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President Bush Launches New PR Offensive on Iraq

March 24, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, is the captain right? Is Iraq leading to a further divide between the civilian and military societies of our country?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I don’t think there’s any question, Jim, and the contrast between Vietnam and Iraq is pervasive and obvious.

Then, when the specter of the draft and being brought into service, oftentimes against their will became a high moral issue for many people to crusade against the Vietnam War, and the apathy, I think, this time is a reflection of that.

JIM LEHRER: And he said, the captain said, David, also that it’s an intellectual exercise rather than a personal exercise, because there are so few people who are directly affected.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Right. Well, you see that if you go in areas of the country where there’s heavy military presence, that Iraq is so much in the media thing, a personal thing, that their families are sacrificing for. You go to other parts of the country, and it’s something you read about in the paper.

And the other element of this, and one of the captains said this, was the hostility toward the media, which you hear all the time from people who are over there. And that actually also is worrying, the tremendous hatred a lot of the people now have for us in the media.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read that, Mark? The president’s made the case; the vice president made the case; we just heard it here again; and, also, some of the Iraqi-Americans in Chicago told Elizabeth Brackett that the same way, this negative stuff about Iraq has taken a toll.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think the last defense any time a policy has failed is shooting the messenger. And I don’t think there’s any question about that.

I mean, it wasn’t the media that said there were weapons of mass destruction; it wasn’t the media that said we’d be welcomed as liberators; it wasn’t the media — you know, any number of these things.

That was done by the administration. These were all administration policies, administration decisions.

And I just wanted to read from you, just so I get it absolutely straight, because this, to me, really said the whole thing. It said — and this is a quote, a direct quote — “Bombings, executions, killings, kidnappings, shootings and intimidation are a daily occurrence throughout all regions and sectors of Iraqi society. An illustrative list of these attacks could scarcely reflect the broad dimension of the violence.”

That is from Condoleezza Rice’s State Department’s March report on the condition of human rights in Iraq. And, if anything, to that 24-page report — I recommend it to everybody — it reflects a situation far more serious than the American press has reflected, in large part because the American press has not been able, in many cases, to leave the Green Zone to comment on it.

JIM LEHRER: David, how do you think — what do you think about this, the connection between public opinion going against the war and what the press is doing about the covering of the war?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess I’d say two things. First, one doesn’t want to say that things in Iraq are rosy and the media is picking out the awful things. Nonetheless, one does hear tremendous — from almost every serviceman and woman I see over there — this idea that we go and cover the bombings, but they see the bombings. They see the assassination, but they also see the stores, and they see the people shopping. So they see a complex picture; all we cover is the bombings.

As if, if you turned on any city on the 11:00 news, all you would see is fires, you’d think there were fires everywhere. So I do think there is a gap between the complexity of the reality of Iraq and what we see; that doesn’t mean that the media is manufacturing the chaos over there. Everybody also says there’s tremendous chaos over there.

JIM LEHRER: And how does the…

MARK SHIELDS: I’d just say, imagine, if you would, that the Washington National Cathedral had been blown up, and that every day in the United States, which is 12 times the size of Iraq, there were 500 people found executed. Now, what do you think would dominate? Do you think the opening of the new Wal-Mart and Cankiki (ph), a junior high addition, the hospital drive would lead the news?

I mean, this is big stuff. I mean, these are people being executed every single day there, and that is natural that that’s going to be covered.


DAVID BROOKS: Right, of course. But there’s also — I mean, I’m not denying that. But there’s also a construction or a semi-construction of society which is also an important thing that’s happening in Iraq, and that part’s just harder to cover because it’s every day, it’s invisible.

I don’t want to say, as some talk radio show guys do, that the media is — it’s wonderful over there, but the media, the media, the media. I don’t want to go in that direction. But it’s just harder to cover invisible, untelegenic, social trends.

JIM LEHRER: The president has been on the offensive all week. He started with these news conferences, and he’s been out every day. He was out again today. How is he doing, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the president is on a public relations offensive, and for good reason. The president has fallen precipitously in public opinion polls on the question of his integrity and his honesty. And…

JIM LEHRER: And I was talking specifically about the war.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. So, in other words, for him to make the case for the war, he has to — he’s trying to restore that. He’s trying to show the George Bush that people originally liked.

