A Peek Under the PR Mask

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 30, 2005; 2:39 PM

Once in a blue moon, we actually get a peek under the White House's public-relations mask, and this morning it comes courtesy of Peter Baker and Dan Balz , whose front-pager in The Washington Post suggests that Bush's unflagging public confidence about his Iraq policy reflects the work of public opinion researchers.

Yes, the very same White House that outwardly exudes contempt for polls has in fact recently hired a prominent academic pollster onto the National Security Council staff and has concluded that the key to public support for the war is not the number of casualties in Iraq, nor whether the war was right or wrong -- but whether people feel like we're going to win.

Baker and Balz write: "When President Bush confidently predicts victory in Iraq and admits no mistakes, admirers see steely resolve and critics see exasperating stubbornness. But the president's full-speed-ahead message articulated in this week's prime-time address also reflects a purposeful strategy based on extensive study of public opinion about how to maintain support for a costly and problem-plagued military mission.

"The White House recently brought onto its staff one of the nation's top academic experts on public opinion during wartime, whose studies are now helping Bush craft his message two years into a war with no easy end in sight. Behind the president's speech is a conviction among White House officials that the battle for public opinion on Iraq hinges on their success in convincing Americans that, whatever their views of going to war in the first place, the conflict there must and can be won. . . .

"In shaping their message, White House officials have drawn on the work of Duke University political scientists Peter D. Feaver and Christopher F. Gelpi, who have examined public opinion on Iraq and previous conflicts. Feaver, who served on the staff of the National Security Council in the early years of the Clinton administration, joined the Bush NSC staff about a month ago as special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform."

In his academic life, Feaver wasn't media shy. And his colleague Gelpi, still an academic, isn't operating under White House messaging protocol.

Gelpi told Baker and Balz, for instance, that he thinks the president did not truly achieve what he needed to with Tuesday's speech.

"What's important for him now to keep the public with him is to look forward and say we're going to make progress and this is what progress looks like," Gelpi said. "He may have stemmed the flow for a little bit, but I don't think he's given the public a framework for showing how we're making progress."

And Feaver and Gelpi both have quite a paper trail. There was, for instance, the controversial 1999 article in The Post's Outlook section , in which they described poll results showing that the public would consider up to 30,000 deaths in Iraq to be an acceptable number.

Feaver and Gelpi co-authored this article , published just a few weeks ago: "We find that -- while the public is rightly averse to suffering casualties -- the level of popular sensitivity to US military casualties depends critically on the context in which those losses occur. Our core argument is that the public's tolerance for the human costs of war is primarily shaped by the intersection of two crucial attitudes: beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of the war in the first place, and beliefs about the war's likely success. Both attitudes are important, and the impact of each depends upon the other. However, we find that beliefs about the likelihood of success matter most in determining the public's willingness to tolerate American military deaths in combat . . .

"The Iraq case suggests that under the right conditions, the public will continue to support military operations even when they come with a relatively high human cost."

Several months into the war, Thomas E. Ricks wrote in The Washington Post that Feaver had just briefed White House and other administration officials: "'First, worry less about persuading the American people he really did the right thing, and more about ensuring that the mission is going to be successful -- and persuading the American people of that,' he said.

"Also, he said, the administration needs to develop valid and convincing measures of success in Iraq, 'so he himself knows whether he is winning.'

"Finally, Feaver said, the administration should worry less about communicating the strength of its resolve and more about 'how their behind-the-scenes actions undercut their rhetoric.' "

So how much of that advice is the White House taking? Only a little part of it, really.

Feaver and Gelpi were Live Online on washingtonpost.com in 2003, shortly before the war began, and Feaver speculated on Bush's possible Achilles Heel:

"President Bush subscribes to the momentum theory of politics: that success breeds success, and political capital accrues to the one who spends political capital. So far, this has worked remarkably well . . .

"But the danger is that it can lead to over-reach -- if President Bush misjudges popular sentiment while pursuing this strategy he is likely to fall much further/faster than a more cautious politician who triangulated every issue and never tried to lead public opinion anywhere.

"For that reason, public sentiment is probably more important for President Bush than for other presidents -- he is trying to do more and is willing to get out in front of the public more than other Presidents and this makes him more exposed."

