Smack dab in the middle of American Idol, George Bush intervened during prime time on Tuesday night to deliver a campaign speech disguised as a press conference.
The script began with a 17-minute monologue worthy of Karl Rove. Here was Bush in fighter pilot stance (sans flight suit), justifying his policies in terms that had everything to do with his persona. The content played to the enduring American romance about empire as a civilizing force. Bush represented the Iraqis as folks from Kansas looking to be rescued from a tornado, and the U.S. as the Wizard of Oz. He correctly characterized Saddam as a mass murderer while failing to note that the chemical weapons Hussein used on his own people had been provided by us. He slathered butter on the guns, blood, and money it will take to carry out what has always been a feckless task.
But never mind all that. Bush’s peroration depended for its power on countless images of the righteous American hero. Here was Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gary Cooper in High Noon, and for good measure, the Rock in Walking Tall restoring law and order with two fists and a club—all rolled up in one sound bite-ful package.
As a pop event, it worked, sort of. The instant commentary was subtly negative, but you had to surf for it, since the networks raced back to variations on Law & Order. The tabloids, of course, must generate their own entertainment. For them the speech was ideal. The phrase “somber and resolute” was embedded in many leads. Bush’s reference to freedom as “Almighty’s gift” yielded references to his “missionary zeal.” The headline of choice was “Stay the Course!” Bush’s handlers certainly know what it takes to shape a story. There’s one problem: This script wasn’t delivered by a pro.
As he wavered from one talking point to another, you could see the panic in Bush’s eyes. To The Washington Post, the president “seemed out of sorts at times as he searched for words to answer often hostile questions and sometimes lapsed into awkward phrases.” Consider his response to the first of several questions about admitting mistakes: “Hmmm. Look. I can understand why people in my administration are anguished over the fact that people lost their life.” When another reporter raised the same question, his remarks made Casey Stengel sound like Lincoln: “You know, I just–I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn’t yet.” Anyone for fighting the war on terriers?
If this event had any meaning, it was as a struggle between the press and the prep. The White House is right to reason that most Americans prefer reality TV to reality—but that’s where Bush screwed up. He failed the Jay Leno test of a performing pol. As a result, his primetime appearance won’t be the defining moment Karl Rove planned for. Forced to choose between Bush and the 9-11 Commission, most papers favored the latter. It wasn’t just the news value. It was the sight of the president, lips tightly clasped around air-filled cheeks as he labored to make sense of his thoughts. Nothing is a bigger turn off than a leader who talks a resolute line with a look of confusion on his face.