Managing President Bush’s Message
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ARI FLEISCHER: Good afternoon.
REPORTER: Why do you look so happy? (Laughter)
TERENCE SMITH: In announcing his resignation on Monday, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said he looked forward to an easier life.
ARI FLEISCHER: It occurred to me that something more restful, more relaxing, would be now to wrestle alligators for a living. There’s a lot more relaxation in that than some of the things that you get to do here.
TERENCE SMITH: Fleischer has been wrestling with the White House press corps for two and a half years.
ARI FLEISCHER: Thank you for continuing the pain.
TERENCE SMITH: Despite kind words lavished on Fleischer by reporters on Monday, relations between many in the press corps and the leak-averse Bush administration are frequently contentious.
ARI FLEISCHER: Greg? Greg?
REPORTER: Why won’t you answer the question about whether or not you say there’s going to be consequences?
ARI FLEISCHER: Because, David, there are other qualified reporters in here, too, to follow up.
REPORTER: I’m saying you’re running it like it’s homeroom, like we can’t follow up when you’re refusing to answer a question that’s been posed twice to you directly.
TERENCE SMITH: Tension between press and presidents is not new.
REPORTER: If I could follow up on that, Ari.
TERENCE SMITH: But the Bush team is renowned for its firm grip on information, and the care it takes in projecting the presidential image. For this White House, all the world is a stage. The most recent example: The president’s trip to the carrier “Abraham Lincoln.” It was political theater many political professionals described as the most extraordinary showcasing of a president in recent history. The message of his speech, announcing the end of major combat in Iraq, seemed to take second place to the image of the commander-in-chief with his troops.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The problem I want to talk about today….
TERENCE SMITH: On the road, the central message of the presidential speech is often boiled down to a short phrase, printed over and again on the backdrop: From pitching for healthcare in Scranton, to homeland security in Philadelphia -
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It is great to be with the hard working people…
TERENCE SMITH: Touting his defense package in Ohio, the president symbolically linked economic security and national security. And last August, in a speech at Mount Rushmore, cameras were strategically placed to frame the president against the mountain and four of his legendary predecessors.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are: Elisabeth Bumiller, White House correspondent for the “New York Times”; and Michael Deaver, former deputy chief of staff during the first Reagan administration, and currently vice chairman of Edelman Worldwide. Welcome to you both. Elisabeth, Ari Fleischer was the public face of this administration. What does his departure mean or what will it mean for the message control and message flow in this administration?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, in the short word, nothing. ( Laughs ) but what it means is that the message flow from this White House is really controlled by the president. And the reason that Ari would get up behind the podium every day and not veer from his message of the day was because that was his job as the president saw it. And whoever gets behind the podium after Ari will do the exact same thing because that’s the kind of press secretary the president wants.
TERENCE SMITH: Mike Deaver, you’ve seen a lot of press secretaries. How would you rate his effectiveness?
MICHAEL DEAVER: Right at the top. Yes, he was controlled and disciplined, but he was unflappable. And it was very credible to the person out there watching it. This guy knew what he was talking about, and had a firmness about that in a very nice way.
TERENCE SMITH: In those moments when it became contentious between Ari and reporters in the press room because they weren’t getting the information that they wanted, how does that play?
MICHAEL DEAVER: Look, we’ve seen it. We’ve seen it with press secretaries for a long time because that press opportunity has been open to television. So, I don’t think it makes a lot of difference to the American public. They understand it’s a game; that the White House is only going to say so much, and the press is going to keep digging.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you think Elisabeth, is there any down side to it?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: I think… people used to tell me, they would say that Ari was very rigid, and they would say there was no information coming out. But I would like to say here that what the American people see, which is this exchange every day on television, which 20 years ago was not on television, is not the only way, as you know, you cover the White House. It was a very small part of what I did every day and what I do every day. There is this perception that whatever Ari gives us, is that we just write it down and put it in the newspaper and then we go home. And that’s as you know, not the truth at all.
