Frank Rich, New York Times
WE'VE never seen anything like this, even the old Kennedy-Nixon classic great debate," said a breathless Chris Matthews on the "Today" show as he touted a poll showing that John Kerry had won presidential debate No. 1 by as much as a 4-to-1 margin. But actually we have seen something like this - and at that first Kennedy-Nixon debate. The polls may have gyrated more violently this time around, but the scenario is identical: a campaign's seemingly mundane decision about television theatrics has potentially changed the dynamic of a presidential election.
..The liberal blog Daily Kos had the big picture right: on Sept. 30, "months of meticulous image manipulation" by the Bush-Cheney forces went "down the toilet in 90 minutes."That's a shocking development because until recently, that manipulation had been meticulous and then some. The administration has been brilliant at concocting camera-ready video narratives that flatter if not outright fictionalize its actions: "Saving Jessica Lynch," "Shock and Awe," the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue (a sparsely populated, unspontaneous event, when seen in the documentary "Control Room"), "Mission Accomplished." Mr. Bush has been posed by his imagineers to appear to be the fifth head on Mount Rushmore; he has kept the coffins of the American war dead off-screen; he has been seen in shirtsleeves at faux-folksy Town Hall meetings that, until his second debate with Mr. Kerry, were so firmly policed in content and attendees that they would make a Skull and Bones soiree look like a paragon of democracy in action. Time reported last spring that even the Department of Homeland Security was told to take a break from its appointed tasks to round up one terrorism-fighting photo op a month for the president.
To enforce the triumphalist narrative of these cinematic efforts, the Bush team had to cut out any skeptical press, or, as Mr. Bush once put it, "go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people" (as long as they're pre-selected). This didn't just mean avoiding press conferences and blackballing reporters from campaign planes. It also required an active program to demonize "the elite media" while feeding Fox News and its talk-radio and on-line amen chorus at every opportunity. "I end up spending a lot of time watching Fox News, because they're more accurate in my experience" is how Dick Cheney put it earlier this year. Thus the first Bush-Kerry debate was preceded by a three-installment interview with the president by Fox's Bill O'Reilly, whose idea of hard-hitting journalism is encapsulated in his boast that his was "the only national TV news program" to shield its viewers from pictures of Abu Ghraib. The highlight of his pre-debate Bush marathon was his expression of admiration for the president's guts in taking questions not submitted to him in advance. This is a "free press" in the same spirit as that championed by such Bush pals as Silvio Berlusconi, Crown Prince Abdullah, Pervez Musharraf, Ayad Allawi and, of course, dear old "Vladimir."
But those who live by Fox News can die by Fox News. If you limit your diet to Fox and its talk-radio and blogging satellites, you may think that the only pressing non-Laci Peterson, non-Kobe, non-hurricane stories are "Rathergate" and the antics of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Your diet of bad news from Iraq is restricted, and Abu Ghraib becomes an over-the-top frat hazing. You are certain that John Kerry can't score in the debates because everyone knows he's an overtanned, overmanicured metrosexual. You reside in such an isolated echo chamber that you aren't aware that even the third-rated network news broadcast, that anchored by the boogeyman Dan Rather, draws 50 percent more viewers on a bad night than "The O'Reilly Factor" does on a great one (the Bush interview).
Eventually you become a prisoner of your own fiction and lose touch with reality. You start making the mistakes Mr. Baker made - and more. The whole Bush-Cheney operation is less sure-footed about media manipulation than it once was. You could see this the week before the debate, when the president rolled out Mr. Allawi for a series of staged Washington appearances that were even less effective than his predecessor Ahmad Chalabi's State of the Union photo op with Laura Bush. No one at the White House seemed to realize that if you want to keep a puppet from being ridiculed as a puppet you don't put him on camera to deliver sound bites (some 16, by the calculation of Dana Milbank of The Washington Post) that are paraphrases of the president's much replayed golden oldies. The whole long charade played out like a lost reel of "Duck Soup."
If anything, the first Bush-Kerry confrontation has given split-screen television a new vogue. HWhen ondoleezza Rice appeared on ABC's "This Week" she was quizzed about the report in that morning's Times saying that in 2002 she had hyped aluminum tubes as evidence of Saddam's nuclear threat a year after her staff was told that government experts had serious doubts. Ms. Rice kept trying to talk over the soft-voiced George Stephanopoulos's questions, but he zapped her with a picture: a September 2002 CNN interview in which she had not, shall we say, told the whole truth and nothing but. As the old video played, ABC used a split screen so we could watch Ms. Rice, "This Is Your Life" style, as she watched the replay of her incriminating appearance of two years earlier. Maybe, like Mr. Bush at the first debate, she knew her reaction was being caught on camera. But even if she did, the unchecked rage in her face, like that of her boss three days earlier, revealed that her image and her story, like the war itself, had spun completely out of her control.