Emerging From Battered Press Syndrome?
(Photo via :mr.Mark:'s.)
Dan Froomkin had a disturbing, yet illuminating, bit from the press pool. It's is creepily illustrative of what I've been calling "battered press syndrome," based on the consistently weird interplay between George Bush, his WH, and the press who cover him from within the Beltway Bubble. What makes this particular bit fascinating is that a reporter from outside the Beltway does a little field observation work on the press actions of the Beltway crowd. (It is a mini-sociology and psych seminar in the making, I swear. And I want more, so take this as a hint outside the beltway reporters. Please.) Anyway, from Froomkin:
"The first stop was a card table set up in front of a cinderblock-type hut," New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg wrote in his pool report. "Sitting on top of it were suitcase devices used to view the images sent back from predator drones. 'Train it on Holland,' POTUS said as a soldier held up the drone, about two feet long and pointed it at Steve Holland of Reuters. Peering into the image received in the suitcase device's monitor, POTUS said to Holland, 'You're as rough looking here as you are regular.'"
Later, Rutenberg writes: "We arrived at another display of robotic rovers built to handle and search for road side bombs. With your pool assembled before him, POTUS grabbed the joy stick on a remote control and started sending a rover with a grab claw into the photographers, telling Jason Reed of Reuters – who was right in its path – 'You're not debris, you're still a human being.' . . . POTUS then turned his attention to your humble pool reporter, 'Rutenberg, come here,' then saying, 'Put your hand there by the claw.' LOL."
Rutenberg left out what happened next, but local reporter Tatiana Prophet of the Victorville (Calif.) Daily Press was fascinated by the conduct of the White House press corps, and wrote a story about them: "While this administration has been characterized by a ban on reporters' questions outside of a formal news conference, the media nevertheless have a familiarity with the commander-in-chief. . . .
"'Rutenberg, come over here,' Bush said to New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg. 'Put your hand up right by the claw.'
"The 'claw' was a robot arm of the Talon 3, a diminutive robot designed to disarm improvised explosive devices, which have become the biggest threat to troops involved in the Iraq War. . . .
"Rutenberg, kneeling in the desert dust, was a good sport as the president sent the robot toward him, to laughter from the soldiers and the media as well."
Nothing like a little physical abasement to keep the president in good spirits.
Yes, indeed, nothing like having a President who thinks physical abasement of the press is amusing, and a press corps that sees nothing wrong with being the butt of his jokes over and over again. It's an odd dynamic, isn't it? I'm all for a sense of humor, and going along with a good joke, but why is it that the jokes are always about running over the press or gripping them with a robot claw or something? Thinking back to the days when Ronald Reagan and Sam Donaldson used to shout at each other across the Rose Garden lawn about whether or not The Gipper would actually answer a tough question, it all seems so…well…much more professional. (And who thought you'd ever be able to say that?!?)
For some reason, I keep having this feeling that the President failed to leave his fraternity hazing days behind (H/T Rants from the Rookery), and that we are, as a nation, forced to relive his "glory days." That the Washington Press Corps keeps trying to get initiated into the "in crowd" makes it all the more pitiful, doesn't it?
Peter Baker has an intriguing take on this in an op-ed for the WaPo this morning.
…As we talked about Vladimir Putin and his relationship with President Bush, the Kremlin official compared the Bush team to the Bolsheviks and laughed at how secretive their White House appeared. "They've adopted some of our techniques with the press," he said.
For most of the past six years, journalists covering the White House have indeed been forced to master the art of Kremlinology. The famously disciplined and leak-averse Bush team succeeded at hermetically sealing the building, keeping behind-the-scenes machinations, well, behind the scenes. Deprived of any genuine information about how the institution operated, reporters were left to extrapolate what was really going on based on who was standing where at a Rose Garden photo op.
I had never thought about it quite this way, but that is exactly what everyone has been doing the last six years, in the absence of any real honesty and straightforward answers. In a vacuum, something has to fill the void of knowledge. And because the Bush Administration has been such a void? Lots of interpretive work to be done. Except, as Baker notes, the facade of silent loyalty has begun to crumble:
"Discipline is enforced by fear, and there's not a lot of people right now afraid of the president, politically afraid," said Joe Lockhart, who was press secretary for President Bill Clinton. "The Joint Chiefs, the Republican leadership, former aides are not worried about political retribution from the White House. They're a paper tiger."
Indeed, the toughest criticism of the Bush White House these days seems to emanate from those who were once on the inside and are no longer reluctant to speak out. Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, told the New York Times this month that he is "so disappointed in things" that he has concluded that Sen. John F. Kerry was right about Iraq. John R. Bolton left his post as Bush's ambassador to the United Nations and within weeks complained that the administration was not being tough enough on Iran and North Korea. Kenneth Adelman, a former confidant of Vice President Cheney and adviser to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, now denounces his erstwhile friends for running the worst administration in modern times.
So much for that BFF political hack neocon pinky swear, I suppose. It is about damn time we started a public conversation about the use of strategic leaks of half-truths and partial facts from the Administration to promote its half-baked policy initiatives that keep sliding into failures. That is begins based on John Bolton turning on the Bushies? Karma. But what about journalists and pundits? Even Joe Klein has seen a sliver of light:
When Bush came to office–installed by the Supreme Court after receiving fewer votes than Al Gore–I speculated that the new President would have to govern in a bipartisan manner to be successful. He chose the opposite path, and his hyper-partisanship has proved to be a travesty of governance and a comprehensive failure. I've tried to be respectful of the man and the office, but the three defining sins of the Bush Administration–arrogance, incompetence, cynicism–are congenital: they're part of his personality. They're not likely to change. And it is increasingly difficult to imagine yet another two years of slow bleed with a leader so clearly unfit to lead.
I'm not exactly holding my breath that this will stand as the final thoughts on George Bush from Klein (or any of the other punditocracy, for that matter). But increasingly, the President appears to be standing with an ever-shrinking party of supporters. And that fear that he and Karl Rove worked so hard to instill in the press corps no longer holds the same level of threat — the former bully is now dragging a tank of oxygen around with him, and he doesn't have the same level of force in his swing. The swat has become a flop. And a whole lot of people who were otherwise afraid are suddenly laughing at the charade of a weakened, gasping presidency trying to pretend that it still has the same ole swagger…and no one can truly be afraid of people who now seem like a joke. A cruel, idiotic and profoundly difficult joke, sure…but no longer frightening when you can laugh behind your public mask or behind their backs with ever-increasing regularity.
Would that everyone would have realized earlier: the only thing to fear is fear itself.
I am an American, I refuse to sit back and quake in my chair, waiting for someone to strike. I will be damned if some crazy terrorist — or some smarmy political operative — is going to silence me, or frighten me, or make me do anything other than live my life to the fullest in my own way every day. To do otherwise is to hand over control of my life and my thoughts to someone else — and that is about as unAmerican as it comes. Everything else is counterproductive to the notions of justice, liberty and freedom. Try keeping that in mind, folks in the media and in politics, would you?