Along the Tracks

Friday, May 16, 2003

Gray Lady swings her purse

Not to be cowed by its own scandal, the New York Times continues its rhetorical assault on George W. Bush with this Elisabeth Bumiller exposé on presidential PR.

You just know where this “news” story is headed from the start, as Bumiller calls Bush’s “‘Top Gun’ landing” on the Lincoln something which “will be remembered as one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history.” By sentence two, Bumiller notes this administration is “going far beyond the foundations in stagecraft set by the Reagan White House ...” - apparently “stagecraft” was not a concern of the Clinton White House. Maybe Bumiller thinks vacation destinations chosen by political consultants and hand-holding with Hillary in the sunset were sincere moments that don’t count.

But, according to Bumiller, it’s not just Bumiller who feels Bush is going overboard (pardon the pun). “Officials of past Democratic and Republican administrations marvel at how the White House does not seem to miss an opportunity to showcase Mr. Bush in dramatic and perfectly lighted settings.” Good word, that “marvel.” But notice what Bumiller says they’re “marvel”ing at - not how Bush is shown in dramatic settings, but how the White House “does not seem to miss an opportunity.” How political of that nasty administration!

The sad part about this story is that the facts are actually quite interesting, how their is a three-person team that looks into the details of lighting and backdrops and stage positioning. These experts then head off with a “small army” of technicians, many of whom are apparently volunteers, who then get the site ready for the presidential appearance.

Unfortunately, Bumiller spends an entire five paragraphs on the factual details of presidential “stagecraft,” out of a 28-paragraph story.

Of course, it’s hard to scandal-monger if you don’t have a ridiculous-seeming price tag for all this self-centered image creation. Bumiller tosses out the $3.7 million “travel and events” budget for the White House. That’s it? Well, not quite. Bumiller notes “White House communications operatives in previous administrations said many costs of presidential trips were paid for by whoever was deemed the official host of a trip - typically a federal agency, a city or a company. Trips deemed political are paid for by the parties.” So, all this “stagecraft” is not necessarily costing federal taxpayers much at all, depending on the site and the event. Also, notice how these carefully created presidential showcases being discussed have transformed into “presidential trips.” Now, federal agencies and cities can pick up some of the tab - traffic detours, security, etc. These items have nothing to do with “stagecraft,” but by shifting definitions, Bumiller can add to the expenses without actually identifying what is being purchased with those dollars.

The teaser from the first paragraph - that “Top Gun” landing - is finally targeted three-quarters of the way through the piece. Bumiller uses a lot of loaded terms - “elaborate,” “choreographed,” “coordinated,” “celebratory,” “image makers,” “golden glow” - to make sure her cynicism hits us like a ball bat. But the criticism falls apart. After repeating the Democrats’ charge that this was an “expensive political stunt” - and not bothering to even attempt an accounting of the costs - Bumiller cites a New York Times poll which found 59 percent felt the president’s actions were “appropriate.” Just to be certain we know what Bumiller thinks of these polled clods, she’s quite specific about what they were approving: “... for Mr. Bush to dress in a flight suit and announce the end of combat operations on the aircraft carrier.” Not the speech, not the landing per se, but the whole staged event. Stupid Red-Staters!

Bumiller moves on to chuckle at a “mistake” in St. Louis, where some boxes stacked for a backdrop had to be covered, due to “Made in China” labels. Note, however, they were covered before the president spoke - not much of a screw-up.

The story finally trails off with grandiose descriptions of the efforts at staging, apparently trying to prove how anal the president and his staff are. Meanwhile, the people quoted all praise the presidential image-makers’ efforts.

It’s hard to do a hatchet-job well when most people like the guy you’re trying to chop, and like the job his subordinates are doing - and there’s no monetary scandal.

Better luck next time, ‘Lis.

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