The propaganda president.

The propaganda president.

The propaganda president.

Media criticism.
Feb. 3 2005 8:58 PM

The Propaganda President

George W. Bush does his best Kim Jong-il.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

If "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il of North Korea and George W. Bush ever meet, I suspect the two will bond like long-lost brothers. Both men are first-born sons of powerful fathers who partied like adolescents well into their adult lives, after which they submitted to their dynastic fates as heads of state.

Both avoid critical thought, preferring to surround themselves with yes men and apply propagandistic slogans to the onrushing complexities of justice, culture, economics, and foreign policy. Bush churns out buzz phrases with the best of them: He believes in "compassionate conservatism" and fancies himself part of the "army of compassion." He's the "reformer with results" who embraces the "culture of life." He shouts his paeans to "liberty" and "freedom" (a combined 27 times during last night's State of the Union speech, according to today's Washington Post)while reducing civil liberties at home.

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But slogan-chanting is only one small part of an effective propaganda operation. Successful propagandists must also discourage dissenters who might disrupt the party line. And the two best ways to keep people stupid and nodding is by shutting down the information flow and by stiffing the press. At these chores, Bush excels.

The administration's idea of a conversation is a long, platitudinous presidential monologue. Every administration has warred with reporters, but Bush's is the first to challenge the very legitimacy of the press. Inside the White House briefing room, press secretary Scott McClellan controls the topics discussed by playing rope-a-dope with reporters, absorbing and ignoring the tough questions until they give up. When Vice President Dick Cheney didn't like the campaign coverage he read in the New York Times, the Times reporter was tossed off the plane. In the February/March American Journalism Review, Los Angeles Times reporter Edwin Chen complains that his newspaper has yet to score an interview with President Bush. "This White House doesn't need California, has no use for California politically," says Chen, "so we carry no clout."

Bush regards the press as a filter—an unnecessary one."I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and somehow you just got to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people," he said in October 2003 during a media push in which he gave interviews to five regional broadcasters about his Iraq policy because he disliked the national news coverage.

In fact, as Michael Kinsley wrote in Slatea year and a half ago, it's not that Bush favors unfiltered news; he wants everybody to receive it through his filter. In recent weeks we've learned what extremes he'll go to in working around reporters. The Armstrong Williams case, which may be a harbinger of a greater secret propaganda campaign by the administration, further illustrates Bush's distrust not only of the press, but of the public. The administration's Department of Education paid the conservative commentator $240,000 through the cut-out of a public relations firm to promote its No Child Left Behind law on his broadcasts, as USA Today reported on Jan. 17. The administration has also gotten busted for camouflaging video press releases as legitimate news segments to promote its Medicare drug plan and warn about the dangers of illicit drugs.

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Persuasion, Aristotle taught, depends on the speaker's skill at portraying himself as a trustworthy source. With his "aw, shucks" demeanor and his maudlin speechifying, the former Andover cheerleader knows how to stage a "drama" and tap the audience's emotions. He and his co-propagandists arranged one such emotionally manipulative "gallery play" during the State of the Union. Rather than explain his Iraq policy, he had the mother and father of a slain U.S. Marine seated behind an Iraqi voter in Laura Bush's box. When the president paid tribute to the parents in his speech, the Iraqi turned and quite predictably embraced the sobbing mother.

Though he opposes filtration, Bush never hesitates to exploit national security as a tool to suppress and distort information. Steve Aftergood, head of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, describes the Bush administration's style as governance by fear. In the name of national security, Bush has extended the authority to classify information to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, and the EPA, he says. After Sept. 11, his attorney general issued a new directive making it easier for agencies to reject Freedom of Information Act requests. Aftergood also criticizes the secrecy of the Bush administration's task forces on energy, its refusal to comply with congressional requests for information, and its ambiguity on the torture question.

"They've propagated the idea that we're all at risk of violent death at any moment and at any place, and we must all do everything we can to secure our borders, ports, parks, and miniature golf courses," Aftergood says.

Reporter Ron Suskind tagged the born-again Bush as the creator of the "faith-based presidency" in a New York Times Magazine feature last October. Bush's "with-us-or-against-us model … has been enormously effective at, among other things, keeping the workings and temperament of the Bush White House a kind of state secret," Suskind writes. Only the president is authorized to speak for the president. Sing the same song, or none at all, is the administration's law: Doubters and people with competing facts are shunned and ostracized for their disloyalty. Because the maximum leader trusts his instincts, we're supposed to trust them, too, Suskind explains. We know best is the Bush administration's unstated premise. You mustn't question our higher motives.

