I came down too hard on Bill Clinton yesterday.
His public thrashing of FOX and Chris Wallace on Sunday has proven quite effective. And I’m not say that because of the invigoration of the netroots. It’s because of how the blow to an already off-balance White House is playing out in the (visual) words and pictures.
In the past, the high command would probably have paid short shrift. Clinton made such a forceful, clear, unequivocal and resonant point about how now-suspect Bush, Cheney and Rice ignored bin Ladin, however, it couldn’t go unchallenged.
Because Clinton was emphatic about the warnings of Richard Clarke (and, by implication, Condi’s brush off of a reputable adviser), Rice had no choice but to respond immediately. Using the (Fox/Murdoch sister outlet) New York Post as her venue, however, was unusually cheap. Situating herself in Clinton’s back yard, putting on a red suit, trying her uneven best to look authoritative, and attempting to employ tabloid hysteria to match Clinton’s true outrage came off, by contrast, as typically phony Administration sentiment. (In the picture with the article, notice how Condi isn’t even making eye contact with the camera.)
(Paper tigers, that’s what/who Clinton revealed. Paper tigers.)
But the more significant place to study the reaction, of course, was with Bush.
When Dems get worked up, one thing Rove likes to do is draw attention to the tone. Generally, he can dilute the content (and impact) by beguiling the press with the affect. The Administration doesn’t just highlight behavior, however. They try to fashion a neurolinguistic tool — in other words, a piece of visual language or “meme” — to simultaneously showcase, highlight and denigrate their target.
In this instance, the word-picture Rove picked out for Bush was “finger pointing.” (That part was a no-brainer. As the GWOT’s most popular form of body language and the unavoidable visual element I isolated in my post yesterday, the gesture made the “play of the day” as soon as Clinton rose up and started pecking on Wallace’s own note pad.)
However, let’s look at how — during Bush’s press conference with Hamid Karzai — BushCo tried to subliminally peck at us. (I include Bush’s entire response to Clinton not just because it’s ridiculous, but because of the way he directly contradicts himself over whether he’ll comment or not. …You’ll see, in a second, how BushCo makes the same contradiction visually.) (Bold type mine, of course.)
Q : Thank you, Mr. President. Former President Clinton says that your administration had no meetings on bin Laden for nine months after he left office. Is that factually accurate, and how do you respond to his charges?
PRESIDENT BUSH: You know, look, Caren, I’ve watched all this finger-pointing and naming of names, and all that stuff. Our objective is to secure the country. And we’ve had investigations, we had the 9/11 Commission, we had the look back this, we’ve had the look back that. The American people need to know that we spend all our time doing everything that we can to protect them. So I’m not going to comment on other comments.
But I will comment on this — that we’re on the offense against an enemy that wants to do us harm.
… And then, almost immediately following, we get this:
So I’m going to continue to work to protect this country. And we’ll let history judge — all the different finger-pointing and all that business. I don’t have enough time to finger-point. I’ve got to stay — I’ve got to do my job, which comes home every day in the Oval Office, and that is to protect the American people from further attack.
Good enough. The White House is listing these days, Clinton scores a direct hit and Rove does his best to take the edge off. The message? Clinton is a hot head while Bush keeps his cool (and stays the course, etc.). But, with Rove, there’s always more to it.
Rove, in fact, has been working this hot/cool thing for months now. This is not something arbitrary Karl just pulled out of his behind yesterday. Among other things, “Cool Bush” has been a marketing cornerstone of the Rove/Administration Iran strategy.
Just one recent example — which the press also lapped up — is that NYT cover I featured the other day juxtaposing Bush and Ahmadinejad at the U.N. You notice how Bush has his hands flat on that lectern? Well, Rove knows that the (finger-pointing) first term Commander-in-Chief (or “Hot Bush”) is not only associated with the Iraq failure, but is what led to the disaster. So Rove — and the Administration, in it’s current, long-running diplomacy show — is trying to tone Bush down as much as possible.
But then, these guys are cave men after all. And, when the bottom starts to fall out, even the most fraudulent of men start to revert to form. Clinton not only exposed the Administration, but he did so by appropriating Bush’s primary reflex (besides charm), which is: the use of force.
So let’s think about the image above (hypocritically featured on yesterday’s White House photo gallery) in consideration of how screwed up these guys have become. These jokers couldn’t use too forceful an image, because their man is cool now. But they couldn’t use a passive image, because they are under attack. So, they jam home the point that they’re not going to point by featuring this image linked to the transcript of the press conference with their meme in it !?!
Game (nearly) over.
(image 1: Paul Morse/White House. September 26, 2006. East Room. whitehouse.gov. image 2: Fox News Sunday via thinkprogress. September 24, 2006. image 3 & 4: Richard Perry/The New York Times. New York. September 19, 2006. nyt.com)