Achievement falters when public relations lag
By Paul M. Weyrich
Last week I was called by two of the more reasonable newspaper reporters from the Old Media whom I have known for some time. If they have an agenda it has not been evident. Both called in puzzlement over what is happening in the Bush Administration. My answer is: I don't know.
This is the eighth President of the United States whom I have had the privilege of observing rather closely. During the first term of President George W. Bush I was in awe. I never had seen such a disciplined, controlled, brilliant Administration. Yes, 9/11 caught the President by surprise yet it took him but a day to recover. He clearly was on top of things from that point out. Only a single Cabinet member, the Secretary of the Treasury, departed and that was because he was at odds with the President's policies. By the way, in that dispute in my opinion Bush clearly was right and the Treasury Secretary clearly wrong.
There was no leak in the first term. For Washington that was so extraordinary that some began to ask if Bush really were the Second Coming. The whole Administration was on message. Regardless of the subject, the entire Administration sang from the same song sheet.
The Administration tackled many controversial issues. It pulled out of the ABM Treaty, said no to the Kyoto Treaty, executed two wars, scuttled United States participation in the so-called International Court of Justice.
Bush '43 was unabashedly pro-life. The Washington media corps is unabashedly pro-abortion. Except for some extreme cartoonists and columnists, Bush never really was tagged as an apostle of the Religious Right. It was an Administration so on track, that despite a year of relentless attacks on the part of the nine Democrats who began running against Bush, in the 2004 general election it drew the largest number of votes in American history. I didn't like it one bit that Bush and company managed to push through Congress the Prescription Drug Benefit. They had enough clout to go against the wishes of their own party. They had made a promise to the American people and they fulfilled it.
The Bush Presidency made history in 2002. An incumbent President is supposed to lose seats in the first off-year election - not many, perhaps, but lose seats a certainty. Not Bush. His Republicans, with his extraordinary help, won back the Senate from the Democrats and increased the margin in the House. In 2004 not only did the President himself win but he became the first President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 to increase his party's margin in both Houses of Congress.
We had come to expect great things from President George W. Bush. Why, then, has his second term been fraught with problems? I had to be honest with these reporters: I don't quite understand it.
The Bush problems presently appear to be mostly public relations. Bush began 2005 with a campaign to reform Social Security. He had not prepared the public or the Congress. Instead of the President's having delivered major speeches on the subject, one of them a prime-time television broadcast, the President, as if conducting an election campaign, traveled to those states in which he thought he could pick up Congressional support. The campaign failed - I think because public relations were inadequate. The Administration's own evaluation of what went wrong with Hurricane Katrina relief was clear enough - mistakes at all levels, many not attributable to the Administration. But the biggest mistake was the Administration's public relations.
Then there was the Harriet Meirs nomination. If the Administration wanted her to be confirmed, instead of treating her as a stealth candidate, it should have laid the groundwork over several weeks, during which her work as Counsel to the President could have been highlighted. Instead, this fine lady, who by all accounts is competent and dedicated, was torn, one limb after another, until she herself realized that she might have been utterly destroyed if she had proceeded to hearings, so she withdrew. The nomination as handled reflected inadequate public relations.
And there was Vice President Richard B. Cheney. Putting aside the media circus and its gross overreaching, how could the Administration have failed to put the Vice President out there sooner? Much of the media circus would have been avoided. Supposedly the President talked the Veep into his interview on the Fox News Channel. Great. But why the delay? Again, inadequate public relations.
We now see the Ports issue. Regardless of whether turning some of our most important seaports over to an Arab nation which once recognized the Taliban, which did not recognize Israel, which funded terrorism, whence came a couple of the 9/11 hijackers, but which now well may be a most reliable partner in the War against Terrorism, is wise or unwise, one would have thought that the Administration would have been prepared to handle an inevitable public relations firestorm.
This was not the secret transaction which the Administration initially asserted. It was discussed openly in financial news media as far back as October. Administration public relations, if alert, would have foreseen a firestorm. Instead, we were treated to the spectacle of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) turning the tables on Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl C. Rove, who had accused most Democrats of having a pre-9/11 mentality, by suggesting that the Administration itself had a pre-9/11 mentality by lack of concern as to Ports administration. I don't accept the Clinton allegation and the Administration may have a case for continuing the Ports transaction. Had that been publicized early on, no doubt there would be far less firestorm.
What does it do to instill confidence in the American people when stories surface that neither the President nor Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff knew about the Ports deal until they read it in the papers? Chertoff found that one of his deputies had approved the deal without notifying the Secretary. The President thus had to check with all 14 agencies which had signed off on the Ports deal to evaluate whether they really were comfortable with it.
There are lesser examples but it is difficult to understand how this Administration has gone from one of the smartest, most competent, most pro-active to an Administration which looks as if it took PR lessons from Jimmy Carter.
Who is minding the store? Do we have a government run by a group of nameless, faceless bureaucrats who formulate policy which the President then is tasked with defending?
I have no use for the media corps which simply hates George W. Bush so much that it will use any pretext to destroy him. NBC's David Gregory is the poster child for that crowd. The two reporters who telephoned me were not looking to destroy Bush. They were genuinely trying to figure out what had happened to that model of discipline and action, Bush '43. I couldn't help them much because I don't know enough about the current situation inside the White House. Have Karl Rove's problems unduly distracted him? That seems unlikely as Rove's alleged troubles appear to be behind him. Is Andrew H. Card, the Chief of Staff, worn out? It would be amazing if he were not. He has lived a grueling schedule for more than five years - longer than any Chief of Staff since Sherman Adams in the Eisenhower Administration. Are we feeling the effects of the absence of Karen Hughes? I doubt it. Maybe it is none of these things. Maybe it is all of them or more.
Why should anyone care? Because this series of events and the possibility of more threaten to make Bush a premature lame duck. If Republicans manage to hang on to Congress (doubtful at this point) Bush would have the balance of this year and all 2007 before he would be regarded as a lame duck. In 2008 everyone will go his own way. At that time the President immediately will be a lame duck, although if the 110th Congress also were Republican he could avoid the extremities of that condition.
If this unraveling were to continue and Bush were to become a premature lame duck Republican loss of Congress would become a certainty. And if Bush were to face a Democratic Congress he would have two of the most miserable years any human being could face as though Bush were another Justice Alito and the hearings persisted for two years. Some leftwing Representatives in Congress are serious about impeachment. It would be nothing but one big oversight hearing, spotlighting the terrible things Bush supposedly had done, calculated solely to pave the way for a November 2008 change in parties in the White House.
For the sake of the nation, unless one is a bitter partisan, let's hope the Bush Administration gets its act back together. The first four years demonstrated Bush's remarkable capability. The pending problem disproportionately is public relations, not substance.
Paul M. Weyrich is the Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
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