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March 28, 2004: Public Relations and Political Gain - Getting the Tone Right

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This week at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner in Washington, George Bush cracked jokes while the audience was shown supposedly humorous photos of the President and top aides.

The full AP story is here.

Basically you get this:


President Bush poked fun at his staff, his Democratic challenger and himself Wednesday night at a black-tie dinner where he hobnobbed with the news media. 

Bush put on a slide show, calling it the "White House Election-Year Album" at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association 60th annual dinner, showing himself and his staff in some decidedly unflattering poses. 

There was Bush looking under furniture in a fruitless, frustrating search.  "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere," he said.


Everyone laughed – well most everyone.  I’m not sure I agree with how the Brits here see it. 

See Bush jokes about search for WMD, but it's no laughing matter for critics
David Teather in New York, The Guardian (UK), Friday March 26, 2004

Teather says Bush “sparked a political firestorm yesterday after making what many judged a tasteless and ill-judged joke about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

Yes, John Kerry, said the jokes displayed a "stunningly cavalier" attitude. 

And Teather pulls together the emails CNN sent in.  I saw that covered this morning as I was sipping coffee.  They were overwhelmingly angry.  Example?  "How can a thinking, caring human being joke about the lies that led to body bags and broken young men and women?  I was appalled."  Yeah well, people love to be outraged.  Another?  "It was tasteless and childish.  It shows the true man - or child in his case."

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Later Donald Rumsfeld was asked about these jokes in a news conference.  He ducked it – no opinion.  "To know what I would think, I would have to be there."  Yeah.  Right.  This from the man who knew exactly where the WMD were and told us all Hans Blix was an obstructionist fool from “Old Europe.”

If you hopped on the Drudge Report you find what Matt says is the Kerry press release about this. 


If George Bush thinks his deceptive rationale for going to war is a laughing matter, then he's even more out of touch than we thought.  Unfortunately for the President, this is not a joke. 

585 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq in the last year, 3,354 have been wounded, and there's no end in sight.  Bush Turned White House Credibility into a Joke George Bush sold us on going to war with Iraq based on the threat of weapons of mass destruction.  But we still haven't found them, and now he thinks that's funny? 

"George Bush didn't tell us the truth about the economy, about job loss, about the true cost of his deceptive prescription drug plan, or about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.  There's nothing funny about that."


The evening after the event, on MSNBC’s Hardball, Chris Matthews’ show, one of the guests was a young White House spokesman – Tucker Eskew, a Bush Campaign spokesman.


Matthews, who had just done a piece on the kids, our soldiers, he visited at Walter Reed Hospital – some of the more than three thousand amputees and blinded from the war – lit into to this White House flak with a vengeance.  Matthews was at that Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner, and was one of the few who didn’t laugh.  He asked the White House guy if Bush would use the same jokes if he ever got around to visiting the wounded, or to attending a service funeral.  It wasn’t pretty.  The poor fellow from the White House got slammed hard and had little to say.  Hey, what’s to say? 

Some of it?  From the transcript - 


MATTHEWS:  There‘s a riff of four or five jokes where he made fun of the fact he couldn‘t find weapons of mass destruction.  Now, the reason I raise this is, we were just over at Walter Reed.  There is like almost more than 3,000 seriously injured guys, amputees, the people that fought that war thinking they were protecting this country from weapons of mass destruction.  They weren‘t because the guy didn‘t have any weapons of mass destruction.


ESKEW:  They did.


MATTHEWS:  They did what?  They protected us from weapons of mass destruction?


ESKEW:  They protected us from Saddam Hussein.


MATTHEWS:  But not weapons of mass destruction, which was the case made to them and their families.


ESKEW:  It was a case made.


MATTHEWS:  A case?


ESKEW:  It was a case.


MATTHEWS:  What was the other case made before the war?


ESKEW:  Oh, come on, Chris. 


MATTHEWS:  Before the war.


ESKEW:  Before the war.