They don’t like him nearly as much as they did, so that’s what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to rebuild, remind people why you liked me once. I mean, “I was candid; I was natural, I was”…

JIM LEHRER: “I’m still here,” right.

MARK SHIELDS: … “I was unaffected,” and all of these things.

And I think, probably, if he was trying to reassure his Republican base, and particularly Republican officeholders who are very, very nervous about the November elections, I don’t think the two comments that he made at the press conference about troops being there until 2009, which was one of the leads, is going to be terribly reassuring.

And the fact that he was spending all his political capital — which is a very candid statement — on Iraq, I don’t think those reassured those nervous Nellies that the White House might call them up on Capitol Hill, who are meeting in the Republican caucus every Tuesday.


DAVID BROOKS: I would say among, in Republican Land, there was a morale boost, because the president was coming out and coming out candidly, not with clichés of evil-doers, but he was actually coming out as a genuine person, as himself.

And so his exchange with Helen Thomas at the press conference. There was also a lot of talk about an event in West Virginia, where he was just more candid revealing somewhat how he privately talks about the war.

And I think there was a great sense, finally, as Mark said, this is the guy we saw in the campaign and have not seen since then. And I think it’s important for him to get out more and more, because what’s changed — and especially among Republicans on Capitol Hill, but elsewhere — is there’s been a greater sense that the culture of the Arab world and the culture of Iraq is just not compatible with democracy.

And a lot of that is because of the violence. A lot of that is because of the cartoon, the Danish cartoon controversy. Some of that is because of this Afghan guy who might be killed for converting to Christianity.

There’s been a greater sense that these people are culturally different from us, and it’s just crazy to think we can spread democracy to that part of the world. And I think that’s one thing, actually, you do not hear from the soldiers and the Marines, no matter what their greater view of the war, and it’s something the president has begun to hit.

That, I think, is how opinion has shifted recently, dismissiveness, and it’s been measurable in the polls towards the entire Arab world, if not the Muslim world.

JIM LEHRER: And, thus, the president gets dismissed, as well, when he’s talking about it? Is that what you’re saying?

DAVID BROOKS: It just seems pie in the sky to think — if you have this presumption about the Arab world, it seems crazy to think we can go there and fix such a crazy part of the world.

JIM LEHRER: I hate to quote another columnist to two columnists, but David Ignatius had a column this morning in the Washington Post in which he essentially said that President Bush has lost his ability to communicate. Do you agree with him?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he’s got a real problem communicating, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: It’s based on the news conference — David, it’s based on the news conference and these events that you talked about.

MARK SHIELDS: And what has happened is, in Andy Kohut’s Pew poll, they asked a wonderful question: “What single word would you use to describe George Bush, as you see him, how you feel about him?” And “honest” had been the top word, 38 percent, two out of five voters, basically.

Then it fell to a third who said that. And “incompetent” was second. This was over the last year and a half, actually, since January of 2005. And now “incompetent” is number one, and “honest” has fallen all the way to sixth; only 14 percent say “honest” is the word that comes to mind.

And this is a real problem for the president. In between are words like “idiot” to describe him. So the president’s effectiveness in communicating — there’s a sense that he’s locked in, and he’s locked in, in a way, he’s locked into this policy.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I’m a little…

JIM LEHRER: Can he communicate his way out of this?

DAVID BROOKS: No, of course not. I mean, and I’ve become a little upset with the media — everybody should be upset with the media, I guess — the decadence of turning everything to a message-handling issue.

This is like 95 percent substance, and a little bit of how Bush talks about it. And he could be talk about it — he could be, you know, Abraham Lincoln or, I don’t know, Shakespeare — and if we see the violence and if Iraq is the way Iraq is, it doesn’t matter. So, you know, I…

JIM LEHRER: So the answer is he can do all the great — he can have a great press conference and a great whatever, and as long as people are dying in Iraq the way they are now, nothing’s going to change. Is that what you’re saying?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, absolutely.

