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Bush's 'Nation of Enablers'

January 27, 2003

When the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2002, some enthusiastic sportswriters found the victory fitting because, since Sept. 11, “we’d  become a nation of patriots.” Some wags responded by asking: “Does that mean if the St. Louis Rams had won, we’d be a nation of sheep?”

Following that logic, the outcome of Super Bowl XXXVII means that the United States is now “a nation of pirates.” That result was a foregone conclusion after the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won their respective conference championships. The Buccaneers made it official by beating the Raiders, 48-21.

The “nation of pirates” theme, of course, doesn't have quite the ring that “nation of patriots” did. The image might be a little troubling, too, with George W. Bush moving toward a possible invasion of Iraq outside the sanction of international law, a war could begin with the seizure – or “protection” – of Iraq’s oil fields holding the second-largest known petroleum reserves in the world.

But more than “a nation of patriots” or “a nation of pirates,” the United States has been behaving for the past two years like “a nation of enablers.” At times, it seems that the U.S. political system is dedicated to treating George W. Bush like he's some addicted adolescent in a family that won't confront the youngster's behavioral problems and "enables" the problem to get worse.

Virtually no one in the major news media will admit that Bush's personal behavior has been downright strange, from raging at enemies in ways that complicate already tricky diplomacy to treating those under his authority with disdain to viewing his own powers as beyond challenge or question. [For details, see's "The Bush Exit Ramp."]

Bush simply isn’t held to the same standards as other politicians, a pattern evident since Campaign 2000, when the national news media praised even Bush's faltering appearances. After campaign debates and Bush's early presidential speeches, pundits routinely praised his performances as “better than expected,” a subjective measure based on the fuzzy notion of what had been "expected." The more recent spin point is that Bush always surprises those who underestimate him.

'Bold' Leadership

Now, the trend is for national journalists to applaud his “bold” leadership, even when he makes proposals, such as the repeal of taxes on dividends, that many economists see as reckless. That plan primarily benefits wealthy Americans and may push the federal deficit to a record $350 billion a year, surpassing his father's record of $290 billion in 1992.

Rather than a straightforward description of the plan, TV reports and newspaper stories couldn't get enough of the word "bold," which was repeated so often it might have been part of the tax cut's title. In the week after Bush announced his dividend tax repeal plan, a Lexis-Nexis search turned up 206 news articles containing the words “Bush,” “dividend” and “bold.”

Sometimes the only difference in the media assessments boiled down to whether "bold" should be applied to the plan or to Bush himself. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline favored applying the adjective to the plan as in "Bold Plan Will Produce Growth" [Jan. 12, 2003]. An analysis by CNN’s economic anchor Lou Dobbs attached the modifier to Bush as in “Bold Bush Did the Right Thing” [New York Daily News, Jan. 12, 2003].

Yet, the case  of the "bold" dividend tax repeal was certainly no anomaly. The U.S. press corps continues to flatter Bush over his political genius, even as the economy slumps, as two million jobs have disappeared, as budget surpluses have sunk into deficits, as al-Qaeda continues to threaten Americans across the globe, as North Korea readies a nuclear arsenal, as anti-Americanism swells worldwide, and as close allies object to Bush's rush to war with Iraq.

Strange Twist

In a strange twist of the process, some commentators have concluded that the scarcity of media criticism of these mounting problems is itself proof of Bush's brilliance. This theory about the new "Teflon" president was advanced in the New York Times Magazine by columnist Bill Keller in an article entitled "Reagan's Son."

Keller starts by sketching some of the political catastrophes that surfaced in December – the purge of Bush's economic team which "tends to be taken as an admission of failed policies," the "amateurish" handling of a missile-carrying North Korean freighter en route to Yemen, Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott's segregationist-friendly comments "that peeled open the party's history of race-baiting."

But instead of concluding that these were cases of political miscalculations or evidence of political hypocrisy for which Bush deserved criticism, Keller gave the developments a positive spin. To Keller, the news media's refusal to pound Bush for these failures was not proof of a press corps gone soft – or engaged in "enabling" – it was just more proof of Bush's "invincibility."