But the difference is in the old days before the briefing was televised, there was more give and take. The press secretaries were more able to be discursive and to explain a little more of the ideas behind the administration policy. And that you don’t get now, partly because that’s the way the president wants it, and partly because the television camera really, kind of corners you, I think.
MICHAEL DEAVER: There is also a huge difference today, more so than any presidency, and that is, Ari you said was the face, but George W. Bush is really the face of this administration. You don’t see chiefs of staffs and deputy chiefs of staff and others in the White House or even in the cabinet talking about policy. It is one voice, it is George W. Bush.
TERENCE SMITH: And what Elisabeth was talking about, this larger picture, how does that play into the information flow?
MICHAEL DEAVER: Well, you mean the fact that there are other opportunities and so forth. Of course it plays into it. And I don’t know what the access is to the president for one-on- ones and small groups in the Oval Office.
TERENCE SMITH: You can tell us.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: It depends on who you work for. ( Laughs )
TERENCE SMITH: Really?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: …You write for, yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Who should you work for, write for to get into the oval office?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Of course President Bush does interviews. Not one recently with the “New York Times.” He does them with the large newspapers and with the networks. He doesn’t do them very often, and he doesn’t do them as much as President Clinton did. And he doesn’t, as we all know, hold very many press conferences.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. What about Elisabeth’s other point about putting the briefing on television, which essentially was done during the Clinton administration, stripped it away of the freedom to be, what did you say, discursive, and for a greater flow of information?
MICHAEL DEAVER: Well, I’m not sure it has changed it a great deal. I used to sit in and watch those things when they weren’t televised and they were about the same. I mean, it really is the press secretary does a lot of work before he goes in there by talking to the president and by talking to others in key positions. They get their position down, and he knows he’s not going to vary from that. If he does, he is not going to be the guy walking out there the next day. So I don’t think it has changed a lot.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: I think there was more give and take, even in the Reagan White House. I think there was more back-and-forth. And I also think that the press has changed, too. If you’re on television– you know, I’m very aware that my questions are televised, so I’m going to be less reluctant to be obnoxious. Let’s be honest.
MICHAEL DEAVER: It never bothered Sam.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: You don’t want to be overly antagonistic if you know you are on television. So it is just looser without the television there.
TERENCE SMITH: This administration, Elisabeth, has a reputation of being very tightly controlled, very tight with the flow of information and having very few leaks. Justified? Justified reputation?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Yes, unfortunately. Unfortunately it’s a very hard White House to cover as a reporter. It is a challenge to cover this White House. Information is held within a very, very small group of people, handful of people in the west wing, and they generally don’t talk. I spend a lot of time on the phone with people on Capitol Hill, with people at the State Department, with people in other agencies, and you just have to work around this White House.
TERENCE SMITH: Triangulate, as they say.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: As all reporters have done for years. This one is just more so now.
TERENCE SMITH: Yeah. Sound familiar?
MICHAEL DEAVER: No, I’ve never seen anything like it.
TERENCE SMITH: This one?
MICHAEL DEAVER: Never seen anything like this White House.
TERENCE SMITH: Explain.
MICHAEL DEAVER: In our administration, Baker did a regular Friday day…
TERENCE SMITH: James Baker.
MICHAEL DEAVER: …James Baker, chief of staff, had regular appointments. Edwin Meese did the same thing. I had appointments with media throughout the week. That doesn’t happen in this administration.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Mike is right. I remember because I was around in those days working for another newspaper, and he’s right. I go back and I look at those stories I wrote, and I can’t believe how you guys were talking. Now, they were also spinning wildly and well. But…
MICHAEL DEAVER: I would say we were rounding out the story.
TERENCE SMITH: Your point earlier was that this control is dictated from the top town.
MICHAEL DEAVER: Absolutely. President Reagan would get frustrated by what he called “the leaks,” but he didn’t do a lot about it. This president wouldn’t tolerate it.
