Two years ago this month, Vanity Fair published a photo spread of the Bush White House by photographer Annie Leibovitz. The pictures displayed President Bush and members of his Cabinet in somber poses usually reserved for Hollywood's famous recovering alcoholics or J.D. Salinger-like recluses who've finally agreed to reveal themselves, but who also need to plug something -- a new book, a new movie, a clothing line. It was a startling combination of celebrity voyeurism and political PR, and it did the trick. The administration that had bumbled through its first year, as if it had indeed been led by a recovering alcoholic feeling his way to relevance, now looked as if it had found a purpose. It had a couple of wars to plug. Americans bought in.
The Leibovitz spread was one clothing layer removed from pornographic. It worked so well that newsmagazines and the networks began profiling the administration in the same style. The stuff isn't designed to inform or entertain, but to stimulate a basic response, which is why pornography and propaganda are first cousins. Born again once, Bush was yet again reborn as a war leader in a remarkable make-over that had little to do with what Bush did (so much of which has proved disastrous) and everything to do with how he was made to look. His handlers work hard. But they'd get nowhere without the mainstream media, in whose hands the old tenets of political reporting (issues, ideology, relevance to voters) have been replaced by the tenets of celebrity reporting (personality, anecdotes, 12-step confessionals).
It'd be unfair to single out Bush. A Democrat would have played to the voters in the same way. Indeed, John Kerry is doing so quite successfully right now. Four weeks ago I wrote of the way Howard Dean's candidacy was being demolished as much by his own missteps as by a cabal of cover stories in every major news magazine questioning his "presidential" timber rather than giving his actual platform a fair shake. It was about how he looked, not what he believed in, which was odd. The Dean image as the country came to know him was woven out of how those sinister cover stories and video clips made him look rather than what his quite different, quite conservative 11 years as Vermont's governor had been like. Dean's loose cannons were the self-fulfilling prophesy of the 2004 election.
The coverage Kerry has enjoyed since Dean's implosion is the flip-side of that story. Where Dean has been pictured in shadows and captioned in question marks, Kerry has been treated as the anointed one, his arms raised in victory, his oblong face beaming, his captions gilded in stately approval: "What Kind of President Would JOHN KERRY Be?" asks Time's Feb. 9 cover. Kerry looks straight at the camera in that classic pose of the thoughtful man dangling a pair of reading glasses from his lips. Newsweek's Feb. 2 cover quotes Kerry's now-famous challenge ("BRING IT ON") without comment, which is comment enough. The New Republic, fresh from clobbering Dean's credibility with a pair of covers and endorsing Joe Lieberman, ran two successive covers (on Feb. 2 and Feb. 9) showing Kerry suited up and arms raised. The Economist refrained from bashing Dean but yielded to crowning Kerry last week with an uncharacteristically humorless cover showing Kerry pointing to heaven, or to the question in the air ("The man to beat Bush?").
Democrats may be cheering, but not for long. The same fixation on the look of the right presidential material that has helped Kerry this far is being marshaled to undo his candidacy. Kerry is a decorated Vietnam War veteran whose gunboat duty in the Mekong Delta earned him the right to protest Vietnam as George W. Bush's middling service in the National Guard in Texas and maybe in Alabama didn't quite earn him the right to play "wartime president" on TV. Yet the Internet's journalistic termites are busily portraying Kerry as something of a traitor by circulating a picture of him sitting at a suburban distance from Jane Fonda at a rally protesting the Vietnam War. What might have been nothing more than a lame joke of pictorial superimposition in a satirical magazine a few years ago is grist for substantial reporting today. By Sunday, the termites' job had paid off. Newt Gingrich was quoted in a front-page New York Times story calling Kerry "a Jane Fonda anti-war liberal." Like a rising star in a mobster organization, the phrase was "made." Kerry's imaginary infidelities have already graduated from termites to tabloids. Revelations of his internship with al-Qaida can't be far behind.
The medium, went the famous phrase, is the message. No longer. The medium is the assassin.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at email@example.com
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