The mid-term campaign of 1998 had been bad news for the Republicans. Even though Clinton was on the ropes because of the sex-and-lies scandal, GOP congressional leaders symbolized by House Speaker Gingrich seemed too mean-spirited and ultraconservative for Middle America. In the November 1998 election, the Republicans managed to hold a razor-thin majority in the House but lost a handful of seats, a crushing disappointment after Gingrich's predictions of major gains and the fact that Clinton was in so much trouble. Facing a revolt from within his party, Gingrich announced his resignation from Congress within days of the election.
Representative Bob Livingston was in line to succeed him, but he also resigned amid allegations that he had an extramarital affair. This left the speakership in the hands of Illinois Congressman Dennis Hastert, a stalwart if uncharismatic conservative but also an amiable figure with no known sex scandals in his past or present.
Clearly, the national GOP was struggling to find a leader free from the baggage of the Washington insiders to take the party into the 2000 campaign. Almost from the morning after the 1998 mid-terms, the focus of party regulars began shifting to Austin, Tex. and Governor George W. Bush.
Curiously, the national media didn't pick up on this for many weeks. Most political reporters didn't know Bush very well, and others remembered him from his father's 1992 campaign as a volcanic meddler who habitually berated journalists for not being fair to his Dad. I had similar experiences, but I also had taken care to keep up with "Dubya" when I concluded that he had a very good shot at the 2000 GOP nomination. He was, after all, the popular governor of a big, diverse state. He had shown political strength among women, Hispanics, and African Americans. He had the famous Bush name, which counted for a lot among Republican regulars and contributors. He could legitimately brand himself as a Washington outsider, which still had considerable appeal around the country.
Many Washington journalists belittled the man they called "Junior" as a lightweight. (Actually, he wasn't a Junior at all; his father was George Herbert Walker Bush and he was George Walker Bush.) But I had spent time with him at the Governor's Mansion, traveled around Texas with him, and interviewed him at length several times before he caught on as a hot political property across the country. I knew he had matured in office, and while he wasn't cerebral or intellectually curious—two traits valued by journalists if not by everyday Americans—he was fully capable of running a first-class campaign.
As one of my interviews with him was ending in the summer of 1998, Karen Hughes, his press secretary, stepped out of the room and left me alone with the governor. He said one thing I needed to understand about him was that he was not the same firebrand he had been in 1992. "I was a fierce warrior for my Dad," he told me. "Now I'm a governor and I know there's a big difference." He said he knew he had alienated many journalists in the past and he hoped they would move beyond their earlier impressions.
I decided to be candid with him. Yes, I said, he was pretty obnoxious in the old days, but I allowed that he seemed to have changed. We both paused and looked at each other as it sunk in that I had called the man who might well be the next President of the United State obnoxious. Suddenly, we both had a good laugh and the brief chill in the air passed. He gave me a tour of his office and even showed me his prized collection of autographed baseballs. (He had been managing partner of the Texas Rangers.) Then we shook hands and he gave me what, for him, was a high compliment: "Walsh, you're a good man."
The week after the 1998 election, U.S. News ran my cover story on Bush as the man to watch in 2000, while Time and Newsweek ran covers of the newly humiliated Gingrich. Our approach pitched the political story forward rather than looking back, but it had an additional, less obvious benefit. George W. Bush never forgot who was first to put him on the cover of a national newsmagazine. We were getting off to a good start for the next presidential campaign.
The hallmark of Bush's media strategy from his first days as a gubernatorial candidate in 1994 was message control. Emulating Ronald Reagan, he insisted on establishing a concise, clear message and hammering it home day after day no matter how often he had to repeat himself. He knew that most reporters covering him would get bored with his speech very quickly but they were not what mattered. He was aiming for the vast electorate that doesn't follow politics closely and for people who might be listening to him for the first time.
It worked very well, in Texas, first when he won a surprising victory as an underdog against incumbent Ann Richards in 1994 and then when he coasted to re-election in 1998 by a huge majority.
But this strategy—a clear message, constantly repeated—was put to a big test as the presidential campaign intensified. The problem with replicating his Texas strategy nationally was that his simple approach to communication fed into a stereotype that he was riding his father's name and using his Daddy's fund-raising lists to get ahead, but wasn't smart enough to be President on his own. This reputation was the main reason Bush got off to a shaky start in 2000 and lost the New Hampshire primary to Arizona Senator John McCain in February.
