May 20, 2002

THE UNLEARNABLE LESSON :

Support for president remains high : NBC/WSJ poll shows division on Bush actions before attacks (MSNBC, May 20, 2002)
1. In general, do you approve or disapprove of the job George W. Bush is doing as president?
Approve: 75%
Disapprove: 18%

2. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the measures the Bush administration took based on the information they had prior to Sept. 11?
Satisfied with measures: 58%
Dissatisfied with measures: 31%
Not sure: 11%

3. Do you think the Bush administration did as much as was reasonable or could have done more to prevent or warn about hijackings?
Did as much as was reasonable: 53%
Could have done more: 41%
Not sure: 6%


In his fine campaign memoir, Ambling Into History : The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush, Frank Bruni assesses the performance of himself and his colleagues in the press during the campaign. He acknowledges, first of all, how insular is the world of the journalist covering a campaign; how uncomfortable travel may effect the mood of coverage; how boredom with hearing the same speech over and over may cause them to pounce on insignificant variations and inflate them into major policy changes; and, maybe most importantly, the dubious tendency of pressmen to manufacture news themselves. This last happens most often in one of two ways. The first comes when a reporter takes something one candidate said then either confronts another candidate with it or confronts the candidate himself, then writes a story about how the original candidate had to spend the day responding to questions about a remark he'd made. While technically true, the storyline conveniently ignores the fact that the reporter was the one prompting or asking the questions. The second, and maybe more insidious, method requires just one reporter to decide that a campaign is either losing steam or gaining steam. After he files such a story, other editors start asking their correspondents why they haven't written a piece on this dramatic change in the campaign. Soon, as everyone rushes to cover their own butt, what may well have started as just a way of standing out from the reportorial pack has become the accepted wisdom about a candidate and his candidacy. Whether these disturbing behaviors are caused by competitive pressures in the industry or mere desire to break up the tedium of one's own coverage, they are unprofessional, dishonest, and antidemocratic. And it's bad enough that they occur during the campaign, but as you read about them, you can see how the very same thing happens once one candidate becomes president. So we get the random story about how the war on terrorism is in trouble; then within a few days that's the received knowledge in the media; then a few days later some victory occurs that puts paid to the original story; and we can see that it was nothing but an exercise in journalistic one-upmanship in the first place. This has to be unhealthy both for the press, which diminishes its own credibility, and for the political process, which falls prey to the whims of reporters.

We're in the middle of a similarly silly episode right now, with press, pundits, and Democrats all in a dither over how George W. Bush should have prevented 9-11. For the first two groups this just makes good business sense--such personal attacks make careers, sell papers and drive ratings--but for the Democrats there's a real danger here. The American people have a contrarian habit of rallying to a president who's under siege, even when he deserves to be in trouble. When JFK biffed the Bay of Pigs, his poll ratings shot up. Richard Nixon remained reasonably safe until his own tape recordings proved his guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt. Reagan's presidency was saved when he was shot. And Bill Clinton rode impeachment to popularity ratings in the 60s. Perhaps it is just a function of democracy that, having once chosen these guys, we want to be the ones to dispose of them, not let their enemies, foreign and domestic, do it for us. So when Democrats try turning the 9-11 attacks into a partisan political affair--even if it was entirely George W. Bush's fault--they are courting disaster.

The following seems to reflect that realization :
Gephardt backtracks on criticism (Ralph Z. Hallow, 5/20/02, THE WASHINGTON TIMES)

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt backed away yesterday from earlier suggestions that President Bush had failed to act on warnings that might have prevented the September 11 attacks.

"I never, ever, ever thought that anybody, including the president, did anything up to September 11 other than their best," the Missouri Democrat said on "Fox News Sunday.


Now let's see if he can control the Cynthia McKinney's of the world.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2002 7:09 AM
Comments for this post are closed.