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April 28, 2006

Snow at the Podium, Rollback on the Rocks

"The White House evacuated spaces where the president can legitimately be questioned because it was Adminstration policy in general that Bush's authority went unchallenged, his descriptions of the world uncontested. This made him more brittle, but they felt strong doing it."

“President Bush appointed Fox News commentator Tony Snow as his press secretary Wednesday,” said the report in the Los Angeles Times, “signaling that in its final 1,000 days, his White House plans significant changes in the way it reaches the American people.”

Actually we don’t know if the changes will be significant. All we know is that the White House is trying to signal new times in the briefing room; and a lapse back into a more conventional press strategy is being predicted. (Text of Bush’s announcement.)

But as Michelle Cottle said at the New Republic site, maybe the White House is just “replacing the plodding, never-quite-up-to-the-job McClellan with a charming, fast-on-his-feet media pro who will appear smoother, more genial, and infinitely better coiffed as he feeds the media (and public) their daily serving of bologna.”

Signs of regret

During all of Scott McLellan’s time as press secretary, the Bush team charted an historically new course, which I have called Rollback, the decision to starve rather than feed the news beast, and wherever possible disengage from the press, treating it as either hostile or irrelevant, not a conduit to the nation but a special interest group begging for goodies it doesn’t deserve.

Back ‘em off, starve ‘em down and drive up their negatives. That was the policy. But in the news about Tony Snow there were signs of regret.

The White House evacuated spaces where the president can legitimately be questioned because it was Adminstration policy in general that Bush’s authority went unchallenged, his descriptions of the world uncontested. This made him more brittle, but they felt strong doing it.

In this sense press rollback had a single customer: it’s what Bush wanted. Being questioned by non-believers who knew stuff… he definitely did not want that. The staff got the message, the message became a style and they never realized the impression they left: that Bush wasn’t up to taking questions, except from friendlies in very controlled situations.

Doing away with the interlocutor

Thus we saw—during the same years as back ‘em off, starve ‘em down and drive up their negatives—the amazing rise of the Bush Bubble. By which I mean not the general insularity that all White Houses seem to develop, but the brazen practice of screening the crowd when George W. Bush came to town so that only supporters could come to the microphone should there be question time.

Elisabeth Bumiller, White House correspondent for the New York Times, wrote about it when Bush went to Germany and tried to take the bubble with him. The Germans would not play.

The proposed town-hall meeting raised the inevitable issue, said Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to Washington, of “Do you know what kinds of folks you are going to have at that meeting and what kinds of questions they might ask?” Ischinger said the Germans told the Americans that the guests could not be screened, as White House officials do at similar events in the United States, and so “don’t be mad at us if some nasty question comes up.”

In the end the White House abandoned the event, rather than take the risk of an unfriendly European at the mike. As with Rollback, the bubble policy does away with the interlocutor’s position in the ceremony of presidential power. It cuts down on question time itself, which everyone knew the boss wanted. In my previous post, The Jerk at the Podium, I described “a machine for making the executive power more opaque, and the presidency itself less dialogic.”

Battle for world opinion

Rollback “worked” in the sense that Bush and company pulled it off and made it stick for almost three years. (They also won an election in the middle of this period.) But what a gamble! They put a Bush loyalist who was weak, under-qualified and ill-prepared—Scott McClellan—into a strong position facing the cameras and the international, as well as the American, press. They then let this pathetic figure defend Bush’s policies before the eyes and ears of the world.

He had no fluency, no humor, no gift for making sense of politics, no ease in front of the cameras, no gravitas, no air of authority— and most of the time no information because his job was not to “release” but to withhold. (This is the White House, kid, so get up there and give nothing.) And yet according to team Bush we’re in a war on terror and a battle for world opinion with Islamic fundamentalism, much of which takes place in the media. How do those things square?

I asked that of conservative radio host and uber-blogger Hugh Hewitt when I went on his program last week. McClellan “didn’t care that the biggest collection of horses’ asses in the world assembled in front of him,” Hewitt suggested. David Gregory of NBC News could “yell at him all day long, and he just didn’t flinch. That’s why he was there. That’s his talent.”

I agreed on the talent part (taking abuse was McClellan’s one skill.) “But does it bother you that he was so inept at explaining Bush policy?” Incredibly, Hewitt said it didn’t bother him. Press secretaries are “not there to disseminate information.” Old think, Jay. “They’re there to feed that particular group of very high strung primadonnas.”

But wait a minute. “Aren’t we engaged in a Global War On Terror in which the media itself is a battleground?” Hewitt agreed: we are so engaged. “The image that goes out from the White House briefing room all around the world of an inept, inarticulate, bumbling fool in front of the world— doesn’t that have consequences for America’s prestige?”

