Gergen playbook evident at Waco…

Frank Rich adds his voice to criticism of Bush’s Waco summit. He might seem a bit late, but I find his reflections cogent and persuasive even though I am put off by his partisan tone. He says:

“What his critics miss is that by this administration’s standards of governance, Waco was a triumph. It was expressly designed to be content-free…The goal was never to produce policy but solely to serve up a video bite of Mr. Bush looking engaged by the woes of what his chief of staff, Andrew Card, referred to on CNN as ‘so-called real Americans.’ If the White House wanted anyone to listen, it would not have staged eight separate panels simultaneously on a Tuesday morning in the dog days of August, assuring that complete coverage would be available only on C-Span.”

In other words, Waco was a play right out of David Gergen’s well-known formula for managing the news. The climax of the summit–the whole point to it–was Bush’s delivery of these lines:

“In order to build long term security, we will enforce the rules and laws on the books. I say as plainly as I can to CEOs: if you break the law, we will hunt you down, we will arrest you, and we’ll prosecute you.”

The hunt-em-down rhetoric made the headlines as calculated. Only the pundits screeched, and no one is worried about what they think after the headlines and the TV repeat the message. The impression has been made.

What gets lost in Rich’s piece is that this kind of news management is standard operating procedure in White House politics. You’ll recall that Gergen worked for Reagan and Clinton. The Democrats manufacture and manipulate news in this way, too. And that’s why I’m put off by Rich’s tone. One would think he believes this type of manipulation is confined to Bush in particular or Republicans in general. No so.

My consternation aside, Rich’s piece is worth reflection because he attempts to show how news management interlocks political messages and policy. What we get from the TV is a series of discreet, disconnected, and time-bound events. Rich shows us that messages, and the events created to deliver them, are not discreet; they are part of a plan.