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Bush image meltdown

First bereaved Cindy Sheehan, then Katrina shifted the US media into critical mode says Dave Cunningham in tracking the fall from grace of George W Bush.

“The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity - much less dissent” - Gore Vidal

In an excellent analysis of the problems of the American media in the New York Review of Books for December 15 Michael Manning described the tone of the media coverage of Bush at the beginning of this year.

"President Bush, fresh from his reelection, was enjoying broad public support, and he was making the most of Iraq's January 30 election, which was widely proclaimed a success. The anti-Syria demonstrations in Lebanon and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority only added to the impression of the growing success of Bush's foreign policy. Journalists rushed to praise his leadership and sagacity. 'What Bush Got Right,' Newsweek declared on its March 14 cover. Recent developments in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East had 'vindicated' the President, the magazine declared. 'Across New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—and probably Europe and Asia as well—people are nervously asking themselves a question: 'Could he possibly have been right? The short answer is yes.' Another article, headlined 'Condi's Clout Offensive,' hailed the new secretary of state, noting how she 'has rushed onto the world stage with force and style, and with the fair wind of the Arab Democratic Spring at her back.'

Every newspaper and television outlet, it seemed, was busily running The Map, a picture of the US covered by a huge blotch of red (pro-Bush) radiating out from the centre, with only a few little enclaves of anti-Bush blue scattered around the East and West Coasts and  a couple of pockets around the Northern borders.

This is pathetic, servile bootlicking. 'Fresh from his election', for example, elides the increasing evidence, subscribed to by millions including myself, that Bush was never elected president in two shots at the post and that it is an illegitimate administration. To contend that Bush was 'possibly' right on the Iraqi invasion and occupation -- 'the short answer is yes’(!) -- was grotesque then and delusional now. So far as Ms. Rice's Democratic Spring wind blowing her forward, she was just recently touring Europe explaining how the torture she claims her government doesn't do is nevertheless the torture protecting the US's allies from terrorism and the like. 

And that intimidating Map? Its assumptions have dissolved into air. In late November  a consort of media organizations funded a poll by Survey USA to do a state-by-state approval rating for Bush: it turns out there are three states which continue to show a moderate level of  approval (e.g., 50-59%) for Bush: they are Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. That's all. Every other state falls into the disapproval category. Ratings this low shortly after reelection are beyond unique.

Bush's approval numbers read like a carnival roller coaster in the timeline of popularity polls over the past five years. Never much more than  50% early in his first term, there was a huge spike in the weeks after the September 11 attacks, some figures reaching to near 90% support. From there the numbers drift down, with a large spike again at the onset of the invasion of Iraq, another at the capture of Saddam Hussein and finally (to 50%) at the time of the US elections in 2004. But the trend always was down, showing Bush is not at all a popular or well liked president. Polling in the 35 percentile, as has been the case for Bush off and on since October, is unsustainably low, but short of extraordinary events his approval rating will probably not go much above 40%.

Behind the decline in Bush’s popularity and influence in this country is the War and the occupation of Iraq. Increasing public disapproval of Bush began with Cindy Sheehan’s decision to confront Bush  on his vacation in Texas in August.  Incensed by Bush's statement that U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq died in a 'noble cause', Ms. Sheehan, the mother of a young man who died in the occupation, decided to go to Crawford, Texas, and ask Bush to explain to her what 'noble cause' it was for which her son was killed.

Every decision which might possibly lead to a difficult personal challenge in Bush’s world is handled by surrogates. His refusal to speak with Ms Sheehan can be explained as cowardly, or callousness, or because the reason for the war was US control of the Iraqi oil reserves (hardly the noble cause of the inane speeches), but for whatever reason he chose to hide out at his mansion and ride his bicycle rather than risk any confrontation with her. Ms Sheehan refused to deal with the proffered surrogates; she was then rapidly joined by many other supporters.

So the Republican noise machine revved up to slander and vilify Ms Sheehan as happens every time anyone appears insufficiently obsequious to Mr. Bush. The unintended consequence of this smear-fest was the creation of an organizing centre for the rebirth of the stalled peace movement. And a part of the press sat up and took notice.

Then Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. Unaccountably, Bush stayed far out of contact on his Texas vacation and, in a continuous demonstration of stunning incomprehension, ignored the whole situation for five or six days, finally returning only to try to deflect criticism from FEMA and blame someone -- the governor, the mayor, whoever -- other than his own cronies and appointees. This issue was well reviewed by Pete Smith in his article 'Desolation Row' in the last Chartist. It only needs to be noted here that despite everything most people in the United States still believe it is the primary responsibility of government to protect its people, and that the spectacle of dead bodies floating in the main streets of what had been a major American city was enough to awaken even the most bemused of the media and the electorate.

This fiasco, and its demonstration of the Bush governmental apparatus’s indifference to poor and Black people (two-thirds of New Orleans was Black) and staggering incompetence in the basic tasks of government finally punctured a hole in the media’s operational portrayal of Bush as an enormously popular war president and began to portray him as very much the opposite.

A process less dramatic than the Cindy Sheehan movement or the devastation of New Orleans but more likely to have a regime-ending impact is the Patrick Fitzgerald investigation of White House involvement in the byzantine, convoluted 'CIA Leak' case. Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson traveled to Niger to investigate rumours Iraq was attempting to buy uranium for atomic weapons, and found the source of the stories was a crude forgery. After Bush repeated the accusation in his State of the Union address whipping up war hysteria, Wilson wrote an opinion piece saying it was all a fraud. A few days later a right-wing columnist published an attack on Wilson, saying among other things he had it on the authority of administration sources that Wilson's wife was CIA. Outing CIA agents is felonious, but the White House stonewalled, the CIA complained, and the Justice Department appointed a special prosecutor, Mr. Fitzgerald. (Fitzgerald was also the prosecutor in the Conrad Black indictment.)

Over the past two years, in events eerily similar to the Watergate investigations of thirty years ago that brought down Nixon, Fitzgerald has indicted Scooter Libby of the Vice-President's office, and appears on the brink of indicting Karl Rove, Bush's top aide. Further, he has exposed the White House Iraq Group, an ad hoc group which 'marketed' the war to the public and the media and has publicized various celebrity journalists who carry water and do semi-propaganda for the regime. The upshot has been, as the New York Times’ Frank Rich has written,  'Largely because of the revelations prompted by the marathon Fitzgerald investigation, a majority of Americans now believe that the Bush administration deliberately misled the country into war.'

Quite evidently by now the Bush regime is seen by a majority of the electorate and the media alike as a lame duck heading up a failed presidency. But short of some exceptional circumstances there are three more years until Bush is out of power. If Republicans were to maintain their control of both houses of Congress after the elections next year the situation will become even more toxic and polarized than now. If the Democrats take either or both houses after these elections they will have control of all committees and subpoena power to compel testimony, run investigations, and the like. Despite the very poor level of Democratic Party leadership it’s a virtual certainly that a Democratic majority in either house would mean an attempt to impeach Bush. For the time being that would be a necessary, if not sufficient, beginning.