Bush went on to stop McCain in the South Carolina primary with a series of harsh attacks, and he rolled easily to the GOP nomination, but the McCain phenomenon was a warning sign for Bush. The Arizona senator had become popular in no small part because he broke with conventional wisdom and gave as much access to journalists as was humanly possible. He wasn't scripted and he wasn't controlled. He sat for endless hours on his campaign bus and chatted with reporters in groups or one on one. It was a great media strategy and showed that there was still a market, at least among independent voters, for a candidate who was articulate and had a clear message of personal heroism and truth-telling. Of course, few candidates could match John McCain, a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam, in those departments.
Still, Bush gave it a go, at least by showing that he could be personable and straightforward. Suddenly, he started getting more accessible, granting more interviews and mingling with reporters more freely than he had done before the McCain scare. It worked. Many journalists who chatted with him on his campaign plane or watched him josh and talk with others concluded that Bush wasn't a cipher after all, and his coverage improved. He remained more accessible through the rest of his campaign and into his presidency.
After he locked up the Republican nomination and got off to a good start in the general-election campaign that fall, Bush couldn't believe his good fortune. Despite peace and prosperity under a Democratic administration, he was holding a solid lead of from five to eight percentage points over Democratic Vice-President Al Gore—and more in terms of his strength in the Electoral College, which is determined state by state. But the polling numbers were deceiving.
Crucial swing voters—including suburban women, moderate men, and upper-middle class Americans who were conservative on fiscal issues but liberal on social concerns—hadn't been paying much attention and were only half-hearted when they told pollsters they leaned toward Bush. When they did seriously focus on the choice in the final two weeks of the campaign, Gore's obvious mastery of the issues and his political centrism grew more impressive even if his personality seemed alternatively arrogant and aloof. Bush's lead eroded and the race became much closer than the pundits and the political class had expected.
As usual, the mainstream news media took their cues from the polls and gave Bush positive coverage for most of the general-election campaign. But, significantly, Bush took a regular drubbing in the entertainment media; he was the target of savage satires on "Saturday Night Live," and the late-night talk shows where David Letterman and Jay Leno ridiculed him as a doofus and a goof-off. This surely had an impact with voters as Election Day drew near.
When Election Day arrived, the race was too close to call. What followed was one of the most complicated and perilous political confrontations in U.S. history, all fought out in the news media for five harrowing weeks.
The problem was Florida. A massive Democratic get-out-the-vote effort caught the GOP by surprise, even though the state government was run by Republican Governor Jeb Bush, the presidential candidate's brother. The television networks at first declared Bush the winner, and Gore actually got in his limousine at his election-night headquarters in Nashville and headed down the rain-slick streets to a rally, where he planned to concede. But his savvy campaign chairman, Bill Daley, took a careful look at the exit polls and reviewed reports from his operatives, and concluded that Gore could actually win Florida—and thereby take the presidency—so it would be folly to give up. Prodded by Daley, Gore ordered his limo to turn around and issued word through his campaign chairman that he would fight on.
Everything was complicated by serious voting irregularities and many voters' confusion over punch-card ballots that were subject to wide interpretation by election judges across the state. If someone failed to punch a hole all the way through the card for his presidential choice, that vote may or may not be counted, depending on what an election judge ruled. There were thousands of such ballots, and they could make all the difference in such a close contest.
There were a myriad of other problems. African-American voters said they had been disenfranchised in various ways and were demanding a recount. The Republican-controlled state legislature served notice that it was the final arbiter of Florida elections. But Democrats said the Florida Supreme Court, dominated by Democratic appointees, should have the last word. If the state couldn't resolve the inevitable appeals, the U.S. Constitution held that Congress should resolve the problem, but constitutional scholars disagreed on what should happen next. The whole issue seemed destined for the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the end, that's just what happened. The high court, dominated by GOP appointees, ruled 5-4 in Bush's favor. The decision gave Florida to Bush and put him over the top by a single electoral vote; the final tally in the Electoral College was 271 for Bush and 267 for Gore. But it turned out that Bush had lost the nation-wide popular vote by 540,000 votes of the 101 million cast and the controversy remained white-hot in some circles.
