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As Long as We Remember...

October 17, 2005

An Indictment of the National News Media

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Dana Milbank, a normally respected political reporter for The Washington Post, has sunk to a new low in the October 12 online edition in an article entitled "For President Under Duress, Body Language Speaks Volumes."

Mr. Milbank normally writes intelligent, though liberally-slanted, articles on the White House and presidential politics.

I find the premise credible, an intelligent analysis of how recent political pressures from Hurricane Katrina to Rep. Tom DeLay (R., TX) to Harriet Miers to Karl Rove might be affecting the president's ability to communicate with the media and the American public.

Unfortunately, premise and practice diverge sharply. Mr. Milbank's article is a sophomoric, stupid treatise far beneath a national news correspondent, more appropriate to a middle school current events report.

Mr. Milbank actually counts the number of times the president looks away (separately counting up, down, left, and right glances), moves his booted foot, hitches his belt, and licks or bites his lip during a stand-up interview with Today Show co-host Matt Lauer.

The implication is clear. Mr. Milbank never accuses the president of being dishonest, but leaves the impression with the reader that the president is either lying, or so incredibly uncomfortable, that he cannot control himself or his body mechanics.

What most amazes me about these supposedly professional observations is that anyone, except maybe Stevie Wonder, watching George W. Bush could have made the same observations dating back six years.

I clearly remember noting W's fidgety nature during the 2000 presidential campaign. His shifting, eye flickering, lip licking constant motion was an obvious counterpoint to Vice President Al Gore's tree trunk, feet-stuck-in-concrete style.

Least you think I overemphasize Mr. Milbank's stylistically overwrought description, read his own words: When the questioning turned to Miers, Bush blinked 37 times in a single answer -- along with a lick of the lips, three weight shifts and some serious foot jiggling. Laura Bush, by contrast, delivered only three blinks and stood still through her entire answer about encouraging volunteerism.

If that weren't enough, Mr. Milbank continues his body movement inventory: When Lauer asked if Bush, after a slow response to Katrina, was "trying to get a second chance to make a good first impression," Bush blinked 24 times in his answer. When asked why Gulf Coast residents would have to pay back funds but Iraqis would not, Bush blinked 23 times and hitched his trousers up by the belt.

Finally, Mr. Milbank apparently wasn't sure he had taken sufficient notice of every single tick, jerk, flinch, and shift: As Lauer went through his introduction, the presidential eyes zoomed left, then right, then left and right again, then center, down and up at the interviewer. The presidential fidgeting spiked when Lauer mentioned the Democratic accusation that Bush was performing a "photo op." Bush pushed out his lower front lip, then licked the right corner of his mouth. Lauer's query about whether conservatives "are feeling let down by you" appeared to provoke furious jiggling of the right leg.

I don't doubt that these are very difficult times for President Bush. In my professional municipal management experience, I recall several situations where a scandal or controversy dominated the agenda.

I worked for former Mayor Jim Grimes during the height of the "Black Book" scandal. That story, a lurid mix of sex and political influence based mostly in the hopes of Grimes' enemies, overwhelmed the daily agenda.

It was next to impossible to focus on the mundane, minor details of operating a large city with reporters focused almost entirely on the scandal story. Likewise the NAACP charges against former Police Chief Regis Raffensberger. While they were never proven, those charges and the overlapping Black Book deal made mincemeat of Mayor Grimes' final term.

I cannot imagine the difficulties of message management in the West Wing of the White House amidst the difficulties faced in the War on Terror, the collapse of conservative support for Supreme Court nominee Harriet Myers, and the possible indictment of the president's top political advisor, Karl Rove.

As a part of a more thoughtful, analytical assessment of White House reaction and the presidential personal response, Mr. Milbank had a winning idea for a column. Counting the subconscious nervous movements of an already acknowledged fidget as representative of his disingenuous response just