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May 1, 2005 - Worms Turning? Notes on This Week's Press Conference

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"It's in our country's interests to find those who would do harm to us and get them out of harm's way." –
- George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., April 28, 2005

Okay, he has a problem with clarity.  We know that.  But there are bigger problems.

Extending previous comments here whether or not there is change in the air – see May 1, 2005 - The Limits of Spin (quoting E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post and many reader comments) - a day or two before the press conference James Wolcott is here suggesting the press is no longer playing along with Bush and the Bug Man and the Tennessee Doctor for a Vengeful Christ.  And yes, before entering politics house majority leader Tom DeLay was an exterminator (Orkin) and senate majority leader Frist was a heart surgeon (HCA – his family owns it).  Oh, and Wolcott comments on something not previously noted in these pages - Elisabeth Bumiller’s New York Times piece week or more ago on what was on Bush’s iPod – oldies and country and western.  You expected Schoenberg and Sibelius?

Wolcott has this to say –


… Whether the tide has finally turned against Bush, there's no question the tone of the reporting on him has. Elisabeth Bumiller can get all American Idolly about Bush's iPod playlist, but reporters less kitten-smitten are starting to zing his majesty. I was quite struck this morning by the opening sentence of Kenneth Bazinet's article in the NY Daily News on the Dylanesque neverending Bamboozlepalooza Tour (tm Josh Marshall): "President Bush tried to revive his comatose campaign to privatize Social Security yesterday...."

Comatose! A few months ago, that opening sentence would have been carefully phrased, "President Bush, in an uphill battle to..." or "President Bush, facing a challenge over his Social Security..." But now the campaign is recognized as political road kill and the reporter even dares use the word "privatize" instead of the recent Rovian formulation "modernize."

Bush's privatization scheme is dead and too dumb to fall over, to borrow a line from Rita Mae Brown. Today in the NY Times, Congressman Charlie Rangel recounts a conversation with Bush over private accounts. Listen closely and you can hear the steel in Bush's spine stiffening as he postures for posterity. Rangel urges Bush to take private accounts off the table, and Bush replies:

"Congressman, I am the president. [As if Rangel needed reminding which office Bush held.] And private accounts are not coming off the table even if it's the last day I spend in the presidency."

Oooh, so last man at the Alamo. You know that sort of no-retreat, no-capitulation might play well with Americans when Bush is pretending to stand up to terrorists, but most voters recognize that horse-trading and compromise are part of the game in passing legislation, and taking a defiant stand on something most of them oppose (Soc Sec privatization) isn't going to win the gallery applause Bush always expects. He's losing his political touch to his strutting pride--a pride that increasingly takes on the shape of a pathological growth.

Tom DeLay joined Bush on his recent Soc Sec swing, which Bullmoose cites as proof the Bugman Thugman has outplayed Karl Rove:

"Tom DeLay has out-maneuvered the Boy Genius, Karl Rove. DeLay, perhaps more than Rove, comprehends the adage, "Live by the base, die by the base." By attaching himself to the right wing true believers, the Bug Man has made himself bullet-proof to establishment attempts to undermine his rule.

"While observers may deem DeLay's attacks on the judiciary over the top, there is a method to this madness. Delay has successfully tied the right's fate to his.

"So much so that the most powerful man in the world is forced to succumb to DeLay's plan. With his popularity faltering, W cannot antagonize his most faithful believers - even if it may come at a political cost."

I'm not fluent enough in Machiavelli to know who's hoodwinking whom here, but I do think it's a mistake for Rove to be as front and present as he's been recently, giving interviews and laying out the official Bush line. The power of Rove's mystique derived from being in the wings, invisibly manipulating and cooking up mischief. To have him out there doing an Andy Card deprives Bush of sinister backup reserve, which he sorely needs these days as his facade crumbles and he becomes a handholding joke.


Wow – that’s a lot of political inside stuff to unpack!  But the general idea is Bush is in trouble, and the press is now turning on him.  Maybe.

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, says no –


I do think Wolcott is probably reading too much into this. The difference is that, a few months ago, his Social Security plan may have been in a sickbed, but did not yet have the benefit of enough passing time to cast grave doubts on its recovery. (I do think Bush uses this Social Security hobbyhorse as a tactic to divert attention away from all those things that really DO need to get done, but that he, as a conservative, doesn't want to do anyway. I'm surprised to not see more commentary on that theory.)

But no, personally, I see no trend that mainstream reportage is turning from pro-Bush to anti-Bush. In fact, I saw no signs of it being very much pro-Bush to begin with.

Wolcott does make a good point about Rove coming out of the wings, though. I wonder if it has anything to do with watching his job of getting Bush reelected seeming to waddle away like a lame duck.


Well, we usually defer to Rick – as he spent his career in the news business and may be one of the few people who has worked closely with both Ted Turner and Roger Ailes – but something is up.

And Bush held this news conference in network prime time this week, on the first night of network sweeps week, and that’s only the fourth time THAT has happened.  War?  Big doings?

No, just a pitch for his programs.  Nothing extraordinary – except for the whiff in the air, the faint smell of everything unraveling.  It seemed to be time to turn things around – to charm and astound the American public a get them to buy into the big concepts he has been advocating, with little success, for many months.

But it didn’t really work out so well, and he may have lost the press. Tim Grieve in SALON.COM thinks so, and asks the question, Has the tipping point come?

Note this:


There comes a moment -- it happened to George H.W.Bush, it happened to Bill Clinton -- when reporters in the mainstream media make the pivot against a president. All actions become desperate. All pronouncements become suspect.

