the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2002, some enthusiastic
sportswriters found the victory fitting because, since Sept. 11,
wed become a nation
of patriots. Some wags responded by asking: Does that mean if
the St. Louis Rams had won, wed 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,
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 Iraqs 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
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
Bush Exit Ramp."]
Bush simply isnt 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.
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 CNNs 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.
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
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
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 Krugmans 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. Bushs 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 Kurtzs 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 Bushs flubs were brushed aside. [For
details, see Consortiumnews.com's Protecting
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 didnt 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 Gores 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 Consortiumnews.com's
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 Bushs
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 Clintons 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
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 Consortiumnews.coms "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 Bushs 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 nations 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
Still, by hailing Bushs 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. Thats 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,
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.