As President Bush plans his second term, he should take a bold internal step: Fire the White House press office.
It is hard to argue with success. The president was reelected more comfortably than even his supporters expected. Still, he suffered enormous headaches all year and surely will endure more migraines if he keeps the media team that has so ill-served him.
Bush’s press officers surely are diligent patriots who do the very best they can. That’s the problem. It is hard to identify a recent chief executive who struggled so hard to communicate. True, Bush is no Ronald Reagan. But that does not excuse his press operation. It lacks creativity, responds leisurely to most criticism, and lets muddled perceptions linger rather than correct them by relentlessly deploying facts and comments.
“This media team has no vision, no guts, and no instincts,” complains one Bush insider. “This election should have been a blowout of Reaganesque proportions. Instead, it was a nail biter. There’s only one place to point the finger: at the press staff.”
“If George Bush’s press office were a public-relations agency, the people who work there would be on the streets right now with signs reading, ‘Will write for food,’” says Matthew Schwartz, editor of New York-based PR News, which covers corporate communications.
‐Though controversial since proposed, the press office could have promoted Operation Iraqi Freedom by energetically denouncing Saddam Hussein’s mass graves. Good news occurs regularly in Iraq, yet is rarely highlighted. Hussein had extensive ties to Islamofascists, including al Qaeda (see HUSSEINandTERROR.com). Bush’s publicists overlooked these themes, causing their boss a yearlong beating.
‐John Kerry belittled this country’s partners in Iraq, most recently pledging to build a “real alliance” if elected, as if the 33-member, American-led Coalition included fake allies. The press office downplayed the participation of other nations in this effort, beyond the frequent and appropriate praise lavished on Tony Blair and his British troops.
The president’s media team (surely with U.S. diplomats in the driver’s seat) sowed the seeds for their troubles at the Azores Summit, Bush’s March 16, 2003, meeting with Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar. What a perfect way to illustrate the critics’ argument that Bush hurtled unilaterally into Iraq: fly the president onto a windswept mid-Atlantic rock with two friends.
Instead, Bush should have asked Coalition stalwart Silvio Berlusconi of Italy to host a summit of all 46 nations that supported America as the Iraq war loomed. At NATO’s Aviano Air Base, each country’s chief of state should have stood in front of his respective flag on a stage flanked by a Stealth bomber and an M-1 tank. After the other leaders had spent one minute each dedicating themselves to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Bush should have approached the microphone and said, “Saddam Hussein, you have heard from all of us, the leaders of the Coalition of the Willing. You have 72 hours to comply with United Nations Resolution 1441. Come clean, disarm, or we will liberate the Iraqi people from beneath your boots.”
Such a ceremony–embarrassingly enough for France, right next door–would have shown friends and foes that America entered Iraq with a real alliance whose brave nations sacrificed treasure and often blood to stand beside us. Absent such stagecraft, the big lie prevails that America fights alone in Iraq.
‐Bush has been blamed for virtually spreading Alzheimer’s and diabetes by banning stem-cell research. Actually, there is no such ban and, for better or worse, Bush is the first president to subsidize such inquiry, devoting $24.8 million to it last year. Meanwhile, as Wired’s Adam Rogers reports this month, private universities and at least seven states have financed stem-cell studies. Entrepreneurs also have spent $100 million to support Douglas Melton’s work in Massachusetts and another $50 million for Catherine Verfaillie’s Minnesota lab. Nonetheless, Bush has been caricatured as a troglodyte indifferent to human pain. Effective communicators would have eviscerated this slander ages ago.
‐Bush faced nearly a week of bad press for skipping the NAACP’s July convention. The headline “Bush doesn’t care about blacks” could summarize most news stories. Team Bush should have used print and video clips to document the invective the NAACP has hurled at the president, such as executive director Kweisi Mfume’s claim that Bush is “prepared to take us back to the days of Jim Crow segregation and dominance.” Instead, presidential press secretary Scott McClellan vaguely complained on Air Force One that “The current leadership of the NAACP has certainly made some rather hostile comments about the President over the past few years.” No surprise, the anti-Bush ink kept flowing.
As soon as Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor booked your humble commentator to discuss this on July 8, I asked the White House press office to list the black-oriented and civil-rights organizations that Bush had addressed. Although I was a generally sympathetic columnist scheduled to discuss this incendiary topic on America’s most watched cable-news discussion program, I still await the press office’s phone call.
‐Bush’s media mavens released a still photo (not even videotape!) of him in the Oval office after he signed a business tax-relief bill on October 22. The missed opportunity is obvious: Bush should have signed the $143 billion tax cut at a crowded campaign rally in tax-allergic New Hampshire.
‐The press office’s worst act of media malpractice was President Bush’s November 5, 2003, signing of the partial-birth-abortion ban. He was flanked by senators Bill Frist, Orrin Hatch, Rick Santorum, and several more GOP lawmakers–all male. The National Organization for Women’s website posted the resulting photo as a recruitment tool.
How could any competent press aide have sent the president into a latter-day portrait of Cotton Mather and the Puritan fathers? Were there really no supportive congresswomen available that day? Better yet, who needs politicians? Why not surround Bush with a dozen mothers holding adopted babies who had escaped abortion? Afterward, unleash the moms with babes in arms for impromptu interviews. Thus, a public-relations grand slam became a PR strikeout.
McClellan and White House communications chief Dan Bartlett “guide” this shapeless mess. Bartlett’s sorry record speaks for itself.
As for McClellan, he embodies the U.S. government in President Bush’s absence. Especially at war, McClellan should exude strength, confidence, and awe. Instead, when he meets the press, he resembles a school kid who flinches and runs the second a bully balls up his fist. McClellan, who seems like a very nice man, would make an excellent ambassador to Brussels. He would find the Belgians perfectly unthreatening–and vice-versa.
President Bush deserves a Clinton-style rapid-response platoon with free-market, conservative substance. It should include people like former Republican National Committee press aides Cliff May (a recovering newspaper reporter) and Mark Corallo (now Justice Department spokesman), and Scott Stanzel, a telegenic, quick-witted Bush-Cheney 2004 press representative who–as Corallo did when Al Gore sought the presidency–instantly furnishes journalists data to bolster Bush’s case.
By 2008, Bush wants to overhaul Social Security, the tax code, tort law, and more. He may nominate one or more Supreme Court justices. The wars in Iraq and on terror will blaze for a while. Facing such challenges–and millions who hope he fails–President Bush needs a White House press office worthy of its name.