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What You See Is What You Get: An Excerpt from The Bush Dyslexicon

Bush owes his unlikely psuedo-victory to television, because that's where his image-over-substance message was victorious.
 
 
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If Bush had won legitimately, we could say that we'd got the President that we deserve. His "message" having played well on TV, and the audience having picked him by a clear majority (both electoral and popular), he would be the people's choice, and that would be the end of it.

But the situation now is highly complicated – and not just because of the shenanigans in Florida and on the Supreme Court. For Bush owes his unlikely victory not only to those party flacks and goons who forced the issue, nor only to the Rehnquist Five, but also to TV. Although he never played well on the medium per se, TV was very, very good to him; because the network that controls the medium – from above, and from the anchor-desks and pundit-chairs – embraced him, and implicitly endorsed him, for several reasons.

First of all, there is the great extrinsic factor of the media's corporate ownership, the top managers and major share-holders preferring the aggressively big-merger-friendly GOP to the less-aggressively big-merger-friendly Democrats. Al Gore had many champions in Hollywood, of course, including all the top pro-Clinton heavyweights from Michael Eisner on down. (Even Rupert Murdoch was a quiet Gore supporter.) A tough New Democrat somewhat to Clinton's right, Gore was never threatening to the interests of the corporate media, for all his pulpit-thumping with Joe Lieberman.

Nevertheless, the media's parent companies will do much better, and clean up much faster, now that they have Bush to play with, since he's for corporate concentration above all (literally). Nor will his FCC – now chaired by Colin Powell's son Michael, an adamant free-marketeer – discuss even the feeblest sort of regulation, whereas his predecessor, Bill Kennard, did try now and then. The media-corporate bias toward the Governor was evident, for example, in MSNBC's decision to show repeatedly, throughout the five-week civil war in Florida, its dubious Hail-Caesar documentary on Desert Storm – an obvious stroke of pro-Bush programming, certainly approved, if not dictated, by the network's corporate dad and mom, GE and Microsoft.

And yet there is another, deeper reason for the medium's strong pro-Bush bias (which the Brookings Institution documented just a week after election day). Although Bush plays badly on the medium, the TV system as we know it is his natural ally – because both it and he are all about mere "message." Both of them, in other words, are all about TV, and nothing else.

This is nothing new for Bush, a calculating sort from way, way back, but on TV it was not ever thus. For many years – indeed, from McLuhan's day – both observers and practitioners of campaign propaganda entertained the question of exactly where to find the proper balance between word and image, argument and spectacle, issue and impression. The comfortable assumption was that those two categories were entirely separate, fixed, alike, resilient and both perfectly amenable to expert handling by the news professionals, who, if they were careful, could strike the crucial balance, and so both entertain and edify their audience.

But now there is very little place for "substance" – or, indeed, for any rational discourse – on TV for formal, political and economic reasons. As the networks have developed it, the medium is far too speedy, loud, disjunctive and sensational to permit a complex sentence (much less an idea). The heavy pressure of the advertisers, furthermore, forbids the airing of whatever issues might be either too depressing or too complicated for the venue's crucial atmosphere of lite festivity – a non-stop pseudo-carnival that never can slow down, or else someone might lose money.

Into this tightly regulated riot of commercial propaganda every politician has to fit his/her own propaganda "message" – and, if s/he's lucky, also has to fit him or herself, looking "nice" enough (with just the right amount of Self-Effacing Humor) and sounding "clear" enough (without alarming anyone) to keep from standing out as "stiff," "robotic," "wooden" or in any other way ridiculous. With such smooth integration all "political" success has everything to do image – which, by and large, leaves out telling truth, or making sense.

Thus Bush belongs in the culture of TV. He fits in, not despite his open calculation and the utter superficiality of his (overt) concerns, but because of them. Such defects don't disturb the pundits of today, most of whom – whatever medium they work in – cannot even see what's wrong with Bush, so steeped are they themselves in TV's trivial worldview. Our President's most calculating predecessors weren't so lucky, their over-concentration on mere spin arousing strong objections back in those less TV-saturated days.

For example, Emmet John Hughes, one of Eisenhower's top assistants, was blown away by Nixon's straining effort to project a natural identity. Hughes quotes from the account, in Six Crises, of Nixon's resolution following his first debate with JFK: "I went into the second debate determined to do my best to convey ... sincerity.... If I succeded in this, I felt my imagewould take care of itself."

Hughes (who added those italics) found the contradiction there amazing, and yet typical: "Only the most shallow exercise in self-scrutiny could conclude with such a resolve to appear 'sincere.' Yet it was characteristic of the candidate, the politician, and the man." Like his mentor, George H.W. Bush conceived "sincerity" as a performance. "I can't be as good as Ronald Reagan on conviction," he confessed during the 1988 campaign. "There's nobody like him at conveying what it is like to strongly feel patriotism and love of country." Such ingenuous theatricality marked much of that failed President's public speech, just as it marks his son's – a self-reflexiveness that many journalists noted at the time.