Many Democrats were incensed and Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic party chairman, argued that Bush was not really a legitimate President and Democrats would never let him forget it. But the media, after giving the episode saturation coverage, finally grew exhausted by the affair and somewhat bored by the continued griping.
"In hindsight, now that it's over," Bush counselor Karen Hughes told me later, "Florida was actually very helpful because it helped us very quickly, in a crisis, to integrate people. So we went from a tight-knit campaign team to a bigger group that included people that had not been working with us closely or as regularly . . . . We worked with Andy Card [who later became Bush's White House chief of staff] on the convention but where I really got to know him was in Florida. So in an odd way I think that really did end up helping us to quickly grow."
Maybe so, but by the time George W. Bush finally took the oath of office on a damp, dreary afternoon in January 2001, the news media were sick of the disputed election and ready to move on. It was time for a new story line, or several. This gave the 43rd President more of a honeymoon than many of his advisers had expected.
Bush benefited in two specific ways. First, the press corps was as eager as he was to "change the tone" in Washington after the strife-torn Clinton years. President Clinton, with his crass lying over his affair with Monica Lewinsky and his endless spin machine, had worn out his welcome among Washington journalists. Many of them thought the new President had no ax to grind against those who covered him, even if the circumstances of his ascent to power were so controversial, and this prospect was refreshing. Bush said as much, telling reporters he hoped to be open and accessible (a familiar refrain from all Presidents as they start out).
Second, and more important, several new story lines absorbed the mainstream media, which have trouble focusing on any single thing for very long. One was the notion of the loyal son avenging his father's defeat eight years earlier. Another was the fact that another political dynasty was in the making. A third was the notion of family ties being played out on the national stage. The new President and his allies fed the beast unashamedly on this score. A week before his swearing-in, aboard his chartered jet en route from Texas to Washington, Bush told me he was worried that both he and his father would break down in tears if they exchanged glances during his inaugural speech. His aides had told the same thing to other reporters, so there was no small amount of drama on Inauguration Day when the new President began his speech in front of the TV cameras, with frequent cutaways to the proud Dad in the background. To avoid any problems, the 43rd President just delivered his speech and didn't look at the 41st, who was sitting behind him. Both kept their composure. But the scene still made for a wonderful family tableau on television.
It was a different story in the White House two hours later. George W. Bush strolled down the colonnade from the East Wing residence and walked into the Oval Office to take a look at his new job site. He saw the presidential seal in the ceiling and saw the same seal in the rug beneath his feet. As he stood silently at his big oak desk with Andy Card, his chief of staff, a tall, slender figure entered the Oval Office from the colonnade and said to his son, "Mr. President." The younger man answered, "Mr. President." Both of them wept with pride and joy.
During his first few weeks in office, Bush caught another break when Clinton kept calling attention to himself and making negative news while Bush looked squeaky clean, even humble, by comparison. Among Clinton's troubles: a rash of last-minute pardons he granted to questionable individuals including a fugitive financier named Marc Rich whose ex-wife had been a major contributor to the Democratic party. Clinton also embarrassed himself with a plan to lease posh office space in midtown Manhattan, at taxpayer expense, which would have made his offices far more expensive than the offices of any other ex-President. (Eventually, he backed off under pressure and instead leased space in Harlem at a lower price.)
All this coverage of the former President was considered justified by editors and reporters partly because Hillary Rodham Clinton had just won the Senate race in New York and was about to be sworn in. This raised questions about a Clinton dynasty and fueled media speculation about whether she might some day run for the presidency herself. Also, Bill Clinton was widely expected to reassert his leadership of the Democratic party and quickly begin to attack Bush, since Gore had been discredited as a viable party standard-bearer, at least among many pundits.
Enjoying his initial good fortune, Bush returned to his familiar media strategy of message control, but without the crass and non-stop spin that characterized the Clinton years. "He'll never have close friends in the media because the media is so adversarial," said Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff to Ronald Reagan. "He'll deal with the media because he has to. Karen Hughes and her staff have a strategy for engagement but not closeness. They know they have to feed the beast but they're not about to give the media chocolate sundaes."