Keller noted that the series of missteps in December led to "no outbreak of articles postulating a White House in disarray," as other presidents might have expected. To the contrary, the media even found a silver lining for the president in Lott's denouement. As Keller wrote, Bush's political adviser Karl Rove "was hailed for his genius in helping maneuver a presidential favorite into the Senate leadership.''

Beyond that, Keller argued, "Bush's approval ratings held firm and high. Nothing stuck. Any more than a year of corporate scandals, some involving White House friends, had stuck. Any more than the recurring reminders of al Qaeda's unimpeded reach – in Bali, in Kenya – had stuck." [ NYT, Jan. 26, 2003]

The same facts could have been a good jumping off point to examine why the national press corps was taking a dive on Bush and whether it was professionally responsible for journalists to behave that way. Instead, Keller just chalked up the phenomenon to further evidence that Bush could walk on political water.

Ironically, though, Keller's apotheosis of Bush came after Bush could no longer claim that his approval ratings were holding "firm and high." Indeed, polls during the week prior to Keller's article showed Bush's numbers plummeting down to barely a majority of respondents, with only about a third of voters saying they favored his reelection.

Still, if Keller is interested in why so few media commentators dare criticize Bush, he might look at an article about another New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, the Princeton University economics professor who has consistently challenged Bush and his administration over their budget figures and other rosy economic projections.

Slamming Krugman

Four days before Keller's fawning article about Bush's political genius, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz published a Style section piece filled with attitude and ridicule about Krugman. The article included criticism of Krugman as "an ideologue, a Democratic partisan whose predictability is exceeded only by his shrillness."

Kurtz quoted conservative CNBC commentator Lawrence Kudlow dismissing Krugman because "he doesn't really do any analysis and never lets on that the other side might have a point. His economic credentials have kind of evaporated and he's become a left-wing political spear carrier."

While flush with similar attacks on Krugman, Kurtz's lengthy two-page article took no stab at judging whether the criticisms of Krugman are correct or whether Krugman’s analyses of Bush's economic policies have, in fact, turned out to be on target. Without doubt, Krugman had proved right in his warnings that Bush's budget numbers didn't add up.

In contrast to Kurtz's blind eye to the bigger picture, a Wall Street Journal news article looked back at Bush's popular tax cut policies during his years as Texas governor and the price the state is now paying. "Just how bad is Texas' budget plight?" the Journal wrote. "Had George W. Bush waited to run for president after his second term as governor there ended this month, he likely never would have reached the White House. … Republican leaders here are grappling with a historic shortfall for the state's two-year budget -- $10 billion and rising." [WSJ, Jan. 22, 2003]

Instead, Kurtz collected just a stream of ad hominem criticisms of Krugman and effectively judged him as out of step on Bush.  “These are tough times on the left,” Kurtz wrote. “Bush’s poll ratings remain just shy of stratospheric.” [Washington Post, Jan. 22, 2003] Like Keller's article, Kurtz's piece relied on outdated poll results to marginalize those who criticize Bush.

But Kurtz’s article did add one interesting nugget about the history of the kinder-gentler treatment that the major news media had afforded Bush. During the presidential campaign, Krugman told Kurtz, the New York Times' then-editorial page editor Howell Raines barred Krugman from using the word “lying.”

A History of 'Enabling'

As that anecdote suggests, this pattern of protecting – or "enabling" – Bush has been evident at least since Campaign 2000 when Bush’s flubs were brushed aside. [For details, see's “Protecting Bush-Cheney.”]

After the disputed Election 2000, the "enabling" of Bush took on almost a patriotic veneer. The press went shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush to help the nation come together and heal its divisions. The news media didn’t harp on how Bush was the first popular vote loser in more than a century to move into the White House.

Nor did the media note that the Bush campaign and his talk-radio friends had planned to challenge Al Gore’s legitimacy if he had won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote, a plan that had been disclosed before the election but was quickly forgotten afterwards when the roles were flipped. [See's "The GOP's Popular-Vote Hypocrisy."]