"Bush is always telling you how to look at what he is doing, or what the impression is that he is trying to create," Meg Greenfield wrote in Newsweek back when George I was king. That tendency got lots of laughs when Bush, in the middle of a campaign speech in New Hampshire, accidentally read one of his stage directions: "Message: I care." And yet he did that all the time, and quite deliberately: "We have – I have – want to be positioned in that I could not possibly support David Duke, because of the racism and because of the bigotry and all of this."

Such dim transparency amounted almost to a kind of honesty, as Michael Kinsley wrote in 1992: "What these tics share is a clear view of the mind at work. Bush's mental processes lie close to the surface."

As do our President's. This Bush is also endlessly explaining what the "theme" or "message" is – but in the new millennium our journalists don't seem to notice it. While Bush's comic flubs did get some press, his constant commentary on his own self-presentation raised no qualms or questions. "I think probably the best thing I've done is interface with the press," he told Brill's Content in September of 2000. "They get to see the human – that I'm a human person, that I've got feelings, I care, I've got priorities. It gives them a better sense of who I am as a person.... I think the more somebody gets to know a person the more likely it is they'll be able to write an objective story."

The entire interview went like that, the candidate discoursing at great length on what a dandy job he had been doing keeping the whole press corps off the subjects of his record, his sponsors, his affiliations and his ultimate intentions – and the Brill's reporter, Seth Mnookin, played right along, asking Bush no question that might spoil the mood of chummy candor. As any journalist should know, "the more somebody gets to know a person" the lesslikely it is that he or she will write objectively about him. If Mnookin had been listening to the candidate instead of watching him, he might have asked Bush to explain the meaning of "objectively," or, for that matter, what his "feelings" really had to do with anything, or what he meant by that all-too-familiar "message," "I care."

By now, the mainstream press has quite forgotten the important differences between what's on TV and (what we might call) reality. Instead of trying to interrogate the photo op, asking what it isn't saying or how it's fiddling with the truth, the journalists – or those who have been granted the appropriate credentials – often actively collaborate with those who set the picture up, so as to help the audience discern the proper "theme." When Bush presented certain choices for his cabinet, reporters asked him, helpfully, if his "diverse" selection might not indicate "a message that you're sending to America." "You bet," replied the President-select, without missing a beat: "That people who work hard and make the right decisions in life can achieve anything they want in America."

At another such unveiling two weeks later, Bush was once again assisted big-time by the press: "You've now named a cabinet that is very diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity and experience in the private sector and the federal government. What does your cabinet say, do you think, about your management style, about how you intend to make decisions as president?"

"It says I'm not afraid to surround myself with strong and competent people," Bush shot back, and then expanded on that "theme" by adding that he knows "how to recruit people and how to delegate, how to align authority and responsibility, how to hold people accountable for results and how to build a team of people." It was a memorable lesson, which Bush concluded with a stirring pledge: "And that's exactly what we're going to do."

The journalists' collusion has extended well beyond such servile prompting. On TV itself, the eternal "expert" nattering on "politics" deals mainly – and often exclusively – with what some still call "image," but what is really just TV. TV's journalistic stars go on and on and on about the politicians' failure or success at pleasing, or at not displeasing, TV's viewers. Reflexive and impressionistic, such interminable yakking tells us nothing, dwelling on details of bearing, posture, make-up, voice instead of on what anybody did, or said, or failed to say.

And yet such discourse is not merely empty. By reducing all discussion to the level of the taste test, wherein "likeability" is all that counts, it tacitly discredits all intelligent discussion, while favoring those figures who can rile us without challenging or (as it were) taxing us. In other words, it is not just TV itself that works against the rational position, but those never-ending propagandists on TV who tell us who is "likeable" and who is not. That influence will work on those inclined already to agree with it, especially when it manages to get in the last word.

Thus TV functioned after each of the debates. On CNN, for example, after the third encounter on Oct. 17, Bob Novak got the ball rolling by suggesting that "there might have been a defeat for Gore on the likeability factor. I haven't seen all the numbers, but I understand he didn't do well on credibility or likeability." Of course, the wish was father to that thought, as Novak is among the steeliest of commandos, saying nothing that will not advance The Cause (cutting taxes).

From there Jeff Greenfield took the ball and ran a long way with it, wondering whether "Gore's clear decision to be aggressive, to try to define very sharp differences" might make him seem "assertive and tough-minded" or "rude and smug" – although "we're going to have to wait 48 hours or so to find out." He then moved on to Bush, who "clearly was trying to stage a conversation with both the people here and to [sic] the country, and, in effect, to say: Look, I'm a regular, soft-spoken guy. And Al Gore just wants this too much."

