Bush Bounces, Reporters Follow

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Bob Woodward has made a career out of trolling the halls of power for the packaged (but not always on-message) scoop. His measured, non-judgmental style and marquee name have kept politicians and their embittered minions coming back for their respective close-ups for several decades now.

But as Woodward’s own blinkered account of the alleged heroism of the Bush team’s response to 9/11 demonstrates as clearly as is humanly possible, access isn’t everything. It certainly isn’t the only thing. Take a look, for instance, at Newsweek’s cover story this week, where reporter Richard Wolffe was allowed to trail President Bush as he traveled to Russia for the G8 summit last week. The ghost of Woodwardian access haunts the piece, as does logical contradiction after logical contradiction. Describing the conference itself, we discover that “Bush huddles with presidents and prime ministers, showing how far he has traveled since 9/11—and also how little he has changed. Bush thinks the new war vindicates his early vision of the region’s struggle: of good versus evil, civilization versus terrorism, freedom versus Islamic fascism.” Well, which is it? Has Bush changed or has he stayed the same? Time, no pun intended, will have to tell. Later, we learn: “Circumstances have taught him to speak the language of diplomacy more fluently. Yet he still trusts his gut to tell him what’s right, and he still expects others to follow his lead. For Bush, diplomacy is not the art of a negotiated compromise. It’s a smoother way to get where he wants to go.”

Again, despite the big windup, we’re gently told that well, you know, while Bush might speak the “language of diplomacy more fluently,” he’s still well, let’s say, a big baby who expects to get his way every time or he’s taking his marbles and going home. And if you look at the President’s impromptu, miked comments at the summit, we learn just how spoiled and set in his ways Wolffe’s “fluent diplomat” has grown.

Bush tells Tony Blair, “what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over,” and then whines about how long certain leaders plan to speak and how much he wants to go home because he has “something” to do. If that’s diplospeak for Bush, I’d hate to hear him when he was just being himself. The piece, while not wholly complimentary to the President, still falls apart when it comes to actual characterizing the catastrophic situation in Iraq. Consider this odd Daily Show-like line: “In Iraq, conditions on the ground have long conspired against Bush and driven allies away.”

“Conditions?” Did these “conditions” simply fall from the sky? How about the administration’s incompetence, dishonesty, and ideological obsessiveness? Doesn’t that one line from Newsweek remind one uncomfortably of the now infamous Rob Corddry line, that the problem in Iraq is that “the facts are biased�???the facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda,” presented sans-irony.

As the summit closes, Newsweek reports the President is “pleased with the summit and his handling of the crisis.” It’s an odd line, and Newsweek fails to explain just how the crisis was “handled,” since the President seemed to spend most of his time pouting about long meetings and boring speeches. (And does the reporter really think Bush is likely to tell him, “Damn, I really fu**ked things up in there. What was I thinking?”)

Of course Newsweek is not exactly alone in its kid-glove handling of this failed presidency and its do-nothing response to the Israel-Hezbollah crisis. As The American Prospect’s Greg Sargent pointed out on Tuesday, Time magazine also offers its own breathless version of the President’s handling of the crisis. He highlights the magazine’s claim that the escalating violence has given the President “a second chance to be a peacemaker,” and to “make headway on his grand goal of leaving the Middle East more democratic than he found it.”

Set up nicely, Sargent responds: “Anyone by chance recall Bush’s first effort to be a “peacemaker”? Me neither. I do, however, vaguely recall him initiating a war of choice on false pretenses that has left over 2,500 Americans dead and many tens of thousands severely wounded.”

But there’s more. Continue reading the Time article and the atmospherics and the stunts the administration uses to practice spin control are taken as gospel by the magazine, which should really know better. We learn that “the Administration is ever optimistic. In an e-mail titled “Setting the Record Straight” late last week, the White House declared, “The President’s foreign policy is succeeding.” What policy that would be is hard to imagine.

Then we’re given the standard “changed tone” line that reporters have fallen in love with: “Indeed, the West Wing is relatively upbeat. People close to Bush say chief of staff Josh Bolten and press secretary Tony Snow have given the place a desperately needed karmic injection.” The tone of the Time article, like Newsweek’s, paints a decisive and engaged President on the upswing, handling the newest crisis in the Middle East with a Midas touch – despite all evidence to the contrary.

If one were to look at public opinion polls, however, the public appears to be tuning out the mainstream media’s hero-worship. A USA Today/Gallup poll released on this past Tuesday showed that the President’s approval rating has, in fact, dropped three points, from 40 percent in early July to 37 percent (the poll was take July 21-23). What’s more, only 37 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the Middle East conflict while 56 percent disapproved.

Despite this, and despite other recent polls that show widespread disapproval with the President’s handling of the situation in the Middle East, some in the press keep pushing the situation as a win for the President. On July 21, CNN’s “The Situation Room” featured a clip of analyst Stuart Rothenberg opining, “There is this international, global terror threat that could actually help the president.” CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider then chimed in, “the war on terror is a Republican issue. Iraq is a Democratic issue. A recent poll showed Republicans with an 11-point lead on terrorism and Democrats with a 10-point lead on Iraq.” There they go again�???.

The Republicans may be polling ahead of the Democrats on the terrorism issue, but as the USA Today/Gallup poll showed, the President sure isn’t. So why all the armchair punditry and cheerleading? These guys would do well to look at the facts, rather than trying to jump out ahead on the latest ephemera about the elusive “Bush bounce” that we’ve been hearing so much about.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, was recently published in paperback by Penguin, and is the subject of a major historians’ online symposium here.

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

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