In a fundamental challenge to the conventional wisdom in Washington, Bush felt that a President did not need to dominate every news cycle, and he refused to try. This sounded similar to his father's passive media strategy from the first days of the 41st President's tenure. But there were major differences.
For one thing, George W. Bush was being compared with Bill Clinton, not Ronald Reagan, and he was benefiting from the contrast. The new Chief Executive told aides he wanted to give Americans a healthy respite from Clinton's non-stop visibility, his perpetual campaign for damage control, and his war-room plotting to outmaneuver his adversaries. The Bush crowd didn't assume, as Clinton and his staff had, that the stories about the White House would always be negative and that they had to spin everything as aggressively as they could. Just as important, Bush didn't think he was a great TV performer so he downplayed stagecraft.
"The best way to get your message out is to focus on what the message is, and if you have a powerful message, everyone will cover it," theorized new White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "If your message is only a media message, then you have to play tactics to get it disseminated . . . . President Bush doesn't feel the need to be in the middle of every story. At the beginning of the administration, there was talk that this was the administration, and we were content with that. This President always knew there would be times when he would be on the front page" so he didn't force the issue.
As a result, days would go by without the President leading the nightly TV news or on the front pages of the major daily newspapers, and some pundits began to joke that the nation now had an invisible leader. A study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington in March-April 2001 found that during his first 50 days, Bush got only half as much coverage on the evening news of ABC, CBS, and NBC as Clinton had gotten during the comparable period in 1993.
Bush received about the same ratio of negative vs. positive coverage that Clinton did. From Inauguration Day through March 10, the center found that 52 per cent of Bush's coverage was negative while 48 per cent was positive. In 1993, 56 per cent of Clinton's coverage was negative and 44 per cent was positive. The big difference was that Bush received much less coverage than Clinton had.
All this didn't sit well with the press corps. White House reporters began grumbling, predictably, about lack of news. No surprise there. Yet, to the surprise of many in Washington's political class, this less-is-more strategy was well suited to the public's desire for normalcy and it was quite effective. By his 100-day mark, Bush had dispelled many of the questions about his legitimacy and most Americans thought he was off to a good start. For one thing, he made no big missteps; for another, he seemed genuinely interested in doing a good job. Fifty-six per cent approved of his job performance, according to polls by the Pew Research Center and the Wall Street Journal/NBC. With the exception of African Americans and other hard-core Democrats, voters concluded that Bush was capable of serving as President as long as he remained surrounded by talented advisers such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Bush played to his strength as a manager by emphasizing that the presidency was a team effort, not a solo performance.
The surveys underscored another case of the media rushing to judgment and being proven wrong: Many commentators and reporters had argued only three months earlier that Bush was an intellectual lightweight who might not be up to the job and would be forever tarnished by the Florida outcome as an illegitimate President.
What was happening was quite startling: Bush and his team were discarding many of the media strategies of the Clinton era, when the President could never get enough attention and would involve himself in as many stories as he could. Karen Hughes and her communications team, however, continued to ratchet down the intensity level and scale back the Clinton-style media manipulation. "A weekly theme works better than a daily theme at this point," Hughes told me in March 2001. "To try to do one picture a day—20 years ago that might have worked. But in today's media age, if you do a picture at 10 in the morning it's old news by 2 in the afternoon. It's been replaced long before the network news comes up. So there are multi-news cycles each day. And we found during the course of the campaign that, sure, there are daily things you do, but the way to drive home a message in today's media world is to do it over the course of several days or a week."
Bush maintained a happy-face distance from the press corps. He was always cordial, unlike the often frosty and mercurial Clinton. And, to demonstrate accessibility or at least the illusion of accessibility, he frequently answered a few questions during public events and held two full-fledged news conferences in the White House briefing room during his first few weeks. But the two news conferences were announced to White House reporters with less than an hour's notice instead of a few days' word, as had been routine in previous administrations. This made it impossible to prepare many tough questions based on detailed research, which was the White House's objective.
Bush made a few stumbles but performed adequately. Typically, he would not let reporters draw him into lengthy discussions of issues that might have illustrated his thought process or, reporters suspected, exposed his shallowness. He stayed on message, mostly emphasizing his proposal for a trillion-dollar tax cut over 10 years and the need for education reform. And there was little effort by White House aides or Bush friends to flesh him out as a human being or a leader. Anecdotes were few and far between. It was as if the new President was not a player in the decision-making of his own White House.