MARK SHIELDS: And I’d add this: Captain Broussard, in that interview with Margaret, said how we keep changing the definition of victory and what our objective is.

I mean, as you read it now, it has really shrunk. It’s down, basically, to we want to create an Iraqi force that can control, or at least contend with, the insurgency and present some sort of stability. That’s a long way from regional democracy and the flowering of this new order or a democratic government functioning well.

I mean, I think that there’s a constant moving of the goalpost closer and closer to…

DAVID BROOKS: That I don’t agree with. I think they still see that the elections were the key accomplishment, that getting the unity government was the key accomplishment, that going through a democratic process around the Middle East is still the key accomplishment.

You can’t get to a stable Iraq without some sort of Iraq where Iraqis feel dignified by their government and feel a part of it. You can’t get to a stable Iraq simply through dictatorship. So the security is a huge part of it, but having a government where Iraqis feel dignified, that they feel is legitimate, is also a necessary part of getting to stability.

JIM LEHRER: New subject before we go, David: immigration. The House has voted on it; Senate’s going to take it up next week. Where is it going, do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I have forebodings about this. I think this is a period of maximum danger for the Republican Party. To do OK in ’06, they really have to win back their own base, and the loudest part of their base wants enforcement at the border and no guest-worker program. And as we go into the Senate…

JIM LEHRER: And for the record, the president wants that.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, he wants both.


DAVID BROOKS: And I fear that the Senate, in a desperate political move, driven by this fear of what’s going to happen, is going to go hard on security, ignore the guest-worker program, and not only pass a terrible bill, but also just destroy their political prospects over the long term in the Southwest and Florida, wherever there are Hispanics in this country.

This is a volatile period for the party, and they’re holding on to sanity by, you know, a little thread here.


MARK SHIELDS: I think it is — I think it’s more than a problem for the Republican Party. I think it’s a problem for the nation. And we’re confronting this issue, which is a divisive issue and a thorny issue, at a time of great anxiety in the country. It’s economic anxiety, it’s personal security anxiety…

JIM LEHRER: It’s what we’ve been talking about this last several minutes.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly right. And I think that’s really a terrible context in which to discuss this painful, painful issue. And I think you’re seeing 2008 politics played. I think Senator Frist has decided to play that card already.

JIM LEHRER: He’s got his own bill; he’s going to bring it up next week.

MARK SHIELDS: He’s got his own bill, and it would be tougher. And you see already — I mean, the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahoney, calling for civil disobedience among his own clergy, that if it comes down to feeding or clothing impoverished immigrants, which the House bill basically makes this a felony if I provide soup or supper to somebody, a woman who comes in with her children, if she’s an undocumented immigrant.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see this as an issue, David, that goes way beyond the Southwest? I mean, it could be — forget parties, necessarily, but just ordinary Americans who don’t have any direct involvement in an immigration issue, really, just taken really very direct different positions on this?

DAVID BROOKS: If you go to town meetings, it comes up. If it’s not the first issue, it just comes up again and again and again. I don’t care where you are.

It comes up for a number of reasons, for the economic society, for a sense of lawlessness — we have no control over who’s coming into this country — a sense of budget anxiety, that immigrants are putting strain on education and medical care.

It comes up in a whole range of aspects of life, not to mention the culture. Is our culture changing? These are all — you know, as Mark says — these are incredibly tricky, a lot of these issues…

JIM LEHRER: And the other side is saying, hey, we have these millions and millions of people here who are contributing to society…

MARK SHIELDS: Contributing, working.

JIM LEHRER: … and what do we want to do, kick them out and put them in jail, whatever?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. And George W. Bush would do well to remind Republicans of the lesson of Pete Wilson in California in 1994.

DAVID BROOKS: And to be fair, I think Bush has been statesman on this.

MARK SHIELDS: Bush has been very strong on this. In 1994, when the Republicans played that card in the race, short term, that it’s taken California out of the presidential competitiveness.

JIM LEHRER: I’m now playing the good-bye card.