I used to think that we'd have to wait before the next Muhammad Ali got his next draft notice for service in the next Vietnam before we saw another bona-fide hero in the United States. We still might. But every time I see George Bush on television these days, I get to thinking that the next guy need not be that far away.
Case in point: last week, in the aftermath of yet another series of multibillion-dollar corporate implosions, Bush delivers a speech on Wall Street against a background drapery that has the words "CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY" written all over it in a wallpaper-like pattern. The next day, as a select few newspapers in the country follow up on new allegations in an old story about Bush's apparent insider stock deals in a company called Harken, pictures of the president appear on TV and on every front page in the country buried amid the apparent descriptive caption: CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY.
Bush might as well have been carrying a cross and wearing a crown of thorns. It was a manipulation of images so crude that even Tony Masiello might not have missed it. And what's worse is that a whole nation of editors and news directors— literally thousands of media people in positions of responsibility— let him get away with it.
It only took one Chinese kid to stop that tank in Tianemen Square. So the question naturally arises: why can't we find even one network news executive to pull the plug on the president when he tries this kind of stuff? There has to be one network news director who's willing to call up Ari Fleischer and say, "Sorry, Ari, but we just can't be part of this bullshit...Call us back when you want to do the speech with a plain background." Right?
Sure, there was one lone network news correspondent who noticed Bush's ploy last week. Onetime columnist-turned-TV-pundit Jeff Greenfield ran a piece about the Bush backdrops, lampooning it by appearing against a backdrop of his own that read "World's Greatest TV Analyst." But noticing and reporting on a thing it is a much different matter than doing something about it.
The creepy thing about the Bush backdrops is that they appear to signal a radical shift in the accepted orthodoxy of political strategy. As Greenfield pointed out, it has long been held that images are more effective than words as background for political speechmaking. Concerned that the chief is perceived as being too friendly with polluting corporations? Schedule an informal meeting with reporters during a presidential fishing trip; the next day, the Boss is on the front page of every paper in the country with four white-topped mountains over his shoulders.
Is the candidate considered soft on crime? Schedule a speech with three dozen police offers in dress blues standing at attention behind the podium. Does your party have a reputation for being too aristocratic? Hire a bunch of guys dressed in plaid shirts and Red Wing work boots to pass out fliers at your televised political rally.
When politicians didn't use people as background, or didn't have a mountain range handy, the flag has always been there. It is a conspicuous fact of the history of political campaigning that the more dire and desperate a candidate is score points with voters, the greater the actual physical number of flags he will place in the background for his speech. George Bush, Sr. practically wore a flag around his head from the moment Michael Dukakis seized a 17-point lead in the 1988 election; Gary Hart and Al Gore (in particular in the post-electoral mess two years ago) were other notable culprits of the multiple-flag tactic.
This is the way things have been done for ages— flags, cops, and mountain ranges— but suddenly, something has changed. Clearly, someone somewhere has done some in-depth market research on the subject, and now, instead of pictures, we are getting the president surrounded by the (presumably market-tested) catchwords of the day both in print and on television.
You can see the progression of the presidential tactic clearly, just in the course of the last few months. On March 1, the president made a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on the theme of Retirement Security reform. The background for this speech was a single political slogan, presented in the same manner that both Bush's father and Ronald Reagan made famous: in huge type, directly behind or to the side of the candidate. In this official presidential photo, you can make out the slogan, but just barely: it reads "Protecting Workers' Pensions."
Reagan was fond of a banner that simply read "Leadership" and often hovered directly behind him as he gave campaign speeches. This Bush banner was in the same spirit, a simple one-to-one association between candidate and theme, designed for the audience to consume consciously.