Time's Tamala Edwards then weighed in: Gore had learned the "lesson" that he can't "out-soften George Bush on compassion and talking about his heart," and therefore worked, this time, to "strike a contrast." She seemed, however, to differ with Bob Novak: "In this forum, where he was answering questions and being that aggressive, it will be interesting to see whether or not it plays as [if] he was a little terrier running out and trying to answer this person's question, vs. standing back and saying: You know, let me talk down to you [sic]."

Bill Schneider then talked for what seemed like a week, about a snap poll CNN had done just then. Novak summed up: "I don't think it's a win for Al Gore," and as to Bush: "I don't think that Gov. Bush is very good in this kind of a format.... But I don't think he hurt himself."

That Novak would admit that much about Bush's performance confirms how bad it really was. The governor was vague on the details of his own voucher plan, his own position on the patient's bill of rights, and on affirmative action, among other issues, while Gore was certain, and relentless. It was at that third debate that Bush's various evasive tactics were most blatant – at one point he even had to have Jim Lehrer rescue him from Gore's persistent inquisition. Nevertheless, the "analysts" at CNN said not one word about the substance of the candidates' exchange, but just kept harping on the general "statements" that the candidates were putatively "trying" to make about themselves, through their tone and body language. And now that Bush is President, we're stuck with all his vague and/or regressive plans for education, healthcare, race relations and whatever else he touched on as a candidate.

Although inane, that post-debate bull session was at least not strongly biased. On ABC, there was a far more noxious session on the subject of that third debate. It took place on the Oct. 22 broadcast of "This Week," with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, joined by George Will and George Stephanopoulos. The topic was the Dingell-Norwood bill, which would provide a patient's bill of rights, including the right to sue your HMO. In the debate, Bush had claimed to be in favor of a patient's bill of rights, and Gore then challenged him to say if he backed Dingell/Norwood.

DONALDSON: Well, talk about the message. I mean, remember during the last debate, Gore kept talking about "the Dingell/Norwood bill, the Dingell/Norwood bill." And we thought, as a public service, we'd just show you who Dingell and Norwood are. Let us tell you about them. Representatives Dingell and Norwood introduced the Patients Bill of Rights favored by Gore and the House of Representatives. John Dingell, from Michigan, is the longest-serving Democrat in the House. His father, who was a House member before him, was a sponsor of Social Security in the Thirties, and pioneered the idea of national health insurance back in 1943. Charlie Norwood, from Georgia, a Republican, is a dentist. He served in Vietnam and was first elected to the House in 1994 as part of the Republican revolution. So that's who Dingell and Norwood are. Now I'll tell you –

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the important –

ROBERTS: Yeah, but –

DONALDSON: But there's a guy named Greg Ganske who's also on the bill. It's actually the Dingell/Norwood/Ganske bill!

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the import – the important point –

DONALDSON: But I don't have time to start telling you about him!

ROBERTS: He's from Iowa!

STEPHANOPOULOS: The important point there is that George Bush didn't answer the question about the Dingell/Norwood bill, which is a patient's bill of rights that allows people to – the right to sue.

ROBERTS: Actually, I don't think that is the important point there.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?

ROBERTS: Because that's not what comes across when you're watching the debate. What comes across when you're watching the debate is this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it's –

ROBERTS: And you know, it's having an effect not just at the presidential level, but at the congressional level as well. Because the Republicans did a very smart thing, which is that they voted for their version of a Patient's Bill of Rights, and they voted for their version of prescription drug coverage. So they get to go out and tout all these issues, and then the Democrats are left saying, "But you didn't do Dingell and Norwood!"

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, then they – but what gets lost there – wait a second, what gets lost there is that George Bush did oppose a patient's bill of rights in the state of Texas. And he did – and he's not for the Dingell/Norwood bill.

ROBERTS: It was lost because Al Gore didn't say it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah, well, he did say it, actually, in the course of the debate.

DONALDSON: This is very cerebral. George Will, you are, but it doesn't be – helping Gore [sic].

WILL: It's not helping Gore in part because people find him overbearing and off-putting and all the rest. But also the fact – I think the issues are beginning to break, finally, for George W. Bush....

Thus TV's news stars, and the many pundits to their right, kept urging us, and urge us now, to lighten up and join the party – or at least to let the winners party on. In other words, they want us to forget what TV has itself made clear to us, thereby moving most of us to vote against that party.

TV revealed the candidate's unsuitability (although he claimed to be "more suited"), and revealed his constant calculation (which he kept imputing to his adversary). TV showed us how thin-skinned he really is (despite the endless hype about his "likeability").

TV, moreover, had already shown us what the movement backing him is really all about – the crazy hatred and fanatical resolve on full display throughout the great mock-epic of the failed impeachment (which Gov. Bush was always very careful never to bring up, nor was he ever asked about it). That same crusading madness was apparent on TV throughout the post-election crisis – a spectacle not easy to forget, whatever TV's newsmen say, and however charming this new President can be behind closed doors.

This essay is an excerpt from The Bush Dyslexicon: The Sayings of George W. Bush (W.W. Norton) by Mark Crispin Miller.