And here are Feaver and Gelpi 's home pages at Duke, if you want to read more.

Speech Redux

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com: "There are only three major problems with Bush's latest attempt to tie Iraq to 9/11. One is political, another personal, yet another is practical.

"Bush's political problem is that Americans may like the memory of his response to 9/11, but the fear of Al Qaeda has faded dramatically . . .

"The personal problem is one of credibility and confusion. . . . In a news conference in October 2003, Bush himself said the suicide bombers were 'Baathists and foreign terrorists.'. . . . That picture of the enemy was reversed on Tuesday. Now the president says the enemy consists of foreign fighters who have linked up with a few Saddam loyalists. . . .

"Then there's the practical problem. If foreign fighters are finding it easy to enter Iraq and attack U.S. forces, what's to stop them leaving just as easily? And if there's such a big pool of them outside Iraq, what's to stop some of them traveling to Washington instead of Baghdad?"

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Two weeks before the United States attacked Iraq, President Bush told the American people: 'Should we have to go in, our mission is very clear: disarmament. And in order to disarm, it would mean regime change.'

"Tuesday evening on prime-time television, 28 months later, Bush said: 'Our mission in Iraq is clear. We are hunting down the terrorists. We are helping Iraqis build a free nation that is an ally in the war on terror. We are advancing freedom in the broader Middle East.'

"To some, the change of words constitutes an inexcusable about-face. To others, the words are two ways of saying the same thing.

"It is that disagreement, as Bush embarks on an effort to rally the country behind his Iraq policy, that lies at the heart of the nation's division on the war."

Sandalow offers up some samples of the president's statements over time regarding the mission for the war against Iraq.

Meanwhile, press secretary Scott McClellan defended Bush's repeated invocations of Sept. 11 in his speech, insisting that he wasn't trying to imply that Iraq was responsible.

From yesterday's briefing : "Who made any suggestion of a link to the attacks? What the President was talking about was that September 11th taught us important lessons. It taught us that we must confront threats before they full materialize, before they reach our shores. That's why the President decided we were going to take the fight to the enemy. We are taking the fight to the enemy abroad so that we don't have to fight them here at home. We are on the offense, not defense. And that's the way you fight and wage and win the war on terrorism."

The Sound of Silence

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "When President Bush visits military bases, he invariably receives a foot-stomping, loud ovation at every applause line. At bases like Fort Bragg - the backdrop for his Tuesday night speech on Iraq - the clapping is often interspersed with calls of 'Hoo-ah,' the military's all-purpose, spirited response to, well, almost anything.

"So the silence during his speech was more than a little noticeable, both on television and in the hall. On Wednesday, as Mr. Bush's repeated use of the imagery of the Sept. 11 attacks drew bitter criticism from Congressional Democrats, there was a parallel debate under way about whether the troops sat on their hands because they were not impressed, or because they thought that was their orders . . .

"Capt. Tom Earnhardt, a public affairs officer at Fort Bragg who participated in the planning for the president's trip, said that from the first meetings with White House officials there was agreement that a hall full of wildly cheering troops would not create the right atmosphere for a speech devoted to policy and strategy. . . .

"As the message drifted down to commanders, it appears that it may have gained an interpretation beyond what the administration's image-makers had in mind. 'This is a very disciplined environment,' said Captain Earnhardt, 'and some guys may have taken it a bit far,' leaving the troops hesitant to applaud."

Kevin Maurer , who covers the military for the Fayetteville Observer, was in the Ft. Bragg gymnasium Tuesday.

So why didn't they applaud? I called Maurer and asked him.

"When President Bush came in, the Sergeant Major called them all to attention," Maurer said. That explained their silence as Bush approached the podium. But after that?

"The only thing I can think of is that they just weren't told to," Maurer said. "Because they're soldiers, you're not going to get your normal crowd. They're going to sit disciplined and listen to the speech."

It was certainly not a reflection of the audience's disapproval, Maurer said. He spoke to several members of the audience after the speech and he told me "it kind of reaffirmed what they were doing . . . they got sort of a renewed vigor."

Lousy Ratings

Reuters reports: "President Bush's address to the nation, urging Americans to stand firm in Iraq, drew the smallest TV audience of his tenure, Nielsen Media Research reported on Wednesday.

