Managing the Media
Can the Bush Press Machine Save a Faltering Campaign?
Less than five hours had passed since the "major league asshole" comment. But all was calmness and rectitude inside George W. Bush's campaign press office on the second floor at 301 Congress. Even though it was Labor Day, the cubicles, filled with dozens of campaign workers, were humming. In one small room, a TV crew was setting up lights for a satellite interview with Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove. A bank of TV monitors in the next room followed the news on every station, ready to pounce on any item that might help the cause. In the small radio and TV production studio, a team of workers prepared a radio spot.
Amid the hum of activity, Ari Fleischer, the head of the press office, was unflustered. An intense, balding 39-year-old who has spent his entire career in Washington, Fleischer has an easy laugh and outgoing personality. He fielded phone calls and bantered with a reporter about the Austin music scene and how he wished he had more time to check out the clubs. But his easy attitude changed a nanosecond after Donald Evans, the chairman of the Bush campaign, strode into his office and immediately made it clear that he wanted everyone but Fleischer to disappear. The two began talking in hushed tones, no doubt saying something about "Bush league sphincters" who dared enter the sanctum sanctorum.
Seconds later, Rove, wearing his trademark white sneakers and khakis, along with a fresh shirt, tie, blue blazer, and carefully made-up face, dashed through the hall to make his TV appointment. Media consultant Mark McKinnon and pollster Matthew Dowd strolled through, talking quietly, then quickly disappeared.
On the surface, it was just another day at the press office. But the "asshole fiasco," while never mentioned, had the operation a little off-balance. A day earlier, on Sunday afternoon, Bush threw down the gauntlet on debates with Al Gore, saying he would only participate in one of the debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The strategy backfired badly and within 12 days, Bush would reverse himself and announce he would do all three debates sponsored by the commission. The debate debacle set the tone for each of the following three weeks of the campaign. Instead of getting his message out, Bush ended up playing full-time defense. After the asshole incident came the Republican National Committee's "RATS" ad, which in turn led to further gaffes. In an effort to defend himself, Bush invented the word "subliminable" and used it repeatedly when referring to the ad. There was also a round of critical stories reporting that Bush's vice-presidential nominee, Dick Cheney, had failed to vote in 14 of the last 16 elections. Cheney has become such a liability for Bush that The Dallas Morning News recently quoted a campaign insider who called the wooden Cheney "a walking disaster" for the campaign.
Each misstep has made Fleischer's job harder, as doubts grow about Bush's ability to regain the dominant position he had held just a few weeks ago. While Fleischer and the other key players in the press office are smart, professional, and resource-rich, political analysts and reporters are beginning to wonder if even the best press machine can do anything to help Bush. "The press office will have to be more solicitous with the press than they were before," said one campaign insider who believes there should be an effort to direct the media toward more issue-oriented stories. "But," conceded the source, "I don't know how they do it."
Indeed, it may not matter what the press office does. If Bush continues to invent new words and his advisers, Rove, McKinnon, and Karen Hughes, keep hatching more losing strategies, like the attempt to dodge two of the commission debates, Bush will very likely lose.
Several members of the Capitol press corps who have traveled with Bush seemed amused by the campaign's ineptitude. "It's Claytie all over again," said one reporter from a major state newspaper, referring to Clayton Williams' bungled gubernatorial race in 1990. "They are shooting themselves in the foot over and over and then reloading." The same reporter observes that the Bush press office will have a hard time shaping reporting because it hasn't cultivated relationships with reporters. "They don't have the rapport with reporters that other campaigns have had," he said, adding that Bush's press office has been so scripted for so long that it seems unlikely that it will engage in any real discussions with the press.
Fleischer dismisses such talk, saying it's too early to be discussing what effect the campaign's press relations may have on the final result. And he downplays any suggestion that Bush's recent stumbles will force the press office to do anything different. "We have to just concentrate more, focus harder," he said. "The heart of the matter is that Gov. Bush will continue to lay out his compelling vision for how to save Social Security and improve education and rebuild the military and cut taxes," said Fleischer, in a moment of absolute on-message discipline. "And to compare his plans for America and his plans for real people with Al Gore's."
Although Fleischer insists all is well, changes are unfolding. Last week, the campaign announced the hiring of Ed Gillespie, a veteran GOP operative who oversaw the party's communications during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Gillespie, a longtime Washingtonian, is moving to Austin to help hone Bush's communications strategy. He will work directly with Fleischer and report to Hughes, Bush's communications director. In addition, the campaign has once again shifted its message and its strategy. Last year, the message was 'compassionate conservatism.' After Super Tuesday, the campaign shifted and began attacking Gore's credibility and character. The mantra was that Gore will "say anything" to win an election. Now, the phrase is "real plans for real people," and the strategy is for Bush to meet with smaller groups of people to talk about how his approaches on taxes, education, and other issues will benefit the American people.
That may not work, says Jane Hall, an assistant professor of communications at American University, where she teaches courses on politics and the media. Reporters "like a new story line," says Hall. Lately, the story line is that Bush is faltering and Gore is surging. And unless Gore does something dumb or gets hit with a new scandal, that story line is likely to continue for a while. Meanwhile, says Hall, "the Bush people are saying to the press 'we thought you loved us.'"
While the campaign is far from over, some observers are wondering just when it began to unravel. It started out fabulously. Bush was the can't-lose candidate. His coming-out party at the Austin Convention Center 18 months ago was covered by reporters from 85 media outlets. The questions were respectful, Bush called the reporters by name, and his handlers made sure the event ran like clockwork. Afterward, tobacco lobbyist and former RNC chairman Haley Barbour told reporters that he'd never seen such strong and diverse support for a presidential candidate so early in a campaign. Glowing profiles of Bush ran in newspapers and magazines across the country.
From Breezy to Cheesy
Bush had tons of money, having raised $13 million in just a few months. He had loyal staffers including Hughes, Rove, and Joe Allbaugh, who had served as his chief of staff in the executive office. He had an impressive Internet strategy, launching georgewbush.com on the same day he announced his exploratory committee. And to minimize the number of knock-off Web sites that might embarrass the candidate, Rove had already purchased about two dozen potentially embarrassing domain names like bushsucks.com and bushbites.com. He also snapped up georgebush.com -- which turned out to be a smart move, considering that albertgore.com is owned by a technology company, not the Gore campaign.
None of this happened overnight. Bush began building his campaign press operation shortly after he defeated Garry Mauro in November of 1998. Even before he announced his candidacy, Bush was paying Hughes to work on the campaign on a part-time basis. He also had Mindy Tucker, a former aide to Dallas Congressman Sam Johnson, on the payroll. Last year, the campaign added Fleischer, who had been working as Elizabeth Dole's main press liaison. Today, of the 250 or so people on the campaign's payroll, about 50 are working in the press office. Another 10 work in the basement bunker of Maverick Media, headed by Mark McKinnon. The basement also houses Bob Dole's former media advisor, Stuart Stevens, a partner in the Stevens and Schreifer media firm.
"A presidential campaign is primarily communications," says spokesman Ray Sullivan, who has done stints in Bush's gubernatorial press office, in Lt. Gov. Rick Perry's press office, and as an employee of Rove. "We are making sure the governor's message gets out." Part of that strategy, says Sullivan, is providing individual attention to local reporters in battleground states like Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Toward that end, the Bush press office has a dozen spokespeople, most working on a regional, rather than a national, level. Fleisher, Tucker, and spokesman Dan Bartlett -- who previously worked in the Bush administration -- alternate appearances on TV news and talk shows. Fleisher generally speaks on federal policy, Bartlett often speaks on Bush's Texas record, and Tucker is an all-purpose spokesperson.
According to Fleischer -- who would likely become the White House press secretary if Bush wins -- Bush has no choice but to keep a large press office. "Voters vote on the message they hear," said Fleischer. "Given the increase in Internet media and the surge in cable outlets along with the other, older media outlets, we have to be here to accommodate all that."
Until the past few weeks, the mainstream press coverage of Bush has been pretty positive. But the asshole comment, combined with the debate debacle and the RATS commercial, caused a shift. Hughes tried to make a joke out of it when, shortly after The New York Times ran a front-page story on the RATS controversy, she served a tray loaded with bits of cheese to reporters aboard Bush's plane. Hughes did that, she said, to underscore what she said was the "cheesy" story run by the Times. "She was trying to focus reporters on the fact that the rat story was a curious story and she treated it with a lighthearted touch," said Fleischer.
But one reporter on the press plane, who asked not to be named, said that few members of the media were amused. "It was just stupid," he said.
The Bush press office is actually a midsized advertising firm whose sole product is George W. Bush. And the ad agency is spending huge amounts of money. According to figures published in The New York Times on Sunday, the Bush campaign, along with the Republican National Committee, has purchased millions in TV time in the past few days. And that amount will undoubtedly increase. The press office has also spent heavily to develop and promote Bush's Web site, which the campaign says is now getting about 175,000 hits per day.
"The governor recognizes the role of the Web and the new economy in current politics," says Bush communications advisor Tucker Eskew, who previously worked for former South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell. Eskew handled the overhaul of Bush's Web site earlier this summer. While it was superior to Gore's before the remake -- easier to navigate and equipped with cool features that include the ability to watch most of Bush's TV commercials with streaming video -- Eskew brought even more organization to the site, adding new features and providing a layout that resembles a portal site such as Yahoo!
According to Eskew, more than 200,000 people have used the Web site to sign up for e-mail updates, further extending the reach of a campaign that is already a coordinated email machine. Some 2,700 people are now on the campaign's e-mail press list, and dozens more are added every day. The campaign churns out daily press releases and responses to various charges from the Gore camp. Last Friday, for example, the Bush press office sent reporters 10 different e-mails. Gore's group sent out three.
But the deluge of e-mail and efforts at spin by Bush's press office may not matter, says Hall. The press has been "writing for an incredibly long time about George W. Bush and how great he was," says the media analyst. Now that Bush has shown his fallibility, the reporters won't forget it. "The trick for Bush," says Hall, "is, how does he get back on his own message?"
The irony underlying Bush's shaky relationship with the media is that he has worked very hard at courting reporters. For years he has engaged them personally, learning their names and joking with them. He makes time for regular press conferences and answers questions even when it means deviating from the all-important message.
All this while Saddam Hussein has been more accessible to reporters than has Al Gore. The vice-president hasn't held a press conference since July, and there are no plans for him to do so any time soon. (Gore's press office refused to say if or when Gore might do so.) Keeping the press at bay has allowed Gore to better control his message. It also reduces the chances that Gore will slip up and say something the media can use against him.
A year ago, Rove told me to read Out of Order, a harsh critique of the press by Thomas E. Patterson. The book's thesis is that the press is out of control, it gives short shrift to issues, and its coverage of presidential candidates is generally so negative that candidates can do little or nothing to overcome it. "The media's preference for conflict makes the battlefield the dominant metaphor of election news," writes Patterson. "The press is not the only cause of our jaded public and tattered institutions, but it is a prime contributor."
Perhaps if Rove had taken Patterson's book to heart and kept the press farther away from his candidate, Bush would be in a better position. But it's too late for that tactic now. Instead, Bush must keep cultivating the press, hoping that it will help him counter Gore's surge in the polls. He must hope the press will tire of beating up on him and will begin bashing Al Gore instead. It may be a false hope, but right now, George W. Bush doesn't have any other choice.