pragmatism of his father's administration.

Where's the evidence you say?

Mann allows that the change he professes to see is "subtle" and "gradual," but that "in the event of a second term he might finally come around to a foreign policy that more closely resembles that of his father."

Again how do we know?

The neoconservative ideologues who planned this war, Mann assures us "may be in decline. … There are signs that the realists are gaining the upper hand."

Oh really, what are the signs?

"Ms. Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, are operating these days more in the traditions of Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Scowcroft… Ms. Rice is said to be consulting again with Mr. Scowcroft. And Mr. Cheney has reportedly been talking with Mr. Kissinger, his old colleague."

How will we know if it's true?

"The administration's Kissingerian streak could well be on display this week when Mr. Cheney makes a respectful visit to Beijing that is likely to emphasize the importance of relations and to avoid confrontation over China's recent hostility toward democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan."

That's it. I'm not kidding. Third-hand (and unsourced) reports of phone conversations of about whose content we know absolutely nothing and the fact that Cheney is not publicly calling for a war between Taiwan and China seems to be all that's necessary to set Mr. Mann off on the belief that "pragmatists" are back in the saddle.

Note that Bush did not need to make a single concession to reality; Cheney did not even need to disavow his consistent attempt to deliberately mislead the world about the alleged relationship between the Iraqis and al Qaeda for commentators to join in the masquerade ball in which extremists are deemed to be moderate so that they might carry out their ideological mission under the cover of linguistic subterfuge.

Misunderestimated again.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow