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AMERICA ATTACKED | MEDIA/CULTURE : COMMENTARY

Bush's Image Fails to Fill the Screen

September 14, 2001|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Television was their milieu, one of them putting you away with a sheepish grin and cock of the head, the other a seamless communicator fluent in the language of the bitten lower lip.

Titans of the airwaves, they used the lens, also, to deliver strength through sheer force of personality.

Whether you liked either or not, or cared for their very different politics, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had in common style, stagecraft and video qualities perfectly tailored to the age in which they rose to national power, coinciding with TV's own celebration of form and process over content.

Reagan and Clinton had what it takes to communicate to the country effectively through a medium that inevitably favors performers over informers.

The nation's 43rd president does not. Three days of George W. Bush on television this week affirm that.

None of us can know what Bush is like behind closed doors. He may be an incisive, take-charge tiger out of the public eye. Better a TV nerd who has other critical presidential skills, after all, than a glib, facile, alluring leader who has the magic but falls apart off camera and is no deeper than his pancake makeup.

Image is important in this arena, however, especially when a nation shaken by tragedy traditionally takes it cues from its highest elected leaders and how they present themselves publicly, and when so many rhetorical demands are placed on modern presidents.

None greater than those facing Bush today, when so many Americans are looking to their president for strength at this time of crisis.

The man does have heart. The pain on his face expresses eloquently his compassion and depth of feeling for the thousands of Americans who died in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., when those four hijacked airliners were crashed. He is aching, too, quite obviously for the anguished loved ones the dead left behind.

Yet throughout this terrible week in U.S. history, Bush has lacked size in front of the camera when he should have been commanding and filling the screen with a formidable presence as the leader of a nation standing tall under extreme duress.

Even his body language is troubling, as when TV cameras captured him returning to the White House late Tuesday after being shuttled about on Air Force One after an alert that the presidential residence and plane also had been possible targets of that day's terrorism. The Bush we saw, walking alone, appeared almost to be slinking guiltily across the lawn.

Bush has seemed almost like a little boy at times--a kid with freckles wishing he were somewhere else--when instead a national anchorman was needed to speak believably with confidence about the state of the union during one of its darkest hours.

He was at his stiffest Thursday while stumbling through a painfully long staged-for-TV conference call in the Oval Office to New York Gov. George Pataki and New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, telling them he'd be flying to Manhattan today to speak with rescue workers and others. Loved the sentiment, but who's bright idea was the media stunt that made Bush look so bad?

Something seemed not quite right, either, when Bush was addressing the country with heartfelt words and tearing up with genuine emotion during the brief televised news conference that followed. Again, right sentiment, wrong timing.

When speaking of "hunting . . . down" the remaining terrorists and "holding them all accountable," for example, the president was clearly crying, a display of humanity that would have been admirable at other times. But in this context his tears softened his own resoluteness and the toughness of his words directed at those behind the Tuesday attacks that killed thousands.

This is not definitive, of course. Surely no chief executive has been less magnetic than Harry S. Truman, whose own presidency was born almost together with television, a medium he surely would not have mastered had he run for a second full term. Yet his backbone turned out to be a steel girder, and historians generally adore him.

The camera was not especially friendly, either, to Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and George Bush the elder. History will judge Bush the younger, too, on far more than his TV performances, actions speaking louder than sound bites.

Yet, even though the White House charismata of Reagan and Clinton can't be taught, Bush should somehow find a way to rise to the occasion. These are times when America needs a president they can look up to, not just one who will share in their mourning.

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