TERENCE SMITH: Elisabeth, in an article in the “Times” recently, you wrote of the extraordinary lengths to which the White House goes to frame the picture, so to speak, hiring lighting experts and setting it up so that the president looks his very best. Tell us a little bit about that.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, Michael Deaver over here was, Deaver’s children, in essence, these people working in the White House now, they all learned from the first term of Ronald Reagan. But they’ve done some pretty extraordinary things. They’ve rented these giant lights that you use to light rock concerts. And my favorite story was they took them over on barges across New York Harbor and tethered them at the Statue of Liberty and blasted them upward at the statue so you could see the Statue of Liberty, America’s ultimate symbol of freedom illuminated behind the shoulder of President Bush when he gave his anniversary speech on September 11, 2002. They’ve done similar things in Europe.
One of their real trademarks is when the president speaks around the country, behind him, you see the message of the day — and over and over again on the backdrop, strengthening the economy, helping small business. So if you just happen to catch a few moments of television on the news that night, and you don’t hear what the president says, you see the message.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, as the father of this sort of thing, how do you…
MICHAEL DEAVER: I think it’s absolutely brilliant. Look, if they weren’t doing this, they wouldn’t be at 70 percent. If they weren’t doing this, they would be criticized. If they weren’t doing this, the Democrats would have an issue with them because it wouldn’t be working. 80 percent of the public gets all their information from television. And we, the president, the White House, now have to compete with fifty to five hundred channels every time the person turns his channel selector on. So it better be interesting, entertaining, look good or they’re going to switch off and watch something else.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a thing as going too far? I mean, the “Abraham Lincoln” was — the landing on the carrier was certainly controversial.
MICHAEL DEAVER: Look, it has to be credible. This president, I think, is the only one who could have gotten away with it except maybe Teddy Roosevelt. It has to be believable or the people are going to say it’s not real.
TERENCE SMITH: And framing Mount Rushmore?
MICHAEL DEAVER: That may have gone a little too far.
TERENCE SMITH: A little over the top?
MICHAEL DEAVER: It was a little over the top.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you get a sense that the public responds positively or negatively to all of is this?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: I wrote a story recently about this and got e-mails in both directions. A lot of Democrats said “this is terrible, this is awful, how can this go on” — that there was such staging of the president. But on the other hand, Bill Clinton did it, too. I mean Bill Clinton was pretty good at this. We just… I think what happened this time is that we all notice it because of the “Abraham Lincoln” and I began, you know, collecting some really good stories about it. But I have a sense that of course the Democrats are upset about it. And they complained a lot, as you remember, about the “Abraham Lincoln” and really criticized the president about this very expensive political stunt.
TERENCE SMITH: Using an aircraft carrier, in effect, as a prop.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: As a prop for his future campaign.
TERENCE SMITH: You’re smiling.
MICHAEL DEAVER: They’re critical because it’s working. That’s the problem.
TERENCE SMITH: And you feel it really is contributing to his standing in the polls?
MICHAEL DEAVER: No question. No question. And they understand that because people get their information from looking at that box, those people in the White House are filling up that space around the box so it amplifies whatever the president is saying. So they’re seeing and hearing it.
TERENCE SMITH: The public doesn’t find this as cynical or manipulative?
MICHAEL DEAVER: I hate to tell you this, but television is an entertainment medium, not a news medium. I know…
TERENCE SMITH: I’m shocked.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Perhaps the readers… there were a lot of letters in the “New York Times” after I wrote the story, and they found it cynical and manipulative. But, I guess there was a “New York Times”-CBS News poll where we asked this very question. Do you approve of what the president did on the “Abraham Lincoln,” and almost 60 percent said yes, they agreed about the president, it was the right thing to do and they didn’t see it as a method of political gain.
MICHAEL DEAVER: Why do you think the “New York Times” has gone to colored photography.
TERENCE SMITH: Exactly, it’s all Mike Deaver’s work. Mike Deaver and Elisabeth Bumiller, thank you very much.