The Making of George Bush, Macho Man

With six months until the election, it's anyone's guess who will win in November. Polls suggest widespread ambivalence about the president's leadership, but also point to continuing doubts about John Kerry's character.

The American people may not yet have made up their minds about their leaders, but the media certainly have. Whatever its outcome, Election 2004 has already been cast as the battle between the strong but stubborn George Bush and the nuanced but flip-flopping John Kerry.

The storyline was already in play the morning after Bush's primetime press conference in early April. David Sanger of the New York Times set out the emerging characterization in his analysis: "Bush drove home the single-mindedness that has become the hallmark of his presidency, his greatest strength in the eyes of his admirers and a dangerous, never-change-course stubbornness in the eyes of his detractors."

Richard Wolffe, writing a "Web Exclusive" for Newsweek posted the same day, picked up the ball and ran with it:

At his press conference on Tuesday evening, George W. Bush was strong, confident and aggressive -- and weak, hesitant and defensive. He was humble, he was arrogant. He showed his fine political antenna and his tin political ear. He was eloquent, and he was tongue-tied. You can see why people love or hate him. It's not just because of his policies. It's because he embodies those black-and-white contrasts himself.
And finally, the "Dean" of the Washington press corps, David Broder (hey, we're talking about conventional wisdom, after all) wrote in an Apr. 15 Washington Post opinion column, "Combined with [Bush's] assertiveness in proclaiming that he will not be deflected from his chosen course by criticism or evidence of public doubts about the wisdom of his policies, this idealism forms an image of resolute leadership."

As we all know, in journalism, three makes a trend. To be sure, this developing characterization of Bush as strong-willed contains more than a kernel of truth. That's in part why everyone is pointing it out.

But there's another reason why the press corps have seized on this narrative. To begin with, it serves to reinforce the press's ostensible "objectivity" at a time when it's being aggressively challenged by both the left and the right. It's a ready-made storyline, with both pro-Bush and anti-Bush strands already built into it. It allows Bush to be both a strong leader and as dangerously stubborn at the same time. For reporters terrified of being accused of partisanship, this double-edged characterization is a valuable commodity.

And it has the added advantage of allowing the media to draw a clear contrast between the two presidential candidates. Pitched against the assertive Bush is John Kerry, a man whose who favors more "nuanced" (or wishy-washy) views on everything from the Iraq invasion to gay marriage.

The problem with this handy framing device is that reporters are so devoted to the "strong-but-stubborn" thesis, that they are willing to ignore any evidence that runs counter to it. Neither Sanger, nor Wolffe, nor Broder, for example, mentioned any of Bush's various well-documented reversals -- be it on the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, steel tariffs, or allowing Condoleezza Rice testify before the 9/11 Commission. Whether you see those decisions as weak and unprincipled flip-flopping or flexible decision-making, they sure don't fit the "strong-but-stubborn" Bush.

The need to stick to the storyline at all costs can cause reporters to make claims that stretch the bounds of credibility. Check out Wolffe of Newsweek following his own logic into an absurd cul-de-sac:
Such contrasts help explain why there are so few don't-knows about the president. In the latest Newsweek poll, just 6 percent said they didn't know if they approved or disapproved of [Bush's] performance as president. In the days before 9/11 that number was 15 percent. John Kerry's don't-knows are 12 percent.
So Bush's "don't-know" figure is lower than that of Kerry. Could it be because Bush has been President of the United States for over three years, while Kerry is still largely unknown to much of the electorate? If anything, the 6-point difference seems smaller than one would expect in a battle against an incumbent.

Besides, Bush's "strong but stubborn" tendencies seem to have gone AWOL lately somewhere over Iraq. First, the administration, which shut the United Nations out of the post-war reconstruction process, is now relying on the same organization to help create an interim Iraqi government to take over on June 30th.

Then, in another major about-face, the top U.S. military commander announced this week on ABC News that we would not, after all, be requiring the services of the former Baathist general, Jasim Mohammed Saleh, to whom we had initially turned last week to restore order in Fallujah. Of course, even the selection of Saleh was a reversal of the previous de-Baathification policy.

Strong but stubborn, huh? Yet, so far we've seen no sign of Sanger, Broder, Wolffe et al. scrambling to revise that framing.

There's more at stake here than the prospect of having to suffer through six more months of "follow-the-pack" journalism and hot-air-as-analysis, unappealing as that prospect may be. Emerging narratives like this have the potential to harden into accepted truths, and to affect the outcome of elections. If previous campaigns are any guide, reporters will devote far more attention to developments that confirm their chosen script than to those that depart from it.

Just ask Al Gore.

In the 2000 campaign, the press settled early on the notion that Gore was simply trying too hard, and so was apt to exaggerate, or even flat-out lie, about his accomplishments. That image, like the "strong-but-stubborn" one for Bush, contained some truth: As early as his 1988 presidential campaign, Gore received a memo from an aide warning him about his tendency to exaggerate his record.

But just as important for the press, Gore's desperate-to-win image offered a compelling contrast with the laid-back Governor of Texas, whose basic honesty was rarely seriously questioned. Bush, according to this storyline, couldn't care less whether he won the race to the White House.

This manufactured contrast had an even greater impact in a general election campaign where substantive policy differences between the two candidates were hard to detect. It made it that much easier for the media to give entirely into its habitually lazy tendency to focus on personality.

The Republican National Committee, aided by some conservative media outlets, consciously worked to further the emerging portrait of Gore, by pushing the story that he had once tried to take credit for "inventing the Internet." The facts instead were as follows: in a Mar. 9, 1999 interview, Gore had told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system."

Was Gore being self-aggrandizing? Undoubtedly. Was he lying? Not at all -- Gore did indeed sponsor legislation in the '80's to study the potential of what we now call the Internet.

But the idea fit the existing image of Gore as a mendacious braggart so perfectly (why else would the RNC have chosen it?) that the press found it too good to pass up. Columnist Steve Neal, writing in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 11, bundled the Internet myth along with another popular canard in a passage that was typical of the media's coverage of Gore:
Whether claiming to have invented the Internet or that Love Story was written about him and Tipper, Gore's misstatements have been self-aggrandizing. When other politicians have stretched the truth, it is on the issues. What is so offensive about Gore's false claims is that they have been about himself.

Can the American people trust anything he says?
Did Gore's reputation for playing fast-and-loose with the truth end up hurting him on Election Day? Consider this: According to CNN exit polls, 24 percent of voters judged whether a candidate was "honest/trustworthy" as the most important factor in determining their vote. Of those voters, 80 percent went for Bush and only 15 percent for Gore. In a separate question, voters were asked which candidate "would say anything." 33 percent picked Gore, compared to only 17 percent who named Bush.

The emerging media narrative for 2004 may serve the GOP just as well. For all its supposed "objectivity", the "strong but stubborn" theme is one Karl Rove and Co. can live with. It's not so very different from the Bush's campaign's own slogan: Steady Leadership in Times of Change.

Zachary Roth is a reporter with .

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