Woody Smitten on Bush
Inquiring minds want to know. Is Woody smitten on Bush? I am afraid so.
Al Gore's boast that Eric Segal wrote Love Story with Al and Tipper in mind was only one of the strands of the embellishment rope that the national press used to destroy his character and, in the zero-sum game of politics, build up George W. Bush. We have come along way since the days of the presidential campaign and presidency of Bill Clinton. The press no longer tries to bring down the president with character assassination. They now build the president up with character affirmation. The national press corps look at Bush with twinkles in their eyes. More than any other pundit, Bob Woodward, who was instrumental in forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon, has the look of love. For Woodward, love appears to mean never having to say you are sorry for putting Bush on a pedestal and keeping him there.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter recently spoke of the magic moment that freed him of his propensity to look at the presidency with a critical eye. Woodward planned to write a book about Bush's first year in office, but had not yet spoken to the president. He got his chance at a Connecticut university where Bush was speaking. Woodward waited offstage until Bush approached. No, he "bounded toward him, filled with enthusiasm and adrenaline," according to later news reports. Woodward extended his hand and introduced himself. Bush didn't play coy: "I know who you are." Bush squeezed his head for the first time and called him "Woody." Apparently, it was love at first sight.
Woodward proved his affection for Bush after the events of September 11. Our nation was in shock. Initial news reports painted a picture of an American president in hiding. Given the questions previously raised about the president's intellect and courage, America was in the unenviable position of facing an attack on the continental United States with a president at the helm who did not have the confidence of the American people. In response, the president's political handlers floated out news stories to counter the conventional wisdom. Bush was not hiding. The White House and Air Force One were under attack and the president reluctantly accepted security measures to safeguard the leader of the free world. Bob Woodward reported that Bush refused to take up a position in the bunker below the White House, instead asking for the all-American meal, a hamburger. Woodward, along with Dan Balz, would go on to write in the Washington Post an historical account of the crisis, "10 Days in September." Beware of history written in real time. It lacks perspective.
Woodward was not alone in reconstructing Bush during the days and months following the September 11 crisis. Virtually all Americans put politics aside and supported the president. Partisan politics was abandoned in Washington, D.C. and across the nation. In the process, by design or default, the national press became the propaganda arm of the Executive Branch of the American government. Much of its acquiescence was not unprecedented. For example, the press hid Franklin Delano Roosevelt's paralysis from the American public. After September 11, the press not only masked Bush's shortcomings, but it also reconstructed the man. No one took to this role more diligently than Bob Woodward and the Washington Post. Maybe this was a good thing at a time of crisis. Public support is critical to a war effort and the country had been attacked. Alas, after accepting the job as propagandist, Woodward and much of the national press were either unable or reluctant to revert to their real job, acting as a check and balance on the power of government.
"10 Days in September" resembles corporate marketing more than an independent journalistic effort. The Bush administration must have been enamored with the piece. The mixed media presentation not only sells the president as a strong and capable leader it does so with an independent label and the implicit seal of approval of Bob Woodward. There is axiom about umpires that also applies to journalists. Do they call them as they are, as they see them, or as they want them to be? All too often journalists call them as they want them to be and that is the case with the Post and Woodward in regards to Bush. In words and photos the Post painted Bush as the leader of a new Camelot:
The Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center transformed a nation and its people. On the night of Sept. 11, President Bush met with his war cabinet and started America on the road to war. Nine days later, the president would address the nation before a joint session of Congress. Those 10 days -- Sept. 11 to Sept. 20 -- marked a crucial turning point in the country's history as the U.S. confronted the threat of international terrorism. (Washington Post, January 27, 2002)
Despite its journalistic flaws, the piece was the culmination of a number of earlier stories that on the Post the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
The new Bush is an action figure worthy of a Hollywood production, but served up without its unpopular trappings. In photos and print Bush is draped in symbols: the Oval Office, military uniforms, the American flag, and salutes. He is pictured with heads of state, the clergy, the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as with victims and their families. He is described with action words: he "pushed," "rejected," and "ordered" his team, our team. Bush communicates to Americans through Woodward in bumper stickers: "They wanted the White House in rubble"; "This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail"; "I weep and mourn with America"; "We are going to rain holy hell on them"; and, "I want to have them quaking in their boots." We are told that Prime Minister Tony Blair's aides "marveled at how relaxed Bush appeared." At the time of crisis Bush states, "I have never felt more comfortable in my life." Gratuitous slams at the Clinton administration are sprinkled throughout the text. The RNC could not have commissioned a better effort.
Woodward recently referred to Bush's religious conviction as "sincere and genuine" (Providence Journal, April 10, 2002). He also praised Bush as being "straightforward and direct." Again, Woodward joked about the nickname Bush gave to him, "Woody." Matt Drudge used a reference from the speech ("Bob Woodward Sings Bush's Praises", April 10, 2002) to triumph Bush's presidency and Bush on his website. Woodward's words were taken as an endorsement of the president. In fairness to Drudge, Woodward's words were not taken out of context.
Woodward's overflowing praise of Bush reminded me of an episode of the Charlie Rose show with him soon after September 11. On the show, he compared Bush favorably to FDR. At the time, I was incredulous at the comparison. Having had the opportunity to read "10 Days in September," I am not confused by his praise today, despite the fact that I do not share his opinion. From my viewpoint, Woodward's praise of Bush is suspended from reality. Woodward overstepped the bounds of journalism and fell in love with his subject, not just the man but the moment in history. Woodward makes for a poor political umpire.
Despite my differences with Bush politically, I support the effort, if not the method, to protect our nation and believe he is earnest in this pursuit. The country needed healing after September 11th and Bush was an important part of that process. That said, Woodward and the national press do not serve the country by playing the administration's spokesman. Woodward's draping of Bush in religion should be a giant red flag to the press and to his editors at the Washington Post. There are too many ramifications. Jesus was about peace, love, and compassion. Woodward might see those qualities in Bush, but an honest history will not. It is long past the time for the national press to go back to doing its job and for Bush to come down from the pedestal.
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