Hillary's Planted Questions and George W. Bush, Master of Political Theater
The conservative commentariat and right-wing bloggers are apoplectic at revelations that Hillary Clinton fielded questions planted by her staffers during recent campaign appearances. Confirming the worst stereotypes of the ever-calculating, risk-averse Clinton, Bush sycophant Michelle Malkin labeled Hillary a "crapweasel." And she should know. After all, from planted reporters and purchased pundits to invitation-only events in front of friends-only audiences, it is George W. Bush who perfected the art of the stage managed appearance designed to "catapult the propaganda."
From the beginning of his presidential quest, George W. Bush was protected from unscripted and potentially challenging interactions with the American people. And as his presidency has unraveled, the White House returned to his tried and true technique of reality-avoidance. As the New York Times reported on October 15:
Mr. Bush found nothing but admirers Monday when he answered questions during a town-hall-style meeting.
One man began by commending Mr. Bush "on your steadfastness and your faith." Another concluded by saying, "Thank you for being my president for the last seven years," with an emphasis on the word "my." A third expressed dismay that Mr. Bush could not run for president again.
Of course, when in doubt, the Secret Service is only too happy to oblige by ejecting - and sometimes arresting - those whose dissent creates discomfort for the President.
While his FEMA staff recently held a fake press conference, President Bush does the equivalent on a regular basis. As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post noted in the run-up to the Iraq war, "The president followed a script of names in choosing which reporters could ask him a question, and he received generally friendly questioning." As Peter Johnson wrote in USA Today on March 10, 2003:
Some notables - including Time, Newsweek, USA TODAY, The Washington Post and Hearst columnist Helen Thomas - were never called on, leading to all sorts of buzz in the press corps. Follow-up questions, a White House tradition, were non-existent.
USA TODAY White House reporter Larry McQuillan, seated in the front row, stopped raising his hand after he realized that Bush - who himself used the word "scripted" during the news conference to describe what was going on - was calling on names from a list and not deviating from it.
President Bush continues to use the "planted question" tactic to great effect. As ThinkProgress reported in September, Bush turned to Bill Sammon formerly of his echo chamber, the Washington Times, for the final question of a press conference. Sammon obliged by serving up a criticism of MoveOn for its "General Betray Us" ad for Bush to hit out of the park. "I thought the ad was disgusting," Bush said, adding, "I felt like the ad was an attack not only on General Petraeus, but on the U.S. military."
When ersatz journalists like Sammon were unavailable, the White House was quick to call on gay escort turned press corps fixture, Jeff Gannon. Among his duties for the right-wing news media group Talon News, Gannon teed up presidential softballs, including his January 26, 2005 classic:
"How are you going to work -- you've said you are going to reach out to these people [the Democratic leadership] -- how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"
Even with all of these safeguards in place, the president's handlers still can't be guaranteed to save him from himself. At a September 2004 campaign event, Bush mangled a statement on medical malpractice, announcing "Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country." Pitching his Social Security privatization scheme to a hand-picked African-American crowd in January 2005, the President proceeded to stereotype audience, describing personal savings accounts "which can't be used to bet on the lottery, or a dice game, or the track." (The examples of President Bush's rhetorical incontinence are so numerous - and so disturbing - as to prohibit listing them all here.)
Consistent and disciplined stage management, of course, is just the beginning of elaborate facade created for George W. Bush, the Potemkin President. From rented reporters, purchased pundits, and rigged rallies to scripted sessions, fake news and pseudo-science, an unapologetic White House has sought to alter public perceptions to control political debate - and reality itself.
The instances of media manipulation and outright fraud by the White House are simply too numerous to list here. The Bush administration paid "journalists" Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher for friendly coverage of the No Child Left Behind and new marriage initiatives. The Department of Health and Human Services distributed video news releases (VNRs) to peddle the President's Medicare drug program. The White House tried to block the release of Pentagon, NASA and other studies on the impact of global warming. The administration stonewalled decision by FDA career staffers to make the emergency contraceptive Plan B available for over the-counter sales. And former Surgeon General Richard Carmona found his report "Call to Action on Global Health" dead on arrival with Bush White House political commissars.
No doubt, the Clinton campaign showed shockingly poor judgment in force-feeding questions to their candidate on the campaign trail. But to say Hillary Clinton's conservative critics are being hypocritical is an understatement, to say the least. After all, when it comes to stage managed political theater, George W Bush is the master.
UPDATE: 1 A commenter identifying himself as "Jeff Gannon" takes exception to being labelled a "fake, fraud and phony" (his words). While almost assuredly not the real Gannon/Guckert, it's worth checking out his claim to legitimacy - and the response. Interestingly, the full text of "Gannon's" comment is excerpted from a Jeff Gannon blog post from October 29, 2007. Apparently, the same comment appears verbatim on other blogs.
UPDATE 2: Perrspectives has done more digging into Jeff Gannon's attempts to promote his book and himself on the blogs. Once again, Jeff Gannon responds and once again, Perrspectives replies here.