To: George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States
From: A media guy
Dear Mr. President:
I realize you’re not exactly a Hollywood type, and the movies you do like tend to be out of favor now — you know, Westerns and such. (A warning about HBO’s “Deadwood” — Great stuff, but very blue language. Might not be Laura’s cup of tea!)
Still, inasmuch as you’ve stated that you generally don’t read newspapers, you would be well advised to pay more attention to movies and television, since there are some important lessons to be gleaned from them that might help you in terms of managing public perceptions and dealing with various crises.
Movies alone offer plenty of useful advice — allegories, to use one of those effete liberal kind of words — that could be illuminating. And before you dismiss this as a Clintonian, “I feel your pain” kind of thing, remember that conservative icon Ronald Reagan had a pretty good flair for the dramatic, too.
For starters, adopting a bunker mentality and then lashing out at your critics seldom plays well with the press. Have you been reading (oops, never mind) any of the coverage regarding Disney and its chairman, Michael Eisner? Food for thought, there.
Specifically, I respectfully suggest that you and your staff stepped in it, if you’ll forgive a touch of Texas-style imagery, in relation to this Dick Clarke affair. Like the one without the “e,” this fellow is gangbusters on television — sincere, well-spoken, even apologetic. His book might very well be a hatchet job by a disgruntled employee to embarrass you, but he comes across on TV as someone who believes what he’s saying, so unleashing the attack dogs on him doesn’t look very good.
If you watch enough movies, you’d also know that we have a way of romanticizing whistle blowers, from “The Insider” to Jack Lemmon’s cuddly character in “The China Syndrome.” By pouncing on Clarke, you’ve cast yourselves in the role of the big faceless corporation — not the most popular group with the public right now, though from what I see in the business pages, their malfeasance is producing a banner year for lawyers.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to digress, since I assume (and hope) you’re busy. Anyway, as someone familiar with the media, I think you’ve handled this whole WMD thing all wrong. The public loves seeing someone powerful admit that they’ve screwed up and ask for forgiveness — an act Hollywood stars have perfected with their in-and-out privileges at the Betty Ford Center. Heck, even Rush Limbaugh did it!
Let’s face it, beyond a few partisan hacks, no one is desperate to go back and assign blame for not having seen Sept. 11 coming. So if I were you, I’d stand up (maybe in front of an American flag, like in “Patton”) and say, “Yep, we got blindsided. The good news is we got ourselves together right quick and began spanning the globe, kicking evil-doer butt and taking unpronounceable names to make you safer.”
As for trying to cozy up to the media, why bother? Sure, you garnered a few laughs at the White House correspondents dinner at your own expense, but it’s not like exhibiting a sense of humor is going to make the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd stop pounding you in every single column she writes. (I’m a big fan of her writing, and even I’m getting a little tired of the incessant drumbeat.)
By the way, I just caught “The Passion of the Christ,” and while I’m not sure how true it is to the book, you should really see this movie. If nothing else, it will make your problems with the 9/11 Commission feel like small potatoes, and it’s amazing how many different angles can be used to capture someone crumbling to the ground in slow motion. Who knew?
The point is, we’re an increasingly divided nation whose rare moments of community often flow from pop culture. The people that queue up this summer for “Spider-Man 2” or the next “Harry Potter” might have little in common beyond a desire to escape reality for a few hours. It’s worth noting, too, that more young people will likely flock to such diversions than bother to vote.
Your anticipated Democratic opponent, John Kerry, has already reached out to that audience, appearing last week for a half-hour MTV interview, and trust me, if they’ll promise you the same kind of treatment, accept the network’s invitation. The Kerry show amounted to a half-hour infomercial set to a rock beat, with nary a follow-up question (OK, maybe one) challenging anything the candidate said.
While a bit overly starched in his manner, Kerry also spoke directly to the young crowd by saying he was “fascinated by rap” and opposed to censoring entertainment, though he didn’t rule out using the political pulpit to push for more elevated standards. He even admitted that he had “Googled” himself, and if you don’t know what that means, it isn’t as dirty as it sounds.
What’s clear is that pop culture and media have bled into politics and can’t be dismissed or ignored. Even Al Gore (who, thanks in part to you, is still seeking a real job) is trying to get into the act by acquiring a small cable network, Newsworld International, to dispense public affairs programming to the youth market.
For a final demonstration of the nexus between showbiz and politics, look no further than your own party to California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went from “The Running Man” to the running man and “Total Recall” to a total recall.
In fact, if all else fails the answer to what ails you might be found in that latter film or the current release “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” simply by erasing the memory of what we went to Iraq about in the first place.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure your people haven’t put that plan into motion. In fact, despite your Texas roots by way of Connecticut, I suspect you get the whole Hollywood mentality better than you’ve let on.