The Propaganda President
George W. Bush does his best Kim Jong-il.
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.
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.
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.