November 20, 2006

Making it a Family Affair

No. of Stories
Bush and daddy 37
George W. Bush and realist/pragmatist 161
George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush 400
George W. Bush and father 1030

The message on the cover of the Nov. 20 issue of Newsweek couldn’t be much clearer.

Alongside the image of George H.W. Bush (President #41) towering over his son George W. Bush (#43) was the headline “Father Knows Best: With Congress Lost And Iraq In Chaos, Bush Calls In His Dad’s Team. Can James Baker & Co. Save The Son’s Presidency?”

That’s only a modestly subtler version of the Nov. 9 New York Times column by Maureen Dowd headlined “President Bush’s come-to-daddy moment.”

“Poppy Bush and James Baker gave Sonny the presidency to play with, and he broke it,” the notoriously sharp-elbowed Dowd wrote. “So now they’re taking it back.”

Although the language has varied, the theme Newsweek and Dowd describe has caught on generally in the news media since Nov. 8. That’s when Bush #43 replaced Donald Rumsfeld—the controversial Defense Secretary widely associated with the war in Iraq—with Robert Gates, the former CIA chief under Bush #41 who is widely expected to make some changes in that war strategy.

Moreover, according to this media mega narrative, Rumsfeld was allied with some of the neo-conservatives “ideologues” who advised Bush #43 and Gates is part of a group of foreign policy “realists” closely aligned with Bush #41.

The “Father Knows Best” plot line has so many handy features – it involves foreign policy, family relations, defeat and redemption, Freudian pop psychology –that it may be irresistible. A Google News search between Nov. 8 and Nov. 17 strongly suggests that the father-and-son angle to the Rumsfeld dismissal has gained significant traction.

The search found about 1,030 stories in that period that included “George W. Bush” and the word “father” and another 37 that mentioned Bush and “daddy.” There were also about 400 stories that included both “George W. Bush” and “George H.W. Bush.”

In addition, there were roughly 161 stories from Nov. 8-17 that mentioned both George W. Bush and the words “realist” or “pragmatist.”

But while this Bush versus Bush narrative may satisfy a basic media affinity for a neat and clean story line, is it accurate? Not necessarily. In a column published in the Washington Post on Nov. 10, author James Mann warned that it is “far too simplistic” to see Gate’s appointment as “the triumph of Bush the Father’s administration over Bush the Son’s.” Mann, for example, noted that #41’s administration included such “principal architects of the war in Iraq” as current vice-president Dick Cheney, national security advisor Stephen Hadley and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.” Gates, moreover, often sided with some of the more hard line faction in Bush #41’s camp, not the so-called realists. The Mann column stood out both because it went against the grain and it was full of reporting detail.

It also pointed to a problem that can occur when the media megaphone begins to blare so loudly. Not only can these media narratives be simplistic, they can also block out other realities that the press will ignore because they don’t fit the story line. In that sense, this modern form of pack journalism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bush may make other changes post election that have nothing to do with his relationship with his father, and journalists may not be looking for them. Or Gates may not prove to be the realist he has been portrayed as. Or other voices in the Administration may prevail. Or all this may have nothing to do with Daddy.

If so, will the media notice?