Giving Bush a pass — again

The D.C. press corps failed to ask hard questions about the inauguration's huge cost and its unprecedented security.

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In Sunday’s New York Times, John Tierney examined the delicate balancing act administrations face when throwing a lavish inauguration celebration against the backdrop of unsettling world events. Tierney wrote that inaugurations “become even trickier during times of war, particularly when television images of dancers in black tie can be instantly juxtaposed with soldiers in body armor.”

Tierney must be confusing the D.C. press corps as it might be expected to function — posing uncomfortable questions to those in power — with the press corps that exists in Washington today. Because the notion that the television networks or 24-hour news channels would spend their inauguration coverage contrasting the scenes of wealthy corporate donors toasting the president while young soldiers and middle-aged Guardsmen battle in Iraq is wildly naive. During the nearly 24 months of war coverage of Iraq, many American news outlets have remained steadfastly allergic to relaying disturbing images of war, particularly anything that shows Americans being wounded or killed. So the idea that broadcast journalists would use this celebration, of all things, as a time to press President Bush on Iraq simply does not reflect the modus operandi of today’s mainstream media.

This week’s inauguration story came ready with two interesting news angles: the huge cost (in contrast with the dire situation in Iraq) and the unprecedented security. And in both cases, the political press corps, as has been its habit under the Bush administration, showed little interest in prying. In the days and weeks leading up to the event, the press has largely treated inauguration criticism as partisan and silly, making sure to give Bush backers lots of time and room to defend the unmatched pomp and circumstance.

Yet according to a mostly underreported Washington Post poll this week, a strong majority of Americans — 66 percent, including 46 percent of Republicans — would have preferred a “smaller, more subdued” inauguration, given the ongoing war in Iraq. In other words, Bush’s overblown celebration ranks as one of the few political issues that most Americans agree on — a phenomenon the press ignored.

For the media, simply reporting on the cost of the inauguration proved to be a challenge. Most major outlets stuck to the lower, albeit still unprecedented, figure of $40 million, which the Presidential Inaugural Committee said it hopes to raise from private donors. But a more accurate figure may be $50 million. That’s the amount cited by the Washington Times (which is plugged in to GOP circles). But even that number doesn’t take into account the nearly $20 million that’s being spent for security, putting the real cost at closer to $70 million, instead of the media’s preferred $40 million.

And it might have been helpful in the limited media debate that did take place about the inauguration’s costs to point out that if the $40 million to $50 million raised for the GOP’s parties had been donated to the war effort, as some have suggested, the money would have covered only about six hours of the U.S. military’s operations in Iraq. (Costs are running roughly $110,000 per minute there.) Also interesting but unnoted is that between the 2001 and 2005 inaugurations, Bush and his supporters have spent roughly $115 million total on parties and parades.

The same brand of tentative reporting occurred with regard to the massive, unprecedented and still unexplained security blanket that has turned the nation’s capital into something akin to an armed fortress, with snipers on rooftops, bombers flying overhead, Humvee-mounted anti-aircraft missiles dotting the city, and manholes cemented shut. This despite last week’s assessment compiled by the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice, which declared, “There is no credible information indicating that domestic or international terrorist groups are targeting the inauguration.”

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Nonetheless, like butter on a humid summer day in Washington, reporters have simply melted away from asking pointed questions about the costly security overkill (nearly 9,000 police officers and military personnel will be deployed) — a buildup that clearly plays to Bush’s political advantage by keeping terrorist threats at the top of people’s minds.

When not deferring to Bush administration officials on the unprecedented security, news teams from outlets such as Time magazine, ABC News and Fox News have been busy hyping terror threats — leaked by Bush administration officials — about explosive-filled limousines that could literally crash the inauguration. “Imagine a terrorist plot to gut this entire vehicle except for the front seats, filling the rest with high-grade explosives, enough to bring down a building,” intoned ABC’s Chris Cuomo (emphasis added). The terror “reminder” sent to intelligence officials this week was based on al-Qaida documents seized last year that made no reference to the inauguration.

The press’s timidity toward the White House has been on constant display since the election. In selecting Bush late last month as its Person of the Year, Time, which devoted eight stories and 17,000 words to toasting Bush in that issue, seemed in awe that a Republican wartime president, who once boasted approval ratings in the 70s, was able to defeat a liberal from Massachusetts in the election. And contrary to dispatches from the campaign trail about how Bush had repeated the same vague stump speech over and over again throughout the fall, Time insisted, “Bush ran big and bold and specific all at the same time, rivaling Reagan in breadth of vision and Clinton in tactical ingenuity” (emphasis added).

Playing catch-up, Newsweek’s Inauguration Eve cover story this week was equally fawning, insisting that contrary to what readers may have read or suspected, Bush is “hands-on, [is] detail-oriented and hates ‘yes’ men.” He’s a commander in chief who “masters details and reads avidly, who chews over his mistakes” and who “digs deep into his briefing books.” According to whom? Bush’s closest “aides” and “friends,” of course.

Newsweek also reported that Bush’s natural self-confidence was boosted by his “clear election victory” in November. But as Salon previously noted, in the past 80 years, only three times have presidents been elected with fewer than 300 electoral votes. Bush accounts for two of the three anomalies; in 2000 he won 271 electoral votes, and in 2004 he captured 286. (Jimmy Carter is the third example, with 297.) By way of comparison, Bush’s final margin of victory was almost identical to Carter’s win over Gerald Ford in 1976, when there was very little discussion of a mandate for the Democrat. Yet to Newsweek’s eyes, Bush enjoyed a “clear victory.”

Meanwhile, U.S. News and World Report’s cover theme this week — again courtesy of Bush aides — is the president as a big thinker. The Los Angeles Times echoed that premise with the first sentence of a Monday news article, declaring, “As he prepares to launch his second term, President Bush is aiming for nothing less than a legacy that would rank him among America’s great presidents.”

Press coverage doesn’t get much friendlier than that. Perhaps the White House should consider it an inauguration gift.

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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