What happened to the cheerful, easy-going guy who every voter wanted to sit down with over a beer during the last presidential campaign? Once portrayed as an honest, likeable guy-next-door, the President split into a later day model of a peevish autocrat fumbling to maintain power and control, a Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde.
Some claim that the president hasn’t changed-his portrayal was the work of career-enhancing puff pieces by a news media more concerned about future access, aware of the Bush coterie’s demands of loyalty, and fearful of retribution dealt anyone who crossed them.
With an expensive and increasingly unpopular war, a failure to respond effectively to a major national hurricane disaster, and a persistent investigation of the White House leak of a CIA agent’s name, the rigidly choreographed, tightly controlled efforts to manage the president’s image are unwinding under media pressure. According to Dana Milbank in The Washington Post, “Only the president’s closest friends and family know (if anybody does) what he’s really thinking these days.”
White House contempt for the mainstream media is well known-major administration announcements are often broken by Rush Limbaugh and the Weekly Standard or paid-for propaganda “informationals”-and reporters can’t obtain a clear perspective. For example, in the president’s eight publicity trips to the Gulf Coast, only one was open to the press. The single pool reporter allowed to accompany the president on his last trip was kept so far away he couldn’t hear the interviews.
Even Bush’s interview Wednesday with NBC’s Matt Lauer was labeled “closed press.” During the interview, Milbank reports the president was “a blur of blinks, taps, jiggles, pivots and shifts S the body language of a man wishing urgently to be elsewhere.” During one question, Bush blinked 27 times, and fidgeted uncontrollably.
Other examples abound. Reported in excerpts from her upcoming book, Alleluia America, Carole Coleman reported in the Sunday Times about her interview with Bush for an Irish newspaper. After submitting a list of questions and topics to the White House-a routine that allows the president to rehearse his answers-Coleman earned the president’s enmity, breaking a rigid protocol by speaking first. She later learned, “We don’t address the president unless he speaks first.”
Hoping to put her ten-minute interview to the best advantage, Coleman sought to cut through small inconsequential talk only to have Bush respond, “I think we have a spunky one here.” Frustrated by stock answers to questions about WMD and other topics, Coleman attempted to get the president back on track. Each time he insisted on completing his meandering answers and demanded her silence. She writes, “He seemed irked to be faced with someone who wasn’t nodding gravely at him as he was speaking.” At the end of the interview he asked, “Is that how you do it in Ireland-interrupting people all the time?”
Later the White House called to say how disappointed they were in Coleman’s interview, saying, “you blew it, “and claiming Coleman was “more vicious than any of the White House press corps.” Coleman’s interview with Laura Bush was cancelled and they threatened to protest her behavior to the Irish Embassy.
Hurricane Katrina brought more serious reports of the president’s basic peevishness. Time magazine reported that Bush “swaggered” and was “stuck in the same White House bubble of isolation as his father, ” while Time reporter Mike Allen wrote that Bush appeared not to understand what was happening because his aides were afraid to confront his ire by bringing him bad news.
“Bush’s bubble,” Allen said, “has grown more hermetic in the second term S with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news – or tell him when he’s wrong.
Newsweek reported that Bush is “warm and hearty in public,” but “cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the President.” Bush “can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty” and “is surrounded largely by people who agree with him.”
Writing in his White House briefing column in the Philadelphia Post, Dan Froomkin reports that Bush “yells at those who dare give him bad news,” and is “slow to comprehend concepts that don’t emerge from his gut.”
Although he claimed it was a “conversation,” Bush was afraid to face the troops in Iraq this week in a TV videoconference without having it carefully staged and rehearsed. Instead of an honest conversation, Bush’s appearance came off as tightly controlled and awkward.
All is not dire. With Bush unraveling, we can expect a touch of humor as his verbal gaffes return to the front page. Gems such as “”We look forward to hearing your vision, so we can more better do our job,” or “The best place for the facts to be done is by somebody who’s spending time investigating it.” Or, as he told people in upstate New York in May, “See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”