A little over a month later, Bush gave a series of speeches designed to promote his submission of a welfare reform package to congress. On both May 10 and May 13, Bush spoke against a backdrop which printed in the now-familiar wallpaper pattern the words "WORK" and "OPPORTUNITY" in alternating yellow and white type. Bush's plan, incidentally, had originally contained provisions that would have made people on public assistance exempt from minimum-wage benefits and other worker protections. Though the bill did not include any money for jobs or any specific means of providing more opportunities for poor people, the message on TV was still BUSH=WORK=OPPORTUNITY.
The new banners were more effective than the old ones, because the complete message was legible and visible from any angle; unlike "Protecting Workers' Pensions," which could come out as "ing ers' ensions" if the presidential head was in the way, "WORK" and "OPPORTUNITY" were repeated often enough that you could see them no matter what Bush did with his melon.
The new tactic had another advantage; unless you were looking out for it, you might not have noticed it, particularly if you only got to see it in a five-second sound bite. From a distance, the repeating "WORK OPPORTUNITY" pattern looked like little more than a nonsensical background. You can't call this subliminal advertising, because the words are overtly visible and able to be consciously digested, but it's in the same spirit as subliminal advertising: big enough to land in your brain and settle there, small enough to elude whatever capacity for conscious thought you have left after all those years of TV-watching.
Fast-forward to this month. On July 10, Bush held a speech for Department of Homeland Security Workers at, of all things, the DAR convention hall in Washington. You will sometimes hear of closet transvestites who after years of doing little more than wear pantyhose under their suits will suddenly show up at work wearing spike heels, ruby earrings and a prom dress. In this case, Bush came out in front of this peculiarly friendly crowd and launched a backdrop that pulled out all the stops: it featured the new multiple-catchword pattern (PROTECTING THE HOMELAND), plus a banner-size single Reagan-style repeat of the slogan, plus pictures of a fireman and a policeman, plus a fuzzy background pattern that, when you stepped back a foot or two, revealed itself to be a grotesquely giant American flag. The backdrops had the same embarrassingly over-indulgent vibe as Elvis Presley's mid-seventies Vegas costumes, and presumably the administration will tone down the next act when the crowd is not so friendly— but it's clear the slogan-wallpaper thing is here to stay.
Bush's new tactic, so obviously designed for television, coincides unpleasantly with the rise of a private-sector pioneer of the same strategy, the Fox Network's Bill O'Reilly. What O'Reilly realized, when he designed his O'Reilly Factor, is that the simple electronic insertion of three and four-word "talking points" over his shoulder would be enough to convincingly convey his message to most viewers. He'd blast black welfare mothers or some other Great Public Menace in his actual speech, and meanwhile, over his shoulder, you'd read messages that said things like "Liberals Just Don't Get It" and "Everybody Needs To Work." Depressingly, the tactic actually worked... as the Bush people have clearly figured out.
What all of this is pointing toward is a future in which politicians will simply drape themselves in slogans as a substitute for actual policy. The new Bush backdrops are such an extreme form of manipulation that it is almost ridiculous, and too obvious, to call them Orwellian. But what else can you call it when a President who made millions cashing in on timely sales of plummeting stocks (i.e. Harken) gives a speech in response to scandals prompted by the same kind of behavior, only to appear on every television in America surrounded by the words "CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY"?
One sounds like some hand-wringing, turtleneck-wearing Berkeley intellectual bringing up the whole "FREEDOM IS SLAVERY" business in comparison, but the grim fact of life in Bush-era America is that those once-paranoid-sounding academic conspiracy theories are now openly true, and even the most squeamish observers are being forced to defend them in the name of mere accuracy. Bush is making hysterical quiche-eating Berkeley fairies out of the best of us.
The thing to remember about all of this is that there's no law that requires the media to cover the president on his own terms. The networks do not have to air the president's speeches, nor do they have to photograph him from the front, or do anything but groan and roll their eyes when he invites them, say, to film him kissing a black baby a few hours after signing a vicious new welfare reform bill. As journalists, we have the right to tell the president to fuck off when he's being ridiculous. But nobody ever does. The first guy who tries it is my hero.