"Bush's speech on Tuesday night at the Ft. Bragg military base in North Carolina averaged 23 million viewers combined on the four major U.S. broadcast networks and three leading cable news channels networks that carried the speech, Nielsen said."

A Bush Interview

Roland Watson and Gerard Baker write in the Times of London: "President Bush is ready to commit more American resources to Africa, but only for countries that put their houses in order, he has told The Times days before the G8 summit. . . .

"In an exclusive Oval Office interview with The Times, Mr Bush branded Robert Mugabe a tyrant who had ruined his country, but said that he would not attach strings to US food aid because that would punish ordinary Zimbabweans.

"On the other big issue of the Gleneagles summit, Mr Bush offered another nod towards Tony Blair, saying that he was committed to finding new energy sources to replace fossil fuels and conceded that Americans would have to end their love affair with gas-guzzling cars. 'We are leading the way,' he insisted."

Here's the transcript of the interview.

Gerard Baker writes about the atmosphere: "In person Mr Bush is so far removed from the caricature of the dim, war-mongering Texas cowboy of global popular repute that it shakes one's faith in the reliability of the modern media."

And, Baker writes: "As expansive as he is, Mr Bush can't help betraying a faint irritation at the intrusiveness of the modern media, with a reference to a famous brief medical emergency from a couple of years ago.

"He points out the door in the well of the presidential desk, placed there by President Roosevelt to hide the fact that he spent his presidency in a wheelchair. 'FDR was in a wheelchair and nobody knows. I choke on a pretzel and the whole world gets to hear about it.' "

Roland Watson writes: "President Bush will celebrate his 59th birthday in Scotland on Wednesday, the first US President to go north of the border since Eisenhower.

"But when asked if he would be tempted to try haggis, he was blunt. 'Yes, haggis, I was briefed on haggis . . . No.

" 'Generally, on your birthday, my mother used to say, 'What do you want to eat?' and I don't ever remember saying, 'Haggis, Mum'.'

"Nor did he plan to wear a kilt."

But here's my question: Why didn't Baker or Watson ask a single question about the Downing Street memos -- published and championed by their colleague at the Sunday Times, Michael Smith?

Intel Watch

Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "President Bush ordered another shake-up of the nation's intelligence services yesterday, forming new national security divisions within both the FBI and the Justice Department and, for the first time, putting a broad swath of the FBI under the authority of the nation's spy chief. . . .

"Civil liberties advocates immediately criticized the changes at the FBI, arguing that they represent a radical step toward the creation of a secret police force in the United States. Many Justice prosecutors and FBI agents had also fiercely opposed the changes but were overruled by Bush's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, officials said."

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "The changes ordered by Mr. Bush are among the most far-reaching yet taken by the Bush administration and Congress to overhaul an intelligence structure whose deep flaws have been exposed by major failures on terrorism and Iraq. . . .

"The broad outline of the White House plan for the restructuring had been previously known. But the tone of Mr. Bush's memorandum to his deputies and the tenor of the White House announcement made clear that the White House was determined to override any lingering misgivings within the F.B.I., on grounds that 'further prompt action' was intended 'to meet challenges to the security of the United States.' "

Elisabeth Bumiller profiled Townsend yesterday in the New York Times.

And Townsend spoke at length at yesterday's press briefing .

So, the White House accepted 70 or the 74 recommendations from its WMD Commission. Which ones didn't they accept? Here's one: "The Director of National Intelligence should hold accountable the organizations that contributed to the flawed assessments of Iraq's WMD programs." That one gets "further study."

Today's Calendar

Bush made remarks before the upcoming G8 summit this morning at the Freer Gallery.

Jennifer Loven reports for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Thursday called for a $1.2 billion U.S. effort to cut deaths from malaria in Africa in half over five years, part of a range of new initiatives targeted at the continent's problems."

Valerie Plame Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post that Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan yesterday chided Matt Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times for keeping a promise not to identify a confidential source.

"In appellate court filings, [special prosecutor Patrick J.] Fitzgerald has indicated that he knows the identity of Miller's source and that the official has voluntarily come forward.

" 'The sources have waived their confidentiality,' Hogan said. 'They're not relying on the promises of the reporters. . . . It's getting curiouser and curiouser.'

