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Can George Bush win back the press?

For the first time in his political career, George W. Bush finds himself in an uncomfortable position: he has to deal with the press on terms, not his. By Howard Fineman.

For the first time in his political career, George W. Bush finds himself in an uncomfortable position: he has to deal with the press on its terms, not his. For such a proud, controlling –- and, some would say arrogant -– guy, meeting the media at least half way won’t be easy. But he has no choice if he wants the last third of his presidency to amount to much. Bush has the charm to succeed, but the effort may require more candor than he can afford, more humility than he has, and more changes in policy than he will allow.

“The first thing I need to do,” Tony Snow told me the other night,” is to stop the tribal warfare.” Okay, I asked the soon-to-be White House press secretary, which tribes he was talking about? “The press office tribe versus the press corps,” he answered. (The conversation was at a FOX News party, a magnet for Bushies, Republicans and DWNM – Democrats Who Need Murdoch -- chief among them Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.)

But to stop the tribal warfare, Snow needs to understand a few things about the chief of his own new tribe. The first stems from the arc of the Boss’s time in politics. From the early days of his first run for governor, until now, the last thing Bush needed was press. Coverage contained more risks than benefits.

When Bush stepped onto the stage for the first time in Texas in 1993, his father had been out of the Oval Office for less than a year. Bush the Younger had 100 percent name ID in the state (even if a lot of voters confused the father and the son). His dad’s approval ratings there were nearly as high, especially among Republicans. Everybody knew, and most people liked, the Bush Brand.

In that situation, Bush reasoned, no press is good press. Most politicians start out in obscurity. They need to build a base, raise money and establish an identity by explaining their policies and how they add up to a vision for the country. Bush never needed to generate attention so that he could raise money and make a name for himself. He already had both. Policy proposals could be issued as press releases. To be sure, he needed to do some serious, person-to-person politicking, including (especially) with conservative and religious groups. But he didn’t need, or want, a press entourage for such events.

For Bush and his handlers, the challenge was never to attract the media beast, but to guide and tame it. To do the latter, the Bush method was and is to see the media – as every other sphere of life – in black and white terms: there are friends and…everyone else. Access, such as it was, went to friends, to familiar people with whom Bush had dealt and for whom he had built up a modicum of trust.

In the 2000 campaign, he dealt with the media by turning his press plane into a fraternity/sorority house – BTB, Beta Theta Bush. Charming and self-deprecating when he wants to be, Bush understood the psychology of the plane, which was that, if you can be a decent enough fellow, most of the reporters who commit a year or more to covering your campaign eventually – whether they realize it or not – conclude that they want you to be president. Drawing on his Yale frat-president skills, he effectively anesthetized the plane.

As a result, Bush came to Washington with his press theory fixed: I don’t need the coverage, and to the extent I do, I can control it from the top down – from the forward cabin back. Of course, things don’t work that way in the White House. The world is too big, the press corps is too various, the issues come too fast and furious. It’s not black and white; you confront a world of suspicious gray.

The new president was on the verge of discovering that grim (but necessary) reality when 9/11 struck. That event put Bush back in firm control of press dynamics, and gave him the chance to assert new news-management power in the name of security. Suddenly, Bush was at the center of – and controlled access to – the biggest story of our time, the rise of Bin Ladenism and America’s military response to it. Bush suddenly had control of what everybody wanted: access (or at least information about) what was going on in busy, fateful Situation Rooms in Washington and battlefields across the planet.

Once again, it seemed, the press needed Bush more than Bush needed them. Deftly, shrewdly, his White House rationalized (and rationed) access to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and won praise from the media outlets favored with the new condition called “embedding.” It seemed like a triumph. And the “war presidency” remained in top-down, friends-versus-enemy media mode for a long time.

Other factors kept that attitude locked in. The conservative base remained solid, so who needs the “mainstream” media? The urgency of National Security concerns would keep the probing of investigative reporting to a minimum. “Unfriendlies” in the press could be dealt with by 1) denying them or their organizations precious access; 2) giving leaks and access to others; and 3) discrediting loose cannons such as Joe Wilson of the New York Times op-ed page, with other leaks. Indeed, as the benign forms of control have lost their potency (“embedding” in Iraq has lost the appeal it once had, for example), the administration is turning to tougher tactics in the name of wartime security: issuing subpoenas to reporters to get  their notes in a variety of “leak” cases across the city.

So what does Tony Snow need to do to “stop the tribal warfare?”

  • Tell the president that this isn’t Texas any more, and never really was.
  • Put him back on the campaign plane, so to speak. The press corps is a global phenomenon – the whole planet is an unwieldy “plane.” And the reporters are unhappy. I got a sense of that recently by participating in an Aspen Institute panel at the State Department with top reporters from around the world. Their attitude toward America (and the American press corps) was nothing short of acidic. Bush has no choice but to try to create a shared sense of mission, in this case for the survival of freedom. And that means more contact with them than he has ever had as president – in circumstances where he can’t be in full control.
  • Encourage the president to talk much more frankly about the war in Iraq. There is progress to crow about -– the forging of a new government, for example -– but that element of the story won’t get traction without candor about the rest.
  • Stop the dragnet of subpoenas to reporters. I know: there are security concerns, legitimate ones. But it’s the administration’s job to stop the leaks, not the reporters’ job to ignore them. And you can’t blithely leak when you feel it serves your purposes, and then expect the press to support you when you go after reporters for printing leaks you didn’t like.