Hewitt didn’t think so. McClellan was plenty good at his job, which came down to babysitting the by-passed press. That room is just not an important room, he said.

In from the cold

I doubt that historians would agree, Hugh. In the nineteenth century the center of news in Washington was Congress, which had a big press gallery and a stable pool of correspondents. The White House was inhospitable, opaque most of the time, and barely a beat. The President didn’t make news; he gave speeches. There was no interlocutor.

Newspapers reported what was in the speeches. The few correspondents who tried to cover the White House would stand outside in the street, hoping to grab visitors as they left and get word of what was going on inside.

Theodore Roosevelt changed it all around. When he became president he brought the correspondents in from the cold, one part of a transformation in presidential power. During a 1902 renovation of the White House, which created the new West Wing, Roosevelt made sure there was a room set aside for reporters to work in. So when you think about the absurdity of today’s briefing room follies think about the logic of bringing the correspondents in. It’s still there.

Roosevelt did background interviews, he floated trial balloons, he understood photo ops. He shot the breeze with favored reporters. He told charming tales about his family. (He also controlled who was, and wasn’t allowed in to the press room.) And he made himself the bigfoot in the story of national politics, the man whom Congress would be forced to follow.

In the twentieth century and our own time the White House has been ascendant. Scholars of the presidency attribute a lot of it to the modern media interacting with presidents and the symbols of nationhood. The Constitution says the three branches are co-equal. The media system says not really. In the republic of signs the figure of the president clearly rules.

Congress is the faceless institution, hard to glamorize, televise, quote. It’s so much easier for the country to connect to the president, whose image and voice are instantly recognizable. Congress has power, but can’t plead its case.

Projecting presidential power

Presidential charisma in its modern form had to await the mass distribution of images in newspapers and magazines. The president as national protagonist was an artifact of news stories that cast things that way. The president couldn’t dominate the news until news conquered the nation and became part of nearly everyone’s daily info diet. That began in the mid-19th century but it didn’t complete itself until the 20th. Radio tilted things even more toward the president, and then TV even more.

Although his predecessor, William McKinley, almost got there, Theodore Roosevelt was the first to see what was happening: the modern media system would project executive power outward to the nation and significantly enlarge the stage on which the president strode. He was about to get a way bigger mike (his famous “bully pulpit.”) The larger stage, the bigger daily audience, made presidential character a bigger part of governing.

Roosevelt, the first modern president and the first media savvy one, has often been called a larger-than-life figure, which is our way of registering the same shift. This much he figured out: The presidency itself had been made bigger by media. That’s the real reason he found room for the press in a renovated White House. Bring them in, make them comfortable, feed them information, answer their questions now and then. In the long run you’ll benefit big time.

Congress has been diminishing in relative stature ever since. Today no one questions that the news center—and nerve center—of Washington is the White House, not Capital Hill. How much is that worth to presidential power and prestige, worldwide?

Here’s what David Sanger of the New York Times reported in last Sunday’s New York Times. For the correspondents, things have been going back to the way they were… before Teddy Roosevelt!

In a place this buttoned up, reporting happens from the outside in. The first glimmerings of what is happening come from those whose message the White House cannot control easily: members of Congress who have come in for arm-twisting, former White House staff members and advisers, and diplomats, foreign ministers and world leaders who leave the place confused or angry…

Did the architects of Rollback know what they were doing? I don’t think they did. Doesn’t mean they’re going to stop.

After-the-fact normalizing

Bush camp media advisor Mark McKinnon explained the coming of Tony Snow this way. “The president’s message and vision are firmly in place and are not going to change. But it still helps to have a new messenger. It helps to wipe the slate clean.”

I’ll bet it does. Communications director Dan Bartlett was doing some retroactive slate wiping. “I know there is a perception that we disdain the media as a whole,” Bartlett said. (Just a perception, probably started by the media.) “I do not believe that. There have been some issues that strained the relationship, particularly when it comes at a time of war.”

This is after-the-fact normalizing. They tried something new, a change in the relationship, that wasn’t thought through. It was Bartlett’s job to do just that— think it through. Now McClellan is gone and a more conventional understanding is being peddled around.

Tony Snow is “good at” media. He’s done newspapers, radio, TV: the tools that created much of the aura we call “presidential.” He has the sculpted look of a television host, and a public identity apart from his job for Bush. His quitting might mean something, whereas with the stooge figure… who cares?

Open questions

“It’s clear they are bringing in someone to do better marketing,” David Gergen told the Los Angeles Times. He’s the former White House “communications” adviser who worked for both Republican and Democratic presidents. “Whether they are bringing in someone to bring more complete information to the public is very much an open question.”

It’s an open question whether more complete information is the Bush strategy— ever. The regime seems to have concluded that if more of the story is withheld it has increased freedom of maneuver in dealing with the enemies of freedom. That regime could be strengthened with a slicker Tony Snow out front.

