Water Man Spouts

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bush and Iraq: Image vs Anti-Image

There were two press conferences yesterday with a common theme: both George W. Bush and Debra Lafave went in front of the cameras to tell reporters that the media was largely responsible for the suffering their poor choices had caused others.
In President Bush's case, it is clear that he is attempting to change the public image of his administration, the war in Iraq, and indeed himself. Recent polls indicate that he enjoys the lowest approval of any recent president, except Richard Nixon shortly before he resigned in disgrace. Because of the "mid-term" elections, Bush is being pressured to take on a public role which he clearly would not take were he popular.
It is important to note that in politics, whether local, state, or national, there are always three groups to consider. The first is those who will always support you; the second is those who will always oppose you; and the third is the "undecided" group that generally determines the outcome of an election.
Those who successfully run political campaigns know that they usually will not need to invest a great deal of resources in the first group. The second group is either ignored or baited in hopes of causing a negative reaction. But it's the third group that is the focus: if your base is significantly larger than the opposition's, your strategy is based on not needing a big turn-out. If the election is highly contested, you attempt to create a good image of your candidate, and an "anti-image" for the opposition.
When we look back at the commercials, sound bites, debates, and press conferences associated with the Bush2 administration, a couple obvious examples stand out. President Bush strutting on the air craft carrier with the "Mission Accomplished" banner was to create an image of Bush as a tough soldier. The "swift boat liars" were used to create an anti-image for John Kerry. This image making is distinct, of course, from the reality of each of their experience in the Vietnam War era.
To fully appreciate Bush's curious press conference yesterday, it must be viewed in the context of his drop in popularity among both republicans and conservatives in the past two months. Much of his unfavorable numbers are tied to his Iraqi policy, which is failing on a military level, and which has erased any claim to his being a fiscal conservative.
Polls indicate that there are very few Americans who are undecided on Iraq right now. The Bush administration is not investing a great amount of energy in attempting the anti-war people to come around to Bush's school of thought. They are trying to get those who are generally uninformed about Iraq, and who base their opposition on CNN film clips, to have an emotional reaction to the media. But their primary focus is to reach out to their base, in preparation for the 2006 elections.
When presidents are reduced to fighting for their crumbling base, it signals that there are serious problems. President Bush surely remembers his father's experience. In his attempt to blame his woes on the journalists in front of him, he may have offered his opposition to define him in classic anti-image terms. While the Nixon comparisons are entertaining for our "group one," we have an opportunity to use another president's image to reach "group three."
On August 7, 1967, New York Times Saigon bureau chief R.W. Apple, Jr., wrote one of the most important stories about the Vietnam war, which he noted was "not going well. Victory is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach. It is clearly unlikely in the next year or even in the next two years, and American officers talk somberly about fighting here for decades. ... 'Stalemate' is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening."
In his book "Flawed Giant," Robert Dallek tells of how LBJ reacted angrily, calling numerous people to say that Apple was a "communist," and to threaten other journalists. Yet as Dallek notes, "LBJ was mistaken. It was not the reporters who were describing the sorry state of the US war effort in Vietnam" who were to blame for the president's problems. Rather, "the administration simply lacked compelling information to convince most Americans that the war was going well. A Gallup poll at the end of July showed 52 percent of the country disapproving the President's handling of the war, his highest negative rating to date. Only 54 percent thought we were making progress in the fighting." (pages 474-5)
Dallek later notes that "(e)ven less flattering to LBJ is the reality that he also pursued the war for selfish motives. To admit failure on so big an issue as Vietnam would have been too jarring to Johnson's self-image as a can-do leader. .... Plaguing Johnson as well was an irrational conviction that his domestic opponents were subversives or the dupes of subversives intent on undermining national institutions." (page 627)
In his classic book "Robert Kennedy and his times," Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., tells of how Johnson tried to distract the country from negative media coverage by making -- in one day -- two unscheduled speeches in Washington, held an unscheduled press conference on his plans to reduce nuclear weapons, invited all the governors to the White House, had Senator Henry Jackson read a letter on the necessity of bombing in Vietnam, and confirmed the rumor his daughter Luci was pregnant. (page 831)
Schlesinger details how this manic energy was offset by bouts of depression, and tells of a conversation in which Bill Moyers expressed his concerns that LBJ had cut himself away from reality. Moyers noted that LBJ had become "paranoid" in his beliefs that those who opposed his policies in Vietnam were enemies of the state.
In her book "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream," Doris Kearns Goodwin tells of how people around the president became frightened by his mental state, highlighted by what Schlesinger described as LBJ's compulsive monologues, puncuated by irrelevant laughter:
"Two or three intellectuals started it all you know. They produced all the doubt .... And it spread and spread ... Then Bobby began taking it up as his cause and with Martin Luther King on his payroll he went around stirring up the Negroes .... Then the communists stepped in. They control the three major networks, you know, and the forty major outlets of communication. Walter Lippman is a communist and so is Teddy White. It's in all the FBI reports .... Isn't it funny that I always receive a piece of advice from my top advisers right after each of them has been in contact with someone in the communist world? And isn't it funny that you could always find Dobrynin's car in front of Reston's house the night before Reston delivered a blast on Vietnam?"
I think that democrats and progressives need to point out the growing similarities between LBJ's Vietnam policy, and President Bush's Iraqi policy.


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