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Two years ago, an unnamed Bush aide told Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

George Wallace invented the politics of running for president by running against Washington. Richard Nixon, who perfected the technique and handed it forward to Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, pioneered the politics of running for president by running against the press. He and Vice President Spiro Agnew dished the press more savagely than Bush has. But battling the press ultimately backfired on Nixon, and Reagan found charm and manipulation worked better than overt hostility. "[James A. Baker III] decided early on that there were only two constituencies that mattered—the national media and Congress—and he devoted a great deal of time and energy to wooing the media," Reagan administration veteran Ed Rollins told Michael Kelly in an October 1993 New York Times Magazine feature.

It's been George II's good fortune to launch his campaign against the nattering nabobs of the media at a time when the Jayson Blair/Jack Kelley/60 Minutes Wednesday scandals have turned journalists into inviting targets of scorn. At this point, the average citizen thinks the average Washington reporter is a full-of-himself jackass. The Bush administration probably figures that if the press swings at it and connects, 1) the blow won't hurt and 2) over-aggressive reporting will only play to the White House's favor.

The upside of the information lock out, of course, is that few reporters find themselves sweetly spun by such head-patters as Baker. The Bush administration may be doing the press a small favor by snubbing it, freeing reporters to abandon the scripted palaver of the White House and dig elsewhere for stories.

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But what of George W. Bush? How does he gain by fortressing himself and his administration away from critics, skeptics, and questioners? How, exactly, does it benefit him to follow the philosophy of Kim Jong-il?

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Who says reporters want to be loved anyway? Send e-mail and anti-Valentines to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Bloggers Rip My Flesh  Dragon's Musings: "Bush II is a heck of a lot more like a dictator than we think. He got himself re-elected by spreading fear and quelling the press, labeling people that speak out against him as traitors to the country, playing on the basest of emotions and encoraging hatred. He's at it again with this 'Social Security' overhaul." Americans Are Dumb: "Today's top three reasons why Americans are dumb. … They didn't see last night's speech for the awful display of propaganda that it was (from Slate)" MarcCooper: "Shafer's piece sticks it to Bush, openly comparing him to North Korea's 'Dear Leader,' Kim Jong Il. Before some of you begin to hyperventilate—Shafer is no lefty radical (he's more a libertarian) and he's not suggesting we live in a totalitarian dictatorship."

NRO's On the Corner: "The elementary problem with Shafer's complaint—which disappoints with its tinny echo of the hard-left Bill Moyers line in general—is that it never considers the media policies of the Clinton White House by comparison." The Sundries Shack: "Oh holy crapweasel. First Hitler and now Kim Jong-il?" The Hullite Chronicles: "It's really a critique of the White House and Washington press corps for lying down on the job. If the politicians are not being straight with you, which is most of the time, then you have to find other ways to hunt down the facts." The Northern Kentucky Agitator: "Well, at least one mainstream news outlet is making the Bush-Commie connection, albeit one dimensionally." The J Continuum: "Jack Shafer, gumshoe Slate media critic, takes on Bush, or more to the point, develops a cogent indictment of the Bush secrecy anti-media "pro-freedom" anti-freedom faith-based Machine." Balloon Juice: "Tired of Nazi references when talking about Bush? Me, too. That is why this idiotic piece by Jack Shafer was so refreshing:"

The Smoking Room: "Slate media critic Jack Shafer, who I respect immensely for his insightful columns, lets loose a steaming pile of crap that sounds like it was commissioned and paid for by The Nation." Betsy's Page: "What an incredible bile-filled column." The Jaker: "Bush's willingness to use propaganda and its corollaries regularly astounds me. Consider: On his current social security roadtrip, he's still using the campaign trick of carefully screening the crowd so only rabid supporters and volunteers are in the room to cheer him on. He's afraid of dissent; He fabricates a crisis in social security, saying it will go 'broke' or 'bust,' when experts on both sides and non-partisans in the middle say nothing of the sort will happen." Poliwog: "An interesting column from Slate's Jack Shafer. Even more fun, in a slow-down-and-look-at-the-car-crash way, is the Technorati link Shafer offers up at the end of the article, calling it 'Bloggers Rip My Flesh.' How can you not like this guy?" The Dread Pundit Blutto: "Shafer does get one thing right though, when he says that, as a result of recent media scandals, '... the average citizen thinks the average Washington reporter is a full-of-himself jackass.'"