For a media critic, the crucial line of the State of the Union speech may have been the president’s line about responsible debate on Iraq: “there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.”
This is not a new line for the president. But it still evokes, for a lot of his supporters, thoughts of our nation’s news media, which has never planned a war, but has nevertheless, over the last four decades, felt free to second-guess them all. Some Democrats might feel the need to offer responsible advice about how to proceed on the battlefield. But the media has no restraint when it comes to endlessly projecting–with hindsight, mind you–Iraq as a “mess” and proposing no more of an Iraq strategy than Tim Kaine did (who quickly fell back on the military “solution” of…more generous veterans’ benefits.)
What Bush’s line suggests is that some people are focused on the national interest, on the pressing need for victory against the terrorist enemy, while other people are focused only on defeating the president politically. Some believe the world’s greatest problem is Osama bin Laden. Others think it’s Karl Rove. Defeatism is embraced as a political strategy. Bush supporters feel in their guts that the media-Democrat complex would be happy for America to suffer at least enough quagmires to ruin the rest of the Bush presidency and liberate the country from odious Republican control. They’re more focused on the presidency than the union.
The media’s coverage of the speech does suggest that it’s not so much about the state of the union, but about the state of the presidency. Just like last year, the focus was not on how the nation is faring, but on how the president is faring: how his approval ratings are low; how the national mood is “sour”; and how his window for effective executive action is shrinking daily due to lame-duckery. For them, the message for the folks at home is that the state of the Bush presidency is weak, and getting weaker by the hour. (And who do you think wants to step into the power vacuum? The second-guessing media, of course.)
The State of the Union is the president’s one great annual opportunity to speak, unmediated, to the American people for 45 or 50 minutes. There is a lot in the speech that appeals to Americans in general, in tones that are so agreeable almost no one can find fault. ABC’s political unit claimed last night that 48 out of the 62 paragraphs of Bush’s speech could have been read by President Clinton. (Although, if you don’t see the differences between Bush and Clinton beyond the platitudes, you’re not paying attention.) But the media last night still felt the pressing need to suggest that Bush only offered “rhetoric,” while they are the caring nurturers of (and more importantly, definers of) “reality.”
So the pundits’ primary complaint last night was that the president is detached from “reality.” On MSNBC, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson fussed that the president showed no willingness to meet “reality” on Iraq. On ABC, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria carped that Bush’s rhetoric didn’t match the reality in the Middle East. In questioning Robin Wright of the Washington Post, ABC’s Charlie Gibson said the president drew applause for demanding that Hamas reject terrorism and the destruction of Israel as political platform items, but Gibson hoarsely complained, “I don’t know what that means in terms of policy.”
Bush supporters of a certain vintage remember the same contempt for Ronald Reagan’s lack of grounding in “reality.” Reagan also spoke in idealistic tones about freedom being the destiny and the birthright of man, and all the “reality”-based media could do is carp about his pie-in-the-sky rhetoric and abhor his “sabre-rattling” against tyranny. In the end, who was leading? And who was merely trying to do the defining of “reality”? Reagan changed reality, and it was the media-Democrat complex that never grasped the historical power of Reagan looking beyond the world as it was.
It’s odd how the media insists on lecturing presidents when most morning show can’t spend ten minutes on a national issue without finding it boring, and a dangerous risk of lost advertising-revenue. Bush had hardly left the podium last night before several of the TV networks cut to other programming. NBC shoved off at 10:30 for a rerun of Scrubs. At the same time, CNBC was featuring Donny Deutsch interviewing Donald Trump, Junior. CNN Headline News was obsessing over Michael Jackson offending someone in Bahrain. Even some local stations of PBS, founded to bring public affairs to the “vast wasteland” of commercial TV, were airing “Frontline” instead of speech coverage (at least my local PBS station was).
The media narrative of the week is that President Bush is in Year Six, and that’s not been a great year for second-term presidents in modern times. On Monday night, National Public Radio warned that, in 1966, Lyndon Johnson lost a pile of Democratic seats. In 1986, Ronald Reagan lost GOP control of the Senate. In 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached. The strategy for this year mapped out by the second-guessing media: making sure President Bush matches that historical pattern of weakness and loss by year’s end.
–Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.