"He is less interested in personal coverage than in passage of his programs," Press Secretary Fleischer told me at the time. "It's part of a toned-down era. He feels substance is more important than personality." In April, Fleischer told Terence Smith of the Public Broadcasting Service: "Sometimes I think the White House press won't be satisfied until there is `President-cam' in the Oval Office, so they can watch him 24 hours a day with everything he does. We work very hard to work with the White House press corps, but I know always it will never be enough."
Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser, told me: "The American people want a President who doesn't feel that everything is about him and who isn't in their faces all the time . . . . What they want is somebody who's authentic."
For his part, Bush didn't bother to keep up with his press notices very carefully. He scanned a handful of major newspapers each morning in the residence, mainly The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, before walking to the Oval Office. He didn't watch the evening news very often, and he rarely switched on the TV during the day to check out the cable networks. He told friends he had hired a press and communications staff to follow such things and they would tell him when something happened that he needed to know about. It was a dramatic contrast, of course, to Bill Clinton's obsession with the 24-hour news cycle. It seemed to me that Bush was flirting with disaster by trying to change or ignore the "rules."
After congressional passage of a $1.3 trillion, 10-year tax cut, scaled down somewhat from Bush's original $1.6 trillion proposal, the rest of his agenda, including education reform and prescription-drug coverage under Medicare, bogged down on Capitol Hill. Further complicating life for the White House, Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, upset with Bush's conservatism, switched from Republican to independent, giving control of the Senate to the Democrats. Many Washington insiders and commentators began raising doubts again about Bush's ability to lead.
One strain of criticism was that he was too laid back, too conservative, and unwilling or unable to communicate effectively to the country, as Clinton and Reagan had done. "I don't think he's used the bully pulpit very well," historian Robert Dallek said. "He's staked out an identity as a very conservative Republican . . . and that has antagonized a lot of people. He hasn't used the presidency as a megaphone. He seems to be saying, `I have no big ideas to promote.'"
In August, the administration forecast that the projected budget surplus not earmarked for Social Security had virtually disappeared. It was a result of Bush's massive tax cut and an overall economic downturn that had apparently started in the final months of Clinton's tenure but worsened on Bush's watch.
The political atmosphere was growing increasingly hostile. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, argued that Bush was irresponsible and was "mismanaging" the economy. Bush countered that all the Democrats wanted to do was to spend the taxpayers' money. The familiar cycle of charge and counter-charge was returning, and was being fueled by the media's tendency to focus on conflict. And all this was happening despite the new President's campaign pledge to bring civility and conciliation back to Washington, making Bush seem increasingly out of his depth.
As autumn approached, the media were gearing up for a season of partisan warfare over taxes, social spending, education, the environment, and other issues. "We were all gearing up for some domestic pugilism," recalled Major Garrett, White House correspondent for CNN. "The honeymoon was over."
Then came the events of September 11, 2001.
IT WAS A gloriously clear, balmy morning across the mid-Atlantic states, the kind of day made for strolling or enjoying a cup of latte at a sidewalk cafe. The horror struck just before 9 a.m. when terrorists crashed a hijacked airliner into one of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center. A few minutes later, a second hijacked jetliner hit the other tower, and 200 miles to the south a third jetliner crashed into the Pentagon. (A fourth hijacked plane went down in the Pennsylvania countryside; it was revealed later that passengers put up a fight after they learned of the three other disasters by talking to family members and friends on their cellphones.) More than 3,000 people died.
President Bush learned of the unfolding disaster as he was shaking hands with teachers and administrators at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card took him aside and told him that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, as Bush sat waiting to address the students, Card came up to him and whispered that there had been a second crash at the WTC. As the TV cameras recorded the scene, Bush's face tightened and he pursed his lips nervously. He said later that he immediately recognized that it must be the work of terrorists. After conferring by a secure phone line with Vice-President Dick Cheney and FBI officials in Washington, the President told his traveling staff, "We're at war."