"Attorneys for Miller and Cooper did not respond directly. They have said the investigation appears to have changed from a probe of whether officials identified a covert agent to whether they perjured themselves in testimony to prosecutors. The latter, they said, does not justify jailing reporters.

"Fitzgerald declined to comment, but in court papers unsealed yesterday he said the case remains unchanged and focuses on potentially serious criminal misconduct."

Pat Milton reports for the Associated Press this morning: "Time Inc. said Thursday it would comply with a court order to deliver the notes of a reporter threatened with jail in the investigation of the leak of an undercover CIA officer's name."

Jacques Steinberg writes in the New York Times: "Robert D. Novak, the columnist whose unmasking of a C.I.A. operative prompted an investigation of who had given her name to him and others, expressed disappointment yesterday that two other reporters faced going to jail for not cooperating in the case.

"But Mr. Novak, in an appearance on 'Inside Politics' on CNN and in a subsequent telephone interview, once again refused to answer questions about what contact, if any, he had had with the federal prosecutor conducting the investigation or about what extent he might have cooperated in the case."

Here's the transcript of Novak's interview on CNN with Ed Henry. "My lawyer said I cannot answer any specific questions about this case until it is resolved, which I hope is very soon," Novak said.

"HENRY: Do you understand why in general there's frustration among fellow journalist after 41 years of distinguished work, where you've always pushed and been a fierce advocate of the public's right to know, you're not letting the public know about such a critical case, and two people may go to jail.

"NOVAK: Well, they are not going to jail because of me. Whether I answer your questions or not, it has nothing to do with that. That's very ridiculous to think that I am the cause of their going to jail. I don't think they should be going to jail. . . .

"HENRY: No, but some people feel if you would come forward with the information that you have, that maybe they would not go to jail.

"NOVAK: But you don't know -- Ed, you don't know anything about the case. And those people who say that don't know anything about the case. And unfortunately, as somebody who likes to write, I'd like to say a lot about the case, but because of my attorney's advice I can't. But I will. And there might be some surprising things."

OK, a couple thoughts. First, Novak says his lawyer has told him not to comment. This is either preposterous or highly suggestive.

Presumably, Novak has spoken to Fitzgerald's grand jury. And while it is illegal for prosecutors or grand jurors to disclose grand jury testimony, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a witness repeating his testimony word for word on the courthouse steps.

So why would his lawyer tell him not to comment? Could it be because Novak himself is now a target of an obstruction of justice investigation?

And if in fact as Fitzgerald suggests the official in question has voluntarily come forward (presumably with an explanation of why his conduct wasn't illegal) isn't it safe to assume that the official has also told his or her bosses at the White House?

So why not just ask Bush who it is and get it over with?


The Associated Press reports: "President Bush was hurried from his residence to a safer location Wednesday evening and people were evacuated from the White House and U.S. Capitol when a private plane ventured into restricted airspace.

"The all-clear came within minutes when two fighter jets intercepted the small twin-engine propeller-driven plane eight miles northeast of the Capitol. The alert ended before evacuations were complete at the White House."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis of the Baltimore Sun recounted in her pool report that although no general alarm was sounded, senior staffers including deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch, counselor Dan Bartlett and Vice Presidential chief of staff I. Lewiss "Scooter" Libby were spotted rushing out of the West Wing, and that McClellan was starting to move toward an exit when the alert was lowered.

Gibberish on the White House Web Site

Looking for signs of renewal in Iraq? Don't look at this page on the White House Web site.

Blogger No More Mr. Nice Guy found the page, which ostensibly is a "news archive" of stories about Iraqi renewal, but in fact contains Latin phrases traditionally used by typographers as "filler" -- sort of an elegant way of saying "content here."

For instance, one link says: "lorem ipsum, quia dolor sit, amet, consectetur."

As the Lorem Ipsum Web site explains: "Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. . . .

"Lorem Ipsum comes from sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33 of 'de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum' (The Extremes of Good and Evil) by Cicero, written in 45 BC. This book is a treatise on the theory of ethics, very popular during the Renaissance."

Translated, the full text apparently reads something like this: "Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure."

Froomkin Watch

I am taking tomorrow off, so no column until Tuesday morning.

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