Instead, both mainstream and conservative correspondents oohed and aahed over the new president, whether Kelly Wallace on CNN or Brit Hume on Fox News. Noisy protests at Bush’s inauguration – challenging the legitimacy of his taking power – were largely ignored or treated as a case of bad manners. The news media made clear that it was time for the nation to move on.

By contrast, the national press corps had gone to great lengths eight years earlier to demonstrate how tough it could be after Bill Clinton’s election. Remember the stories about his expensive hair cut, the furor over his initiative to protect gays in the military, and the obsession over his failed Whitewater real-estate investment.

The reasons for this disparity are numerous. Many national reporters understand that by pounding Democrats and pulling punches on Republicans, their careers can be protected from conservative "watchdog" groups that are well-funded and well-organized. Working journalists know that if they are labeled "liberal" and get into the cross-hairs of the conservatives, their careers will be damaged and possibly ended. [For more on this press dynamic, see’s "Price of the Liberal-Media Myth."]

But at another level, journalists were behaving like classic “enablers,” who fear that confronting a problem – like "intervening" with a family member who is in denial about an addiction – might only create an ugly scene. That predicament may be especially acute when there are few realistic options for challenging a president who may be unfit or unqualified for the job. Unless the incapacitation is obvious with, say, a debilitating illness, what really can be done?

Sept. 11 Effect

The “enabling” patterns of the press deepened after Sept. 11 when the nation was stunned by terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 people. Even though Bush’s performance was shaky at best – his administration failed to thwart the attacks, he froze when first told of the news, and then he skittered around the country to bases in Louisiana and Nebraska – Bush nevertheless benefited politically from the disaster. His poll numbers immediately rocketed to about 90 percent as the nation sought to demonstrate its unity.

Though praised for unleashing the U.S. military to oust al-Qaeda's Taliban allies in Afghanistan, Bush botched other opportunities to enhance the nation’s security. Bush did nothing to encourage the American people to conserve energy, one of the most effective ways available to reduce U.S. dependence on oil-rich Islamic countries that have given rise to Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda conspirators behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

With his clumsy use of language – calling for a “crusade” to “rid the world of evil” – Bush effectively guaranteed that he would lose the hearts and minds of rank-and-file citizens in the Muslim world. With his arrogant “cowboy” rhetoric, he further squandered the good will in Europe and other parts of the world that had swelled up after the Sept. 11 attacks. While successful in ousting the Taliban, U.S.-led military forces failed to catch bin Laden and many other al-Qaeda leaders by relying too heavily on local Afghan warlords to do the fighting. [For more details, see's "Bush's Grim Vision."]

Still, by hailing Bush’s war-time leadership, the national news media may have thought it was bolstering the country's confidence at a time of crisis and giving Bush the boost he might need to rise to the challenges ahead. Certainly, the flattering press clipping swelled Bush's head as he made clear to author Bob Woodward for Bush at War.

“I am the commander, see. I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they need to say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation,” Bush said.

But the larger question is whether the U.S. political establishment is now trapped in a cycle of "enabling" and "denial" over Bush's failings as a leader. The cycle seems to work this way: the national press corps denies the existence of serious problems in Bush's actions or policies. This "enables" Bush to ignore these inadequacies and even conclude that his weaknesses are strengths. Instead of reevaluating a course of action or accepting reasonable limits, Bush digs himself in deeper. The press, in turn, denies there is a problem and hails Bush for the "bold" behavior that is adding to the dangers facing the nation.

This is a cycle common to many family members and friends of people caught in the downward spiral of drug abuse or other behavioral problems. The easy temptation is always to conceal the truth and hope everything works out for the best, even to make light of or praise the destructive behavior.

That may be an understandable reaction. But "enabling" seldom, if ever, solves a problem. That's true for families and for countries. It is a lesson that the U.S. political system can ignore only at the nation's peril.

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