MATTHEWS:  To Europe, to the world.


MATTHEWS:  When we went to U.N., the case was they, had weapons of mass destruction. 


ESKEW:  That was a central part of the case.  It was at the forefront of the case. 


MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s not true.


ESKEW:  And it remains at the forefront of the case. 


MATTHEWS:  It does?  How? 


ESKEW:  Of course it does.


MATTHEWS:  How does it still become an issue for the war? 


ESKEW:  Because I think the president has made clear that we disarmed

a dictator, an evil man who had the capacity …


MATTHEWS:  Without the weapons, he was just evil.  But he wasn‘t a threat to us, was he? 


ESKEW:  He was the same sort of threat to George W. Bush that John Kerry acknowledged that he was over and over and over again. 


MATTHEWS:  You‘re shifting here. 


ESKEW:  No, I‘m not.  I think the case is that the American—bipartisan—on a bipartisan basis, the American leadership in this country understood the man. 


MATTHEWS:  Nice try. 


ESKEW:  Come on, Chris. 


MATTHEWS:  When you come up with the evidence, you‘ll have the case made for the war.  The case for the war was, they were dangerous to us because they might use nuclear.  They might use nuclear.  They might use biological or chemical against us.  We have a Department of Defense, not offense or war.  It‘s called the Department of Defense. 


ESKEW:  I think there will be a debate in this campaign about whether or not we‘ll be on offense.


MATTHEWS:  If you can‘t show that we went to war to defend this country, you got a problem on your hands. 


ESKEW:  I can say the president will make the case that we went on offense, not only against terrorists in Afghanistan, but against...


MATTHEWS:  Oh, offense.  So are we going to call it the Department of Offense now or defense? 


ESKEW:  Well, we‘re going to fight it as a war.  John Kerry has said he wants to fight it as a law enforcement action. 


MATTHEWS:  So you hold to the argument as a spokesman for the president that the president of the United States was right last night to make fun of the issue of why he went to war?


ESKEW:  Listen, you can put it in that context, Chris. 


MATTHEWS:  Four jokes. 


ESKEW:  The president—come on.  The president has talked about WMD over and over and over again, since David Kay reported and before. 


MATTHEWS:  Would you have him tell those jokes as he tours the hospitals? 


ESKEW:  He tours the hospitals an awful lot.  He doesn‘t need a lesson in compassion toward the American soldiers, Chris. 


MATTHEWS:  No, it‘s just he has a—maybe there‘s a question here of taste. 


ESKEW:  I think the president has very good taste. 


MATTHEWS:  You felt the jokes were right?


ESKEW:  That‘s self-deprecation, Chris.  I think you misinterpret it.


MATTHEWS:  So you think the guys who got hurt and killed in this war thought it was funny?


ESKEW:  I wouldn‘t say that and I don‘t think you really mean that. 


MATTHEWS:  I just don‘t think it was funny.  I was there last night. 

I didn‘t think it was funny.  Anyway, thank you, Tucker.  It‘s not your fault.  You didn‘t write those jokes, did you? 


ESKEW:  No. 


MATTHEWS:  OK, good.  I‘m glad you didn‘t take responsibility for them, anyway. 


To put this in perspective, Richard Clarke opened his testimony to the 9-11 commission the day before by turning the families of September 11 victims in the audience and saying, "… your government failed you...  and I failed you.  We tried hard but that doesn't matter because we failed and for that failure I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

No more than six or seven hours later Bush was making jokes about the reason he told us we had to go to war. 


Oops.  Kind of funny isn’t it.  Lost your legs?  Lost your eyes?  Sorry about that soldier.  But hey, lighten up!

Well, charitably, the man is tone-deaf. 

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David Corn is less charitable. 


Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had joked about the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident that he deceitfully used as a rationale for U.S.  military action in Vietnam: "Who knew that fish had torpedoes?" Or if Ronald Reagan appeared at a correspondents event following the truck-bombing at the Marines barracks in Beirut - which killed over 200 American servicemen - and said, "Guess we forgot to put in a stop light."  Or if Clinton had come out after the bombing of Serbia - during which U.S.  bombs errantly destroyed the Chinese embassy and killed several people there - and said, "The problem is, those embassies - they all look alike."

Yet there was Bush--apparently having a laugh at his own expense, but actually doing so on the graves of thousands.  This was a callous and arrogant display.  For Bush, the misinformation - or disinformation - he peddled before the war was no more than material for yucks. 



Oh well.  Bush may apologize. 

But I’d guess he won’t – not his style.  And this will pass.  But some of us will remember. 

But then the Richard Clarke accusations led to another odd thing that indicates the administration really does need to “calibrate its tone” – as some things like this just look bad. 

See White House Asks 9/11 Panel to Meet Rice
JENNIFER LOVEN, Associated Press Writer, Thursday, March 25, 2004

The scoop? 


WASHINGTON - The White House on Thursday asked the independent commission investigating the Sept.  11 terrorist attacks to give national security adviser Condoleezza Rice another opportunity to talk privately with panel members. 

The White House said, in a letter to the commission chairman and vice chairman from counsel Alberto Gonzales, that such a session would allow her to clear up "a number of mischaracterizations of Dr.  Rice's statements and positions."

Rice still would not testify publicly before the panel, as the members and many relatives of victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks want.  Gonzales wrote that is important that presidential advisers such as Rice "not be compelled to testify publicly before congressional bodies such as the Commission."


Of course if you read the whole thing you discover the core issue is that Rice adamantly refuses that this meeting be public in any way at all.  Heck, perhaps that is politically wise.  You don’t want to get in any sort of “who looks more credible on camera” thing with that Clarke fellow.  You might lose.  So keep it private. 

But the really curious thing is that Rice is equally adamant that she not by put under oath – as in “Keep that damned Bible away from me!”  She won’t be held accountable in THAT way.  Not her.  This is not testimony in some damned courtroom where you swear you’re telling the truth.  It’s just a chat to clear up some misconceptions. 


Here’s the basic political problem with all this…

Does Karl Rove, Bush’s political advisor, understand how bad this all looks?  In the these eighteen hours Clarke makes this stunning apology to the families who lost folks on September 11 – implying those who don’t apologize are arrogant bastards who don’t understand what real people feel.  Then Bush makes his jokes about the missing WMD – a few miles from the hospital where our guys are working on how to live the rest of their lives without a leg or an arm or without their eyes.  Hey, he didn’t know the WMD weren't there - and it is kind of funny, isn't it?  I guess that depends on your perspective. 

Then late in the same evening the Rice woman says she’s changed her mind - she WILL explain herself, but only privately – on not on the record. 

Karl, this is not way to make things look good.  


Footnote (a new meme is born):

But then again, in the Republican primaries leading up to the 2000 election, Karl Rove saw how John McCain was gaining ground on Bush in South Carolina and suddenly there were all those stories popping up everywhere about how McCain might have fathered a “nigger baby” – and the rest is history.  Good move, Karl. 


And then on CNN’s show “Crossfire” Bob Novak did after all imply that Richard Clarke may have more than his points about Bush and the administration being wrong on terrorism.  Novak is hinting the real problem is Richard Clarke has a problem with African-American women like Condoleezza Rice.  Really – see this.  Must be some racial-sexual hang-up. 

Or maybe Richard Clarke is just a plain old racist, as Ann Coulter suggests:


Isn't that just like a liberal?  The chair-warmer describes Bush as a cowboy and Rumsfeld as his gunslinger -- but the black chick is a dummy.  Maybe even as dumb as Clarence Thomas.  Perhaps someday liberals could map out the relative intelligence of various black government officials for us.  


That would mean anything he says is to be disregarded, as he just doesn’t like black folks.  Liberals are like that.  Don’t listen to him. 

It should be an interesting campaign.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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