A few months ago, the White House announced a cunning new PR strategy. Forget the closetted advisory panels, the carefully stage-managed media performances and even the wireless transmitters. From now on, they said, we are going to let Bush be Bush. The result has been truly disastrous.
The strategy was supposed to halt Bush's relentless plummet in the popularity polls. There were two key planks: getting Bush out among the people, and leveraging what FOX News pundits like to call "Bush's famously likeable personality".
In the last half of March, Bush surprised everybody by holding two press conferences and even taking unscripted audience questions at two events. The key to the new Bush, it seems, was his humour. Previewing a trip to Cancun, Bush declared: "No Speedo suit here... thankfully!" Asked about the immigration debate, Bush said it was "obviously topic du jour". When that got a laugh, Bush pushed the gag further: "Pretty fancy, huh? Topic du jour?" Another laugh, but that was enough. "I don't want to ruin the image," he confided with a wink.
The Washington Post called it "fratboy towel-snapping humor". Others questioned the tastefulness of Bush's light-hearted humour in the face of ongoing deaths in Iraq, a record US deficit and ballooning Republican scandals. Others noticed that Bush often uses humour as a means of avoiding the hard questions.
For example, when a Philadelphia student prefaced her question about lawless private contractors in Iraq by explaining that she had already tried to ask Donald Rumsfeld the same question, Bush cut her off before she could finish: "And I'm gonna ask him!" he declared. Even the girl asking the question had to laugh. "Help!" cried Bush. More laughs. Hilarious.
But Bush was serious: he couldn't answer the girl's question. He admitted as much while laughing so hard he started snorting like a jackass. (And if you think I am being harsh, just watch the video and remember how Howard Dean was crucified for a similar performance).
It's not hard to trace the origins of this new "let Bush be Bush" policy. George W. Bush, the GOP's Presidential Candidate in 2000, was hand-picked by Cheney's odd-ball coalition of neo-con war-mongers, religious fanatics and Big Business icons to be the titular head of their puppet presidency. Despite Bush's long history of personal problems, his lack of high-level political experience and his track record of embarrassing business failures, the Cheney cabal chose him because - they thought - he would win them the White House and then do what he was told.
It all worked OK during Bush's first term. Dubya may have been deeply annoyed by revelations of the Iraq WMD fiasco, he may have privately blamed Rove and Cheney for many of his other problems, but he never let his anger spill out in public. Even as the Fitzgerald inquiry heated up, the close-knit Bush team put their simmering tensions aside to score a nail-biting second election victory. Since then, however, the White House has run into a relentless stream of problems, including Hurricane Katrina and a string of GOP corruption charges. As Bush's popularity continued to fall, month after month, the blame game at the White House became more heated than ever. Bush, who has always had one eye on the family ledgers and another on the history books, started to take it personally.
Insiders say Bush is now barely on speaking terms with Cheney, and his long relationship with Rove is chronically poisoned. Dubya has been famously loyal to his staffers, of course, because he knows that without them, he is nothing. Rove may be facing jail time, Rumsfeld may be pushing the US military to the brink of a coup, and Cheney may be a paranoid psychotic, but Bush maintains his steadfast public support for all of them. Privately, however, the titular head of the US government has finally put his foot down - "I'm the decider, see?"
And that, my friends, is the real reason for the new "let Bush be Bush" policy.
Call it a Presidential hissing fit. Or maybe, after five years in office, the boy is just beginning to grow into the job. Whatever. It is much too little, and much too late. In fact, by casting aside his most experienced advisers, Bush has only worsened his plight.
A series of recent PR embarrassments reveal a President adrift. Bush walked straight into the oven for a hot roast by comedian Stephen Colbert at the Washington Press Corpse Dinner. Then he stood beside Hu Jintao on the White House lawn while the Chinese President was heckled by a known Falun Gong activist for a full three minutes. Such totally avoidable public stuff-ups are a novelty for this Bush administration.
Of course, Bush would never have been allowed to put his foot down and take control of his own political destiny if the boys in the Cheney cabal had not been prepared to let him do so. And that, folks, is the other side of this sorry little story.
It is now clear that Bush's second term is dead in the water. The ship of state is taking water over the gunwhales, and the smarter rats are already swimming for shore. Cheney and Rumsfeld are tightening the screws on their parallel government, while the parasitic Rove searches for a new GOP '08 host. But Bush has just grabbed the captain's wheel, and his squinting eyes are fixed on the far horizons:
I'm not through yet, you know... I am going to spend two-and-a-half years charging as hard as I possibly can...
I want to sprint out of office. And I will be an interested observer, and I'm sure I'll be roped into moments after our party nominates a candidate, but I'm just going to let the politics run its course... I guess it's the most wide-open race ever... Oh, it can't be ever. Ever is too long. But in a long time...
You got to listen in my line of work, and I listen a lot... Anyway, kind of rambling here...