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Bush Hits Familiar Points Against an Understated Background

The president spoke before polite troops at Ft. Bragg who were visible only in the occasional cutaway shot.

June 29, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Live from Ft. Bragg, N.C., President Bush went on TV to sell the war in Iraq to the American people in the face of mounting skepticism. The work in Iraq apparently far from over, the White House toned down its presentation from that aircraft-carrier arrival of two years ago that included a flight-suit-clad Bush and a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished." That has become one of the more infamous TV moments of Bush's terms in office -- a bit of visual triumphalism that came to better serve the producers of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" than the cause of the war.

By the time Bush took the stage at Ft. Bragg, he was walking into the glare cast by Vice President Dick Cheney's recent interview on "Larry King Live," in which Cheney remarked that the insurgency was in its "last throes" -- a comment that has spun into the media sphere as fodder for talk about how the administration is out of touch and/or deceptive about what is really happening in Iraq.

As a network event, the speech was disappointingly familiar, featuring only well-worn talking points and themes -- repeated mentions of 9/11, of hunting down the terrorists, of advancing freedom in the Middle East. The Ft. Bragg troops were visible only in the occasional cutaway shot, and they interrupted the speech with applause only once.

The speech, as pundits including NBC's Tim Russert remarked afterward, might have bought the president some time on Iraq. But it failed to change the way in which the war is being digested by the viewers at home.

The plain-spoken resolve with which Bush talks about any multifaceted problem was backed up by visual understatement -- polite troops in the hall, the military backdrop more a suggestion than a pronouncement.

His handlers have always been canny about placing him in a context in which he comes off, if nothing else, as relatable. It was an effective strategy during the presidential campaign, when you rarely saw a Bush sound bite without regular folk on the stage behind him.

Bush had a tough act to follow this week; Donald H. Rumsfeld, his secretary of Defense, made another scene-stealing run last weekend on several Sunday pundit shows.

Rumsfeld, whatever you think of what he's saying, comes through your TV screen. It's not just because, unlike with Bush, there's a feeling of surprise about what he might come up with next, a sense of play to his language. There's also a vividness to Rumsfeld's face and delivery -- that cheeky smile, oft deployed during a Pentagon news briefing.

Five years into his presidency, Bush still conveys the sense that a speech is something he is trying to get through rather than deliver. Tuesday night, with the networks' attention once again undivided, his poll numbers down and the war in need of his public relations help, he still wasn't must-see TV.

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