There is a more than a hint of ridiculousness in the media's handling of President Bush's pronouncements on the war this week. Media conventions - anything the president says is news, and all incremental rhetorical changes on Iraq by this particular president are really big news - are simply inadequate to the task of rendering what is actually happening.
Tuesday, the president gave an interview to three reporters in the Washington Post in which he admitted for the first time that "we're not winning" the Iraq war (he also said, "we're not losing"). The Post devoted major space to the fruit of this 25-minute interview, doing two news stories, an analysis, and publishing a complete transcript over two full pages in the printed edition. That also included a bunch of photos, three of the president sitting in a chair in the Oval Office, appearing to be enjoying himself mixing it up with the press, and a third of him greeting the three reporters (not available online).
My first reaction was, come on - you've got to be kidding. It's notable when Bush talks to the press he has disdained. But media conventions for presidential interview haven't changed in the past 50 years. The Post clearly expects readers to be impressed its reporters - not the New York Times or somebody else - sat down with the president. But why do we care? Do we need to see a large photo Peter Baker, Michael Fletcher and Michael Abramowitz shaking hands with the president at the Oval Office door? They cover the White House, and are doing their job. Big deal.
The Post's self-congratulation is coupled with Bush's own evident self-regard, which comes off as a bit peculiar under the circumstances. At one point, he starts talking about how he really does like and respect the press. "We appreciate that, and you've certainly been good for business," says Baker (a nice, dry line). "Good. That's what decision-makers do, Peter," Bush advises. "People who seize the moment and make decisions to lead give people things to write about." (Under this formulation, the president's job is basically, don't be boring. At this point, a little Eisenhoweresque boredom would be welcome.)
The drama is joined: The newspaper that brought down a president goes mano a mano with the Decider.
Once, perhaps (though I doubt it), these exchanges were an opportunity to probe a little more deeply, get some insights into the president's thinking. But we don't really see that here, or in the coverage of Bush's Wednesday press conference. There is semi-substantive stuff in the interview, such as Bush's intention to increase the size of the military, but nothing that could not have been accomplished with a press release. The main thing you come away with is the headline: "Not Winning." And even that appears to have been a misfire on the president's part - in his Wednesday press conference, he ticked a degree back in the other direction, saying that "victory is achievable."
There's something else going on here besides rhetorical tacking, or even the immediate issue of whether there will be a surge in troops. The problem is, we don't really know what that something is, and the coverage doesn't help. It recounts everything in a linear fashion, following the handy narrative the White House presents: the president is mulling things over, open to alternatives, yet ever-resolute, and some slight shift in policy will occur at some point soon.
In fact, what the media should be focusing on is the White House's principal frame of reference: domestic politics.
One thing - perhaps the most important thing for America and Iraq - that Bush is doing in these encounters with the press is laying the political groundwork for the next two years. I have no unique insight here, but one of his principal aims at this point has to be to get out in one piece - to avoid leaving office in Johnson-like disgrace. That alone is a consuming political project - and we know that, wounded or not, Bush is first and foremost a politician.
One hopes and expects a president to empirically evaluate the situation on the ground in Iraq and the wider world and respond to it accordingly. But this president doesn't operate that way, as Jay Rosen pointed out the other day. There are always layered, interest-laden agendas at work, and the press still doesn't really get that.
The troop surge idea, for instance, is already reframing the Iraq debate in more favorable terms to the White House. It turns the dial back a quarter or a half a notch. Suddenly, the principal question is no longer, when or how should we get out, but the effect of putting more troops in. Assuming they go in, the debate then shifts to the effectiveness of that tactic. Is it working or not? When do we draw down the surge? Do we dare, when it would embolden the enemy? Should we give it more time to work? Questions of the broader strategy and mission take a back seat. Then the clock runs out, the 2008 campaign is underway, and Bush is not victorious, but at least he didn't give in.
This sounds like a cynical interpretation. And 20 or 30 years ago, it would have been. But based on what we've seen so far, does anyone not think these political factors are playing a big role, if not the driving role, in White House decision-making? In fact, that's an obvious journalistic question - to what degree is domestic politics driving military planning?
Yet to zero in on this scenario would seem, well, indecorous and even dangerous for the MSM. For one, focusing too much on it would expose media outlets to charges of bias and, well cynicism. And the safe, conventional view is, this is a matter of statecraft and war, not politics. Those conventions, the artificial walls journalists erect between those areas of action, of course, allow the White House a lot more political maneuvering room than it rightfully deserves at this point. It's left to the blogosphere and commentators to wrestle with these questions - speculatively.
I had the same feeling reading Peter Baker's Sunday article on President Bush, which portrayed him as either resolute or stubborn, and quoted various people debating his predicament:
But now, as Bush rethinks his strategy in Iraq and approaches one of the most fateful moments of his presidency, he confronts difficult questions: At what point does determination to a cause become self-defeating folly? Can he change direction in a meaningful way without sacrificing principle?
This is framed as high historical drama. But I don't think these are the right questions. The nation has already, collectively, answered the first one. Why is the Washington Post still behaving otherwise? The second one assumes Bush is operating from principles beyond basic "stubbornness." What about the "cynical" interpretation: Bush doesn't know what to do, and his best option to save face is to give himself political cover for the next two years?
So the question is, when and how does the MSM start to cover this elephant in the room?