Bush: Winning & Losing the Propaganda Battle

by Rick Rockwell

One of the typical solutions for embattled presidents is to get out of town. Leave D.C. and reap some glowing headlines on the road, especially if it is out of the country. Look strong. Act like a leader of a great country.

One of the unwritten DC codes is you shouldn’t criticize the president when he’s out of the country.

So thus we have President George W. Bush’s long-overdue tour of Latin America.

But the problems of the Bush administration are so manifest, they forced the president off the front page for most of his trip. Congress wants the attorney general’s head on a pike: first Alberto Gonzales admits the FBI broke the law but there won’t be any sanction for that, and then after Gonzales’ chief of staff resigns, out comes news that Gonzales may have been less than candid with Congress.

But aside from having the troubles of his Justice Department stealing the headlines, the president made out alright down south.

For instance, in The Washington Post, what some might view as DC’s opposition newspaper, the coverage was even-handed, even subtly pro-Bush. Anyone who reads the Post regularly knows the newspaper strikes a moderate tone and actually likes the Bush family so much more than they ever embraced the Clintons.

Online you can’t see how the paper played the president’s visit, because the photos aren’t the same. But each day, positive photos of Bush meeting with presidents and ordinary folks were always twice the size of any photos depicting protesters. Eventually, although protests continued through much of the trip, the protest photos disappeared entirely. Of course, space for the president’s trip was also shrinking, so one might say that was all in the cause of economical coverage. Still the visual representation was unbalanced. For instance, there was the story of Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon mainly criticizing Bush but the photo showed them smiling and shaking hands.

The news wasn’t so good for the president down south. Not only was the coverage critical, but it couldn’t shake the edge of Washington scandal. In El Universal, one of Mexico’s top newspapers, the president’s visit concluded in that country but didn’t even make the front page online. The top Bush story: the problems of Attorney General Gonzales. The same could be seen in Guatemala’s Prensa Libre, that country’s top paper. The top international story was Gonzales, not the aftereffects of the president’s trip, where he said his time in Guatemala was one of the most memorable of his presidency.

Conversely, in Colombia, in El Espectador, the international pages still spoke of the president’s push for immigration reform. So that’s a win for the president, although arguably Colombia is the country most in tune with Bush’s agenda.

And by now, as the trip fades into memory, images of the protests, often led by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, are mostly long gone too.

Overall, on the image front, Bush comes out of Latin America a bit more polished for having heard criticisms and met them mostly with an open mind. But for a trip long on symbolism and short on substance, it could not bury the problems of six years of not being straight with the people of both North and South America.

(Photo of Mexico's President Calderon and President Bush in Uxmal by White House photographer Paul Morse; the photo is in the public domain.)

(For an earlier take on the president's trip to Latin America, please see, "Bush & Chavez: Invoking Bolivar.")

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