The rest of that day was chaotic. There were rumors of more attacks at Camp David, at the State Department, at the old Executive Office Building, at the White House itself. For a while, it appeared that Air Force One had been targeted. Unsure of what he was facing, Bush hopscotched to two military bases on Air Force One while he and his aides assessed the threat. Finally, he flew back to Washington 10 hours after the attacks had begun and at 8:30 P.M. gave a five-minute address to the nation from the Oval Office in which he condemned the "evil, despicable acts of terror" and pledged to use every resource at his disposal to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Bush's initial response to the crisis might not have been brilliant or inspiring, but it was adequate—and he improved his performance markedly in the following days and weeks. By Sunday, October 7, Bush had fully found his voice when he spoke directly to the nation and declared, "The battle is now joined on many fronts. We will not waver. We will not tire. We will not falter, and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail." He portrayed the struggle as one of good vs. evil. And he said he had given the go-ahead for American pilots to begin bombing runs against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that had harbored the terrorists and their leader, Osama bin Laden.
Over the next two months, the U.S.-led campaign went well, and by mid-December, the Taliban had been routed and decimated, and reconstruction of Afghanistan was underway with minimal loss of American lives. It wasn't clear how effective the campaign had been in preventing future terrorist acts, but Bush's media notices were sterling—including my own.
"George W. Bush has found his mission and his moment," I wrote in the October 1 issue of U.S. News. "Never more can critics label him merely an affable Texan backslapping his way through a benign era or an untested, fortunate son of a former President. All that was swept away on the morning of September 11 . . . . The man who never professed to have much of a worldview suddenly had donned both the mantle of a wartime commander in chief and—in an extraordinary transformation—the cloak of a proselytizer against global terrorism."
It was another irresistible story line—the quick maturation of a relatively inexperienced leader under crisis conditions. Virtually every major news organization picked up the theme, all to Bush's advantage. The media also bought into Bush's construct—the forces of light vs. the forces of darkness. The public not only gave their President a massive show of support—his job-approval ratings shot up to 90 per cent—but Americans even thought better of the news media because the coverage of the war effort was generally so positive.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted November 13-19, 2001, found that 69 per cent of Americans believed that the press "stands up for America," a huge increase from 43 per cent in early September. Forty-seven per cent said the press "cares about the people," up from 23 per cent in early September, and only 47 per cent of Americans believed news organizations were politically biased, down from 59 per cent in early September, just before the attacks.
The reason was easy to understand: Journalists had not only gone back to basics, reporting facts to a public starved for information, rather than emphasizing empty punditry, but the media also was discarding, at least for a while, its cynicism. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, got it right when he observed, "Clearly, journalists are redefining themselves as more `us' and less `them.' You are seeing a greater tendency to close ranks on the side of good, which includes the U.S. government versus external evil, rather than dispassionate observers and critics of the `them,' who are the bad-guy politicians. . . . I was so struck after years and years of complaints about media negativism, because it was so moving seeing journalists clearly engaged and realizing that this was the moment that they could play a major role in bringing Americans together. They have played a central role in this new surge of patriotism."
It was no coincidence that President George W. Bush's job-approval ratings from the public also soared. As the commander in chief, he cleared benefited from the patriotic atmosphere generated in part by the media.. "The biggest difference between the coverage before September 11 and after September 11 is that the press covered the President unedited," Ari Fleischer told me in January 2002. "The American people got to see the President in full, not in six-second edited snippets that aired on the evening news. There was also a rally-around-the-President factor which endured much longer than the traditional rallies, and that's based on the merits of what the President did" in response to the crisis.
A big reason for the media cheerleading was that few American lives were lost and the victory, at least in the initial phase, was quick and relatively easy. The voices of dissent in the culture were few, and there was never much of a chance for second-guessing to grow into a national anti-war movement. Further, individual journalists were fearful for themselves and their families, and they found common cause with their fellow citizens in desiring to dismantle the terrorist network. The situation seemed grave, the threat seemed real, the public seemed united, and journalists' watchdog role melted into a belief that the media needed to demonstrate patriotism at this time of national crisis.
Finally, some thought there were less altruistic reasons for the change in the media. "They think it's in their financial interest to be patriotic," said former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart. " . . . . I think it's a business decision. It started out for the best of reasons and then many in the media became afraid to be out of sync with the people."