Whether actual persuasion will make a comeback in this White House while the bizarre expectation of democracy-by-assent declines… open question.

It’s an open question whether the rollback of open government under Bush and Cheney will continue or meet reversal in his government’s final years.

It’s an open question whether the people in charge leaned anything from the mistake their first-term strategy was kinda sorta said to be. The news is Tony Snow will rectify it, and don’t ask us what we were thinking.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Bag the briefing? New Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten on Fox News Sunday:

Bolten said it may be worth considering whether to end the daily televised press briefings where reporters and the press secretary frequently air disputes in front of the cameras, but he will leave that decision up to Snow.

“I think that will be Tony Snow’s first test — to see what kind of power player he really is and whether he’s able to establish the right kind of relationship with the press that we need going forward,” Bolten said, appearing on the same show that Snow hosted for seven years.

“What kind of power player he really is?” Hmmm. What do you suppose Bolten is saying?

I think David Broder had it right (April 27):

Unless the president comes to understand that it is in his interest —as well as the country’s— to conduct a more open governing process, the new press secretary, Tony Snow, will find himself inevitably as much of a punching bag as McClellan became. Only George Bush can signal to the White House staff and administration that he wants a government ready and eager to explain itself to the people it is trying to lead.

When he has given that signal, there may be fewer Mary McCarthys contemplating the costs — and burdens — of leaking to the press.

I would ask Broder: What if Bush thinks he cannot afford openness, and really, he can’t because of what would come out, especially about the run up to Iraq but other stuff?

Peggy Noonan: “Mr. Snow’s White House press briefings are going to be nice to watch. The press does not want to appear to be ungracious and oppositional. They have an investment in demonstrating that the tensions each day in Scott McClellan’s press briefings, with David Gregory’s rants and Helen Thomas’s free-form animosities, were the fault of Mr. McClellan, not the press.”

Richard Miniter, New York Sun: “Mr. Snow is expected have an unusual amount of access for a White House press secretary. Like other men in his position, he will be able to walk into the Oval Office to talk to the president. More unusually, it is part of his job description to sit in on high-level discussions that shape Bush administration policy, not simply to strategize on how to spin those policies to the press.”

George Stephanopoulos at ABC’s World Newser: “For Snow, the biggest adjustment is psychological. He’s been out of the White House on his own for more than 15 years, voicing his own opinions, building his own audience. Now he’ll have to learn to squelch his private views and deliver the party line with conviction. I went through precisely the opposite process when I left the White House to join ABC. Not sure which move is more difficult, but I do know that neither one is easy or automatic.”

Oliver North pens an open letter to Tony Snow: “It is time to re-claim the podium and put the press in its proper place.”

More Michelle Cottle: “Admittedly, the storyline the White House is feeding journalists is genius in its appeal to their sense of self-importance and wounded pride: We’re so sorry we were mean to you. We know better now. Give us another chance and we’ll be ever so much more open and honest and respectful of your needs. See! We’re even bringing in one of your own to tell us how to make this relationship work.”

Deroy Murdock at National Review: “McClellan, surely a nice man who loves his country and his family, looks pained and frightened at his briefings. Sniffing blood in the water, reporters chomp into him like sharks devouring a walrus. This leaves McClellan with little to do but meekly repeat his lame talking points. My contacts among the president’s conservative base uniformly pity his performance. I shudder to imagine how much McClellan’s haplessness has weakened America’s image overseas during wartime.”

Dan Kennedy at Media Nation takes issue with something I said: I think Rosen’s on to something, although I disagree with his contention that McClellan represented a departure from Fleischer, who, Rosen claims, was unwilling to play the role of being ‘the jerk at the podium’ — and who, besides, had an unacceptable (to the White House) ‘twinkle in his eye’ when dissembling. I don’t see how you can say that McClellan’s act was much different from Fleischer’s, just a whole lot less competent.

Here’s how they’re different, Dan. Some of the things the Bush team forced McClellan to do were unprofessional, not to say embarrassing. They made him go out “with little to do but meekly repeat his lame talking points,” as Deroy Murdock put it. Or their plans were so contrary to good practice that one of the problems higher-ups would have is finding a press secretary who would swallow doubts, shut his mouth, listen well, and go along at the cost of his own reputation.

There’s only a certain number of people willing to do that, Dan. You need a stooge, or as Michael Wolff put it, a “kick me” figure. The yes man times ten. Ari Fleischer was never going to be one of those. I’m not saying Ari was less willing to dissemble for Bush. Like you, I see no differences there. As a flak, he had the normal coating of professional pride. They needed someone they could roll over. The price for getting that was weakness, lameness at the podium. It was a colossal error.

Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times loses his column and blog.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 28, 2006 12:25 PM