So it's official - George W. Bush has now spent more time wearing military attire during his presidency than he ever did when he was supposedly in the military.
Bush's secret visit to the troops in Iraq over Thanksgiving weekend had all the camera-ready news value of a check-passing photo. And that's essentially what we got - Bush in an Army jumpsuit serving chow (a plastic display, as it turns out, simply for the sake of cameras) just long enough to capture that oil-slick grin on tape. On a so-called slow-news Saturday, the images were plastered on every front page and televised "lead story" in the country.
I don't understand how the troops saw Bush's visit as a morale-builder, labeled as such by a few of the soldiers hand-picked to dine with their commander in grief. But as a journalist, I fear the fangs just beginning to bear beneath the news media's gums are simply baby teeth.
Bush doesn't need to raise $250 million for an election campaign (we can't really call it a re-election, can we?) when a thumb-sucking press delivers the kind of honey-glazed news Americans were fed for Thanksgiving. For all the intimidated hand-wringing over the pending avalanche of advertising from Bush, Democrats should far more fear the press.
Mainstream newsrooms, by and large, have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to acknowledge even the most benign of sad truths about this administration. On one greased palm alone, we can count off the broad categories of misdeeds reporters are downplaying, rationalizing or ignoring - the insidious favors and giveaways to big business, the choking of public institutions, the erosion of our environmental protections, the attacks on social justice and economic equality, the slow crippling of Medicare.
Perhaps these stories are so obvious, because they line the very bedrock of Bush's administration, news organizations don't see them as stories but rather as dead horses. Reporters aren't hammering Bush with the tough questions because they're afraid he'll get mad, afraid his staff will take away their access, afraid they won't have jobs if they cross a line of respect, afraid no good will come of it.
Attack ads notwithstanding, I can't wait to see the commercials that come from Bush's election campaign. Admittedly, $250 million can bury America in a lot of waste product, but thanks to Bush's faith-based attacks on bio-engineering, he won't be able to turn that chicken crap into chicken salad.
So what supposed accomplishments, exactly, can Bush trumpet through advertising: Success in the war on terror? Strike 1. A robust economy with jobs aplenty? Strike 2. Protecting the sanctity of marriage? Oh, how we wish he were out.
I don't fear Bush's advertising onslaught because I don't believe there are many Americans left who are vulnerable to it. If you're not already committed to voting for Bush in 2004, if after three years you're not already convinced you want four more, what can Bush say or do at this point to rope you onto his side of the fence?
As it is now, as many people are committed to voting against Bush, regardless whoever opposes him on the presidential ballot, as there are who plan to vote for him. More telling, the roughly 20 percent of Americans who consider themselves "undecided voters" have actually decided with their declared indecision - they're not happy with Bush. It doesn't take Karl Rove to see which direction the scales will tilt once one figure emerges from the Democratic pack and people - decideds and undecideds alike - can focus on his promises of real hope and change.
The potential X factor is the press. For a hint of the journalism we might see in 2004, grab a copy of "Journeys with George," Alexandra Pelosi's video documentary following Bush's first presidential campaign. At their most aggressive, reporters on Bush's trail slapped him with feather gloves. More commonly, they forgave his gaffes, his record in Texas, the inconsistent and unintelligible statements and myriad weaknesses in policy, and gushed over him.
Scenes of Bush and the filmmaker flirting with one another are enough to crawl your skin, but when Pelosi has the nerve during a press conference to toss a relatively challenging question at Bush's direction - about the death penalty in Texas - not only does Bush shun her afterward, so do Pelosi's peers in the press. Not until Bush lifts his personal sanction days later, in a moment of creepy, patronizing benevolence, do Pelosi's pals welcome her back into their insular, fraternal fold.
From the documentary, it's clear reporters following Bush wanted him to win. They genuinely liked him and, more important, believed their jobs would roll over into positions in the White House press corps. Conversely, reporters covering Al Gore's campaign saw Gore as cold and distanced and treated him with the same regard. The tones of coverage spilling from each camp couldn't have contrasted more nor, in turn, could have the public perceptions of both candidates as people.
For all the potential positives of a Howard Dean nomination, I already see reporters and columnists illustrating far more vigor and scrutiny with him than they ever did during Bush's run for office, let alone his presidency. Of course, that's the ideal behavior of the press - to view power with suspicion and hold our leaders accountable for their motives, actions and inactions. It's not too late to see this happen with Bush.
I don't expect the greater public to pick up the mantle of media reform, but our greatest hope for the mainstream press - our daily newspapers and network news affiliates - is a healthy and strong independent press.
Months before reporters working in the mainstream media looked on the war in Iraq with anything sharper than a patriotic telescope, progressive publications such as The Nation, American Prospect and Mother Jones informed people about the bent and invented intelligence coming from the Bush administration and emboldened a public otherwise chastened into silence to stay vigilant and learn more.
It's not just the war - independent media are routinely the first to shed light on the ills of Bush's tax cuts, environmental policies, education initiatives, domestic security plans, and positions on global free trade. Try finding an independent news outlet that fell for Bush's Thanksgiving charade.
Voices diverging from the will of the powerful will always be pushed to the margins, but people are pushing back. The struggle to overturn the FCC's proposed loosening of media ownership rules has come from the ground up, and 2,000 people within academics and independent media strategized in November at the first National Conference on Media Reform. The ultimate goal: Repeal of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which opened the floodgates of consolidation and, among other wrongs, gave birth to media superpower Clear Channel.
We haven't seen the last of Bush playing dress-up, but we can shame him and a complicit press out of their world of make-believe.
Matt Peiken is an arts and features writer at the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. Reach him at email@example.com
Copyright 2003 mattpeiken.com