Laura Bush’s Mission Accomplished

Frank Rich castigates the press corps for its syncophatic coverage of Laura Bush’s appearance at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in specific and for its willingness to swallow administration propaganda in general.

Laura Bush’s Mission Accomplished (NYT RSS)

The Washington press corps’ eagerness to facilitate and serve as dress extras in what amounts to an administration promotional video can now be seen as a metaphor for just how much the legitimate press has been co-opted by all manner of fakery in the Bush years.

Yes, Mrs. Bush was funny, but the mere sight of her “interrupting” her husband in an obviously scripted routine prompted a ballroom full of reporters to leap to their feet and erupt in a roar of sycophancy like partisan hacks at a political convention. The same throng’s morning-after rave reviews acknowledged that the entire exercise was at some level P.R. but nonetheless bought into the artifice. We were seeing the real Laura Bush, we kept being told. Maybe. While some acknowledged that her script was written by a speechwriter (the genuinely gifted Landon Parvin), very few noted that the routine’s most humanizing populist riff, Mrs. Bush’s proclaimed affection for the hit TV show “Desperate Housewives,” was fiction; her press secretary told The New York Times’s Elisabeth Bumiller that the first lady had yet to watch it.

Mrs. Bush’s act was a harmless piece of burlesque, but it paid political dividends, upstaging the ho-hum presidential news conference of two days earlier in which few of the same reporters successfully challenged administration spin on Social Security and other matters.

That Mrs. Bush’s speech was written by someone else is a given. Goodness, Johnny Carson had someone writing his monologues for him. So do Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and virtually everyone else doing stand-up routines on television.

The Correspondents’ Dinner and its various clones are and have always been occasions wherein the press and politicians relax their guard and have a little bit of fun. It’s an acknowledgement of the symbiotic nature of their relationship, more than anything.

It was only too fitting that Mrs. Bush’s performance occurred on the eve of the second anniversary of the most elaborate production of them all: the “Top Gun” landing by the president on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. The Washington reviews of her husband at the time were reminiscent of hers last weekend. “This president has learned how to move in a way that just conveys a great sense of authority and command,” David Broder raved on “Meet the Press.” Robert Novak chimed in: “He looks good in a jumpsuit.” It would be quite a while before these guys stopped cheering the Jerry Bruckheimer theatrics and started noticing the essential fiction of the scene: the mission in Iraq hadn’t been accomplished, and major combat operations were far from over.

During the television era, effective presidents have understood (or at least had staffs that understood) the power of political imagery. The commentary at the time of the carrier landing was on the effectiveness of the imagery and there was certainly plenty of analysis as to the state of the mission. Major combat operations were indeed over and the initial mission, that of regime change in Iraq, was indeed accomplished. That a terrorist-insurgency would kill hundreds more with suicide bombs and IEDs was unknown at that point and dampened the enthusiasm for the initial milestone rather considerably. That doesn’t change what happened.

FILED UNDER: Media, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. McGehee says:

    Frank Rich is the poster boy for “people with no sense of humor are hilarious.”

  2. Sybilla Upper says:

    Frank Rich and for that matter Bill Maher have been astonishingly mild in their reactions to Laura Bush’s jokes. The entire nation has seemed to go into shock about what to think. Caustic comment probably has been suppressed partly because people know that the Bush family will be seen for decades in the images scriptwriter Landon Parvin set up. Meanwhile, the safest way to respond to critics of Laura Bush is to claim that they have no sense of humor.

  3. vnjagvet says:

    But you have to admit, Sybilla, this FR column is both humorless and heavy handed, donchathink?

  4. bryan says:

    Am I the only person in the country who sees no big deal in the Laura Bush episode at the correspondent’s dinner?

    Everyone has said the same thing about the press corps for at least the last two presidents. Is anyone saying Bill Clinton really got the killer “nixon treatment” by the press?

  5. Paul says:

    President Clinton didn’t receive the Nixon treatment by the press, even after he was impeached for lying to Congress. The heck with President Reagan, WJ Clinton was the true Teflon President.

  6. Sybilla Upper says:

    I didn’t think Frank Rich was heavyhanded, Vnjagvet. I thought his article was muffled because, like most of the other journalists, he wasn’t enough of a Mark Twain to dare say what he really thought. I thought his comparison of Bush in flightsuit drag and Laura Bush in Joan Rivers drag was inspired. Jane Smiley was redblooded enough to write to the NYTimes that the First Lady revealed “the true agenda of the Bush administration, which is to do harm and, apparently, enjoy it.”

  7. Sybilla Upper says:

    I didn’t think Frank Rich was heavyhanded, Vnjagvet. I thought his article was muffled because, like most of the other journalists, he wasn’t enough of a Mark Twain to dare say what he really thought. I thought his comparison of Bush in flightsuit drag and Laura Bush in Joan Rivers drag was inspired. Jane Smiley was redblooded enough to write to the NYTimes that the First Lady revealed “the true agenda of the Bush administration, which is to do harm and, apparently, enjoy it.”