I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Bush v. The Washington Media

Whatever else one might say about George Bush, it is hard to dispute that he steadfastly believes in and adheres to the decisions he makes like virtually no other American political figure we have seen. And whatever it is that accounts for this refusal to change course in response to even the most intense political pressure -- whether it's personality traits, or a genuine set of principles, or messianic religious convictions about his actions and/or himself -- he is largely immune to the weapons which the Washington establishment, and particularly its press corps, have long wielded in order to force political officials to change course.

This steadfastness and refusal to play by the long-standing rules of the Washington establishment is almost certainly the attribute which most accounts for the increasingly intense dislike of the Bush Administration by the Washington press corps. This trait harshly denies the Washington media an entitlement which they have long held and which they believe is rightfully theirs: to be listened to, respected as holders of elevated wisdom, and to be given the power to force change even among the country's highest political officials.

They have never had and still do not have those powers with the Bush Administration, and they are quite unhappy about it. Seymour Hersch appeared last night on CNN with Wolf Blitzer (via Daily Kos) in order to advance even further the cartoon image of Bush as the Boy in the Bubble -- a borderline insane religious freak who believes that he and his actions are divinely mandated, and who is therefore immune from criticism and thus allows his aides to keep him shielded from any "facts" which might undermine his God-inspired certainty.

Hersch reveals the real source of his frustration when he complains to Blitzer about how wrong and scary it is that they -- Hersh and Blitzer and the rest of the vitally important Washington media drones -- have been denied their rightful role in Presidential palace decision-making:

BLITZER: Here's what you write. You write, "Current and former military and intelligence officials have told me that the president remains convinced that it is his personal mission to bring democracy to Iraq, and that he is impervious to political pressure, even from fellow Republicans. They also say that he disparages any information that conflicts with his view of how the war is proceeding. "Those are incredibly strong words, that the president basically doesn't want to hear alternative analysis of what is going on.

HERSH: You know, Wolf, there is people I've been talking to -- I've been a critic of the war very early in the New Yorker, and there were people talking to me in the last few months that have talked to me for four years that are suddenly saying something much more alarming. They're beginning to talk about some of the things the president said to him about his feelings about manifest destiny, about a higher calling that he was talking about three, four years ago. . . .

And so it's a little alarming because that means that my (sic) and my colleagues in the press corps, we can't get to him maybe with our views. You and you can't get to him maybe with your interviews. How do you get to a guy to convince him that perhaps he's not going the right way?

So Hersh thinks it's "alarming" that he's been writing anti-war articles for several years now and Bush still hasn't caved in his support for the war. We're supposed to be scared and outraged because Bush doesn't watch Wolf Blitzer interviews and then change his mind afterwards, or that Bush still supports the war even after Hersh writes another article based on anonymous officials who have come to him in order to attack Bush's policies.

And when Hersh complains that Bush is inured to "facts," what he plainly means is that Bush doesn't accept Hersh's view of Iraq. In sum, Bush is supposed to know that he has to listen when the Washington press elite speaks, and his refusal to do so means that he is either pathologically stubborn, certifiably crazy, or a religious fanatic beyond any reason. Certain elements on the Left hungrily eat up this cheap and easy caricature.

Ever since he took office, Bush has refused to play by many of the long-standing rules of the Washington game. He doesn't fire his cabinet secretaries and aides when editorial boards and other politicians demand that he do so. The appearance of as-yet-unproven scandals doesn't cause him to dump whomever is said to be associated with them. He doesn't abandon or soften his positions when polls begin to show an increasing public unrest with those positions or when pundits begin insinuating that weakening political support makes those positions untenable.

And, most significantly, he doesn't go out of his way, Clinton-like, to make sure that reporters -- or anyone else -- feel that their opinions are listened to and cherished. If anything, the opposite is true: Bush has never tried to hide that he has very little regard for the opinions of the Washington media establishment; that he could not care any less about winning their approval; and that the tried-and-true pressure tactics which they have used for decades to force White Houses to change course have no effect on Bush, unless it's to make him dig in even deeper.

The New York Daily News, in an article today that is largely critical of the White House, makes exactly this point:

Even as his poll numbers tank, however, Bush is described by aides as still determined to stay the course. He resists advice from Republicans who fear disaster in next year's congressional elections, and rejects criticism from a media establishment he disdains.

"The President has always been willing to make changes," the senior aide said, "but not because someone in this town tells him to - NEVER!"

For better or for worse, Bush arrived in Washington with a firmly entrenched set of convictions about himself and the world, and the self-important permanent Washington media establishment has not been able to shake those convictions no matter how hard they try. They thus feel irrelevant and impotent and they are not happy about it. They put up with it after 9/11 when a combination of Bush's towering popularity and their own fear-driven worship of Bush's cowboy swagger kept those resentments in check. But as 9/11 fades further into the distant past along with the aura of Bush's invulnerability, these resentments are blooming in plain sight.

Steadfastness or stuborness, like Clinton's eagerness to accomodate the positions of others, can be a good or a bad trait in a President. But for the preening, hubristic, status-obsessed Washington media elite, what matters is the influence and power they have, and in this respect, Bush's refusal to grant them their rightful place is nothing but a source of anger.

The media sees shifting public opinion in Iraq as their big chance to show that their power has not waned. They are committed to milking public discomfort over Iraq in order to show the Administration that they still rule Washington. And the longer Bush refuses to adhere to their demands -- or, as Hersch revealingly complained, the longer they "can't get to him maybe with (their) views" -- the angrier and more frustrated they are going to become.

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