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A message machine with the hiccups

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What's behind the embarrassing "aberrations" in the Bush p.r. department

No one knows where they keep the Bush message machine, but when it is working well, it hums more quietly than the White House air conditioning. So precise is this instrument that it carefully prunes the President's speeches, shaving away words such as back and backward in order to maintain the image of a man always moving ahead.

But last week horrible banging and clanking sounds could be heard all around the White House: the message machine was throwing a rod or perhaps three. First, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer blamed Bill Clinton for unintentionally spurring violence in the Middle East, saying "in an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted." That Fleischer, who normally mouths the daily message with well-practiced ease, was the one who caused the machine to seize up came as a surprise to top Administration officials. Within an hour, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, White House chief of staff Andrew Card and counselor Karen Hughes had all gathered in the press secretary's office to insist he make a formal retraction, which he did. "Ari made a mistake," Hughes said later. "What he said was not U.S. policy." As another top official told TIME: "Ari usually sticks pretty close to message. This was an aberration."

In fact, Fleischer's outburst was just the latest in a series of public relations "aberrations" to strike an Administration known for boot-camp discipline. A lot of the new confusion seemed to stem from Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, which is destined to become better known for the controversy it spawned than the report it issued. Two public-interest groups and the General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, are suing the Administration for information about the doings of Cheney's gang. But Cheney and Bush are clutching to each Post-it note, insisting that Vice Presidents (and Presidents) should be allowed to get unvarnished advice without the pesky public or Congress knowing who is giving it. Defending that principle has meant coping with a daily dose of unpleasant stories pointing out that those given access to Cheney's office were the same energy-company executives who crowd the candlelit tables at high-dollar G.O.P. fund-raising dinners. Some members of the President's staff have argued in favor of disclosure, but Bush and Cheney will not budge. "Problem? You think there's a problem?" Hughes laughed sarcastically when asked about the task force. "I'm resigned to the perception problem."

If Cheney's intransigence creates a p.r. dilemma at home, his boss caused one around the world with his State of the Union speech describing Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil." Though these may end up being the most memorable three words of the Bush presidency, they were inserted into his speech as an afterthought, a means of lifting Bush's rhetorical sights beyond his true target: Saddam Hussein. It was meant to be, as Hughes puts it, "a good quotable phrase," nothing more.

The phrase has revived Bush's reputation abroad as a swaggering unilateralist, just at the very moment his message is supposed to be coalition, coalition, coalition. The outcry from foreign diplomats was followed by various White House explanations, none of them particularly clarifying. Some aides insisted the phrase was a conscious reference to the World War II Axis powers; others argued it was not. The President was a straight talker, others said, and was proud of the phrase. Yet while in Asia and since, he didn't mention it once. Secretary of State Colin Powell, though stoutly defending Bush's expression, also called it a "bloody term."

In an environment where a single phrase can cause so much consternation, it's no wonder the White House was both swift and remorseless in burying the Pentagon's proposed Office of Strategic Influence. When word leaked that the office's mission would include the spreading of false information to foreign journalists, the White House knew what it had to do. "It was dead when it was born," sniffs one aide. Their pride wounded, Defense officials complained privately that they never had a chance to explain themselves. It's not as if the White House and State Department have changed many hearts and minds in the Arab world, they added, citing a new Gallup poll of nine Middle Eastern countries that found deep and broad resentment of the U.S.

Message machines have their own ineluctable logic, even when they're malfunctioning. As Hughes says, changing hearts and minds in the Arab world will take years. But at home, the energy task force is a bigger headache. "This isn't about p.r.," Hughes and others keep saying. "It's about principle." Time to oil the machine.


Cover Date: March 11, 2002


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