January 25, 2006

Just As Happy To Get Ugly


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What happened to the White House PR strategy on Tuesday?  Given the Administration’s week long media offensive over NSA spying, how did these students come to upstage Attorney General Alberto Gonzales?

Or, did they?

First, Rove got things started on Saturday with a take-no-prisoners speech to the Republican National Committee.  Then Monday, Bush went to Kansas State University where he filibustered students with an interminable defense of his beloved GWOT.  Then Tuesday, Gonzales used his turn to try and legally rationalize and justify Bush’s sidestepping of the FISA Court and Congress.  This sequence of events, sandwiched by speeches and appearances by other Administration players, was designed to culminate today in a grand photo op finale featuring Bush at ‘wiretap central,” the NSA Headquarters.

Here’s the question, however.  Given the Administration’s acumen for message control — managing most every public event from the staging, backdrop and lighting, to the size, demographic, ideology and seating arrangement of the audience — how did this image come to be?  In other words, how is it possible these students at a policy forum at Georgetown University Law School were able to co-opt the Attorney General’s speech by silently turning their backs on him and then stamping the scene with their own handmade text scroll?

If I wasn’t so wary of Rove, I would say this image resulted from a calculated risk.  This assumes that part of the Administration’s strategy this week was to loosen the media controls and engage a public which has genuine, serious and bipartisan concerns about the surveillance program.  Maybe the thinking went like this:  Why not lower the drawbridge, provide freer access to BushCo., and take some criticism for the sake of venting tension generated by the program?  If this was the strategy, one could say it came off well in Kansas where a dissembling Bush took some unscripted and aggressive questions from the students, but survived relatively unscathed.  (Even if he did have to lie about cutting student loans.)  If that was the strategy, one could also say Gonzales’ afternoon was simply the price to pay for the appearance of openness and accessibility.

Except, I’m wondering if Rove wasn’t just as happy to see the picture get ugly.

In considering this image, I keep thinking about the subtitle to Walter Shapiro’s latest piece in Salon (Rove: It’s the (eternal) war, stupid!) (Link.)

In his first speech in two months, “Bush’s brain” laid out his plan for GOP victory: War, war and more war.

Shapiro believes that Rove and Mehlman actually regarded the leaking of the surveillance story as a positive.  According to this scenario, it allows Bush to reinvigorate the Administration’s first term histrionics over 9/11 and call into question the patriotism (not to mention the sanity) of anyone opposed to a “vital tool” in preventing the next devastating terror attack.  Focusing on 2008, Shapiro suggests it was no coincidence Rove started off this week by beating his chest before the RNC.  When it comes to elections, 9/11 has been the most effective, scariest (and, at this point, perhaps the only remaining) card in the Administration’s hand.


Symbolically, turning ones back on the AG is a powerful metaphor.  Unfortunately, the only way it could have effectively (and poetically) translated was if photographers depicted the room from the stage.  As it turned out, this orientation completely loses the element of negation.  In fact, the visual produces the opposite effect.  By facing the cameras and especially introducing a banner, the students turned what was originally a subtle and powerfully non-invasive expression into grandstanding.  (And, that’s giving them a free pass for the further mixing of metaphors by including figures wearing hoods conjuring Abu Ghraib.)

Accordingly, the real question is, did these students succeed in subverting one act in this week’s Bush propaganda show, or did they simply play into a larger and more brutally divisive argument that Rove is framing for the mid-term elections?  (Considering Rove’s frame, by the way, one would not refer to these actors as “students” so much as “unpatriotic traitors” colluding with al Queda operatives who, right this minute, are busy tying up all those incoming international telephone lines.)

Perhaps we can better understand the battle lines with the help of the quotation proffered by these protesters.  On the one hand, Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither .”  On the other hand, Shapiro warns that Democratic critics can expect to “constantly hear variants of Rove’s assertion, ‘To retreat before victory has been won would be a reckless act — and the president and our party will not allow it’.”

(image 1: Charles Dharapak/A.P. January 24, 2006.  Washington.  Via YahooNews.  image 2: Evan Sisley/Reuters.  January 24, 2006.  Washington.  Via YahooNews.)

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Michael Shaw
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