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War: The Best Presidential PR?

Why is the U.S. press unanimously rallying behind President George W. Bush?

January 29, 2002

Why is the U.S. press unanimously rallying behind President George W. Bush?

Wars can make or break a U.S. presidency. One need look only to Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War to see that. The stalemate in Korea was a factor in pushing Harry Truman out of the 1952 presidential race.

But can a war make a presidency? Not entirely. Bush’s own father — George H.W. Bush — had approval ratings of 89% at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

As is well-known, that did not prevent him from losing the presidency to Bill Clinton the very next year. And it was Versailles and the struggle over the League of Nations — not the war itself — that undid Woodrow Wilson’s political standing after the First World War.

Yet in wartime, the United States and its media often rally around even deeply unpopular presidents. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt jump immediately to mind. Prior to the emergence of a war challenge, both men were divisive figures who were viciously attacked by their political opponents. Yet when the country went to war, the American people and media closed ranks behind both men.

It’s a tendency that’s been quantified in a January 2002 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. That group’s study of the viewpoint taken in stories during the three months after the September 11 attacks found that 62% of the stories appearing in major U.S. media about the war took an entirely or mostly pro-U.S. spin. In fact, 49% of those stories cited only the U.S. viewpoint.

In November 2000, Mr. Bush’s 2002 election split the United States straight down the middle. The U.S. media portrayal of Bush during the first months of his presidency was less-than-favorable.

A tight-lipped White House had reporters complaining that they’d been “frozen out.” Mr. Bush held few news conferences and took few questions outside of tightly-controlled environments.

In fact, the caricature of Dubya on a popular U.S. comedy show, “Saturday Night Live,” as an arrogant buffoon wholly dependent on his advisers became a popular view.

The Republicans’ loss of control in the U.S. Senate — due in part to a lack of White House attention to renegade Sen. Jim Jeffords, who duly switched parties — was seen as confirming evidence of this aloofness and less than “hands-on” management capability.

But the terrorist attacks of September 11 transformed the United States — and the U.S. media’s depiction of their president. Mr. Bush suddenly became a wartime leader.

After a rocky first few days, he grew steadily into the new role. The media helped as well. Humor about the president slowed to a trickle. Even the initial confusion at the White House on the day of the attacks over Bush’s whereabouts was aggressively downplayed.

President Bush helped himself in the media’s eyes in two ways. The first was a renewed vigor in his public appearances. The previous malaprops vanished. Bush’s slow and careful style — as opposed to Clinton’s loquacity — struck a chord with Americans.

The rave reviews for his speech before the U.S. Congress on September 20, 2002 are a case in point. NBC anchor Tom Brokaw called the speech “eloquent” — not a word usually associated with Mr. Bush’s speaking abilities.

Yet Bush’s other aid to his media image came through manipulating one of the U.S. media’s grandest fallacies — the elevation of bipartisanship to the highest political value. In his public statements, Bush made a strong initial separation of the war effort from the partisan bickering that is usual Washington procedure. The Democrats accepted these overtures — and returned them in kind.

Of course, such bipartisanship is often among the grandest of Washington illusions. In fact, partisan warfare continued apace on issues ranging from airline security to tax cuts.

In January 2002, Bush advisor Karl Rove publicly urged the Republican Party to run on Bush’s war record. For mainstream consumption, however, Mr. Bush’s observance of the etiquette of bipartisanship lingered with many as the first impression of their president under fire.

The American media’s love of bipartisanship — and its willingness to change its tune for a wartime president who publicly values it — is rooted in its much-vaunted (and largely illusory) “objectivity” in political matters.

Unlike the press in many European countries, for instance, major U.S. newspapers, television and radio stations argue that they adopt aggressively apolitical positions, particularly in their news coverage.

They proudly highlight their maintenance of a strict separation between their news and editorial departments. They believe that presenting the news in a factual and unbiased manner is the highest goal.

Having publicly forsaken any political axes, according to this doctrine, the U.S. media tends to favor politicians who do as they do. Lawmakers who work “across the aisle” with colleagues from the opposing party are applauded. Those who fight the wars of political party are regularly savaged by the press.

In the European press, by comparison, newspapers have open political sympathies that often seep into their coverage of news events. In the U.K., one can rely on the more liberal Guardian and the more conservative Times to present different slants or emphases to the same news story.

Americans usually take grave offense at this political bias in European media. Without good reason, as it turns out.

Exhibit 1: The Project for Excellence in Journalism study numbers — which unlock the key to the allegedly non-existent slant in U.S. journalism. In the “watch what you say” atmosphere that has followed September 11, the numbers don’t lie. The U.S. media is overwhelmingly patriotic.

Exhibit 2: In the same way that the Gulf War helped the U.S. military shed its obsession with defeat in Vietnam, the new war on terrorism has helped a generation of war protestors-turned-professional journalists heal their own psychic scars over the Indochina conflict. They can now forget Tet, and wave that flag. (Or put it in the bottom corner of the TV screen.)

But now back to Europe. While the European media’s urge to politicize coverage is problematic in general, it is very helpful at times when a leader’s approval ratings go sky-high, as Mr. Bush’s currently are. It is, perhaps, useful for a U.S. President in such lofty circumstances to have a media that is not at his disposal — but, rather, in his side.

After all, as well-executed as many perceive the Bush Administration’s war strategy to be, there are many other issues (some closely related) upon which it may be appropriate to be highly critical of the White House. Energy consumption, national identity cards, educational priorities and tax cuts are just a few that warrant more — and more controversial — discussion.