One of the historical hallmarks of the Bush administration will be the way they carefully manipulated and managed the message, sometimes in disturbing ways. We all know that each and every appearance the president makes with a “citizen” is carefully stage-managed and vetted. But his videoconference with soldiers in Iraq was all the more disturbing because of its similarity to hostage videos, hostages who are given a script to read while a gun is just off-camera.
President Bush yesterday sought to rally U.S. troops behind his Iraq strategy — and he and his aides left little to chance.
Before the president spoke via a video link, his event planners handpicked 10 soldiers from the Army’s 42nd Infantry and one Iraqi soldier, told them what topics the president would ask about, and watched them briefly rehearse their presentations before going live.
The soldiers did not disappoint. Each one praised the president, the war and the progress in training Iraqi troops. Several spoke in a monotone voice, as if determined to remember and stay on script.
The Iraqi, Sgt. Maj. Akeel Shaker Nassir, who is in charge of the Iraqi army training facility in Tikrit, had only a few words for Bush, but they were gushing: “Thank very much for everything. I like you.”
Nassir’s comments came near the end of one of the stranger and most awkwardly staged publicity events of the Bush presidency. It started with Bush, in Washington standing at a lectern, talking to the soldiers via video on a large flat-screen. They sat shoulder to shoulder and stared dutifully at the camera.
The president’s delivery was choppy, as he gazed frequently at his notes and seemed several times to be groping for the right words. Bush told the soldiers they are facing a “ruthless and coldblooded” enemy intent on “the killing of innocent people to get the American government to pull you out of there before the mission is accomplished.”
… Before they spoke, Allison Barber, a mid-level Pentagon official, helped coach the troops on who would be asked what by Bush. Afterward, according to Reuters, she told reporters that “we knew that the president was going to ask about security, coalition and training” but not the specific questions.
This not a new technique for Bush; his White House has perfected the public relations strategy of holding scripted events featuring the president’s supporters. During the first part of the year, Bush traveled the country to discuss his Social Security plan, while aides stacked the audience with Republicans and tutored participants in these town hall events on what to say.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) was not impressed. “The American people and our brave troops deserve better than a photo-op for the president and a pep rally about Iraq,” he said. “They deserve a plan. Unfortunately, today’s event only served to highlight the fact that the president refuses to engage in a frank conversation about the realities on the ground.”
… After a day of White House damage control, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence T. Di Rita put out a statement last night apologizing for “any perception that [the soldiers] were told what to say” at the event. “It is not the case,” he said. Di Rita said technological challenges prompted government officials to advise the soldiers what questions they would be asked “solely to help the troops feel at ease during an obviously unique experience.” He said the soldiers decided who would answer.