Whatever the motivations, many journalists liked the new media atmosphere. "I'm hoping there will be a fundamental change," Major Garrett, White House correspondent for CNN, told me in January 2002. "I'm not talking about shifting away from conflict. That's a necessary part of journalism—to scrutinize and use our skepticism, to hold public utterances up to the light of day and the light of the facts. What I'm hoping will happen, particularly in 24-hour cable news, which has a pervasive effect, is that we will get away from where we were before September 11: Trivialities masquerading as news. Soap opera-type stories with nominal or nonexistent news value parading across the air waves hour after hour simply because they were the more sure-fire ratings generator than solid investigative reporting or solid issues-oriented reporting—car chases, shark attacks in Florida, Chandra Levy [a missing young woman whose alleged romance with a California congressman in Washington got saturation coverage the previous summer] . . . . If September 11 can purge that from our system, we'll all be so much better off."
Yet the era of good feelings and high-mindedness didn't last. Once the Taliban was removed from power and the initial, visible progress of the conflict slowed, Washington insiders and the national media quickly resumed their fascination with conflict and political infighting. There was a rash of speculative stories and analyses about disagreements over legislation on Capitol Hill and the feuding between Bush and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, one of his potential presidential challengers in 2004. Fleischer was not surprised. "Readers and viewers would be better off with less analysis and more factual reporting," he said in our interview. "But it's a trend today that's so deeply ingrained in journalism that I just don't see it changing."
In late spring, the Democrats began taking aim at Bush's war policy, which they had refrained from criticizing until then. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia was among those questioning the war's cost and ultimate goals. Daschle called on Bush to give Congress a "clearer understanding" of where the war on terrorism was heading. "The Congress has a constitutional responsibility to ask questions," Daschle said. "We are not a rubber stamp to this President or to anybody else . . . . There ought to be some criteria by which we judge future success [of the war] and we ought to lay out those criteria and we ought to be asking tough questions."
The media followed suit as the drumbeat of doubts got louder, particularly over the administration's extreme restrictions on journalists trying to cover the fighting. "Military reporters say they are more handcuffed now than during Desert Storm [the Persian Gulf War]," wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on February 24. "They have had only the most restricted and supervised access to Special Operations units. Even reporters who went to Afghanistan with the Marines found themselves quarantined in warehouses and handed press releases from Central Command in Tampa about casualties less than 100 yards away. Some who got close to the action had film confiscated and guns pointed at them by Special Operations soldiers or their mujahedeen bullies."
Liberal columnist Mary McGrory of The Washington Post was even harsher. "The Pentagon regards the press as a nuisance, not as a conduit to tell the people how their tax dollars are being spent in the field," she wrote on March 3. "In the Gulf War, the Pentagon put a choke hold on it. Now, in Afghanistan, it's seeking
extermination." The media always bridle against the military's restrictions during wartime, but McGrory and many others in the media were beginning to connect such restrictions to Bush's overall penchant for secrecy and to raise questions about whether the administration had something to hide.
The media also gave saturation coverage to the woes of Enron, a vast, Texas-based company with strong connections to the Bush administration and to the President himself. It turned out that Enron executives had sold their corporate stock and made millions of dollars just before the firm's collapse, while employees were locked into holding their shares and were not told of the firm's ongoing financial troubles. Many stories raised questions about whether the Bush team was too cozy with the firm's executives, and the media began a wave of speculation that perhaps the administration was in the pocket of big business.
These and other stories contradicted the claims by Democrats that Bush was getting an easy ride from the media because of his role as commander in chief. The level of criticism was in fact intensifying again.
Bush even became the butt of jokes again when he fainted on January 13, 2002 after choking on a pretzel while watching a football game alone (except for his two dogs) in the White House residence. "I love this story," quipped Jay Leno. "I guess you know, over the weekend, President Bush passed out when he began choking on a pretzel. Hey, still better than the old days. Remember, he used to choke on vowels?"
The moment of unity, positivism, and respect for authority was over.
Copyright © 2002 Kenneth T. Walsh
Award-winning White House correspondent and presidential historian
Kenneth T. Walsh’s latest book,
Celebrity in Chief
A History of the Presidents and the culture of stardom
A comprehensive look at the history of America’s presidents
as “celebrities in chief”
since the beginning of the Republic.