One hundreds days into his second term, it's a little early to stick a fork in George W. Bush. But boy, has the tide turned on a president who was so recently the swaggering darling of the national news. The White House had to beg some of the networks to air last night's prime-time news conference; it was the first night of sweeps week, and NBC and Fox couldn't bear the thought that Donald Trump or "The O.C." might be bumped by a not particularly popular commander in chief with little new to say. Bush's media handlers, who value nothing more than the president's reputation for resoluteness, caved in at the last minute and moved up the presser by half an hour so that most of the prime-time entertainment could appear on schedule. Bush made a joke about it all toward the end of the press conference, but, as the New York Times notes, a lot of viewers didn't see it: NBC and CBS had already cut away.

If he reads the papers today, Bush might find himself wishing that the print reporters had left early, too. Forget the analysis pieces, almost all of which focus on the sorry shape of the president's second-term agenda; notice the hostile tone in the straight news stories today.

Under a front-page headline that reads, "Bush Cites Plan That Would Cut Social Security Benefits," the Times says Bush's press conference "represented an effort to regain control of the national dialogue at a time when Mr. Bush is struggling to push his Social Security plan ahead on Capitol Hill, his approval ratings are falling, the economy is showing signs of slowing and Democrats have become more combative."

The Washington Post leads with the headline, "Bush Social Security Plan Would Cut Future Benefits," and its main news story describes a president clamoring for relevance. The press conference "came at a time of uncertainty for a president facing sagging poll numbers, a slowing economy and general unease about his domestic agenda," the Post says, citing White House aides who say Bush is "concerned his agenda is being eclipsed by congressional bickering."

The Boston Globe says Bush met the press "amid an array of problems, including the stalled nomination of some of his judicial nominees, and of John Bolton to become US ambassador to the United Nations, ethics questions surrounding a key ally, House majority leader Tom DeLay, a sliding stock market, continuing violence in Iraq, and record energy prices."

And the Los Angeles Times headlines its coverage, "Bush Recasts Message on Social Security," then ticks off a litany of problems for which the president apparently has no plan: "The nation's economic growth has slowed. . . . The price of gasoline has soared. . . . Bush's overall popularity has sagged in public opinion polls. . . . The president acknowledged no anxiety over those trends, beyond his concern over gas prices and the economy. 'I'm an optimistic fellow,' he said."

If Bush continues to get coverage like this, he'd better be.


Wolcott may have been onto something.

And the hammering on the web logs has been brutal. Since the main issue was Social Security, that does get some attention. The White House is reported to be very angry that the new “plan” was reported as cutting benefits. No, they say, it was just a way to cut benefits to those better off, and to help the really needy.

Yeah, right. See this


As Think Progress points out, Bush is now defining people who are "better off" as anyone earning over $20,000 per year. When selling his tax cuts, he defined people who were the "lowest income taxpayers" as anyone earning under $100,000.

Look, this is important. Our media is running around talking about how "rich people" are going to have their benefits cut, as if Bush's cunning plan to save Social Security is to take away Bill Gates's check. Social Security benefits currently max out at $90,000 salary. People who earn $90,000 a year are generally not portrayed by the kool kids in the media as "rich" or "wealthy" or even "upper income." Obviously people who earn that much are at the higher end of the income distribution, but especially for such people who live in high cost metro areas, they don't have lives which are noticeably distinguishable from what we think of as "middle class.'


Yeah, it seems to be a matter of definition – or a shell game with words.

So what is the media up to?  Well, maybe they do play along with Bush still.

Over at Media Matters you will find this (and if you click up the piece you will be able to click through to all the supporting documentation) –


One day after President Bush's April 28 press conference, the 10 largest U.S. newspapers obscured the full impact of Bush's proposed cuts in Social Security benefits. While some articles failed to note that the proposal would drastically cut benefits for lower-middle-income workers and not just for the wealthy, others neglected to describe the changes as cuts at all, instead repeating the Republican talking point that they would merely slow the rate of growth in benefits. The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press even falsely reported that low-income workers would receive greater benefits under the Bush plan than under current law.

Bush's proposal, which the White House acknowledged is based upon a plan developed by Robert C. Pozen, would provide a tiered system of benefits based on income. This proposal would likely cut the level of benefits promised under the current Social Security system for all workers making more than $20,000 a year -- or just above the poverty threshold of $19,157 for a family of four, with two children -- while leaving benefit levels for those making under $20,000 unchanged.

… Several major newspapers adopted Bush's characterization of his proposal as a slowdown in the rate at which benefits increase for higher income workers, rather than stating what it would be - a cut in promised benefits.


And this is followed by the words (with links) in many of the newspapers.  Media Matters thinks the mainstream media still carries the water for Bush.

Well, it is hard to tell.  You report what he says.  And if what he says is spin, and not exactly true?  Then what do you do?

Maybe you just use logic.

Kevin Drum uses logic here



Here's your new Republican budget: The House and Senate broke a lengthy impasse over federal spending Thursday night, narrowly adopting a $2.56 trillion federal budget for 2006 that aims to trim the growth of Medicaid by $10 billion over five years, add $106 billion in tax cuts and clear the way for oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge.

Attaboy! Reduce the deficit $10 billion by cutting back on healthcare for the poor, and then turn around and increase the deficit $106 billion by approving additional tax cuts for the rich. Moral values, baby, moral values.


Yeah, watch what they do, not what they say.

And little by little, the mainstream press is starting to do that. And one supposes they are starting to do that because the war is effectively over – at least as a hot story – and no one will call them traitors for raising questions about domestic issues.

That may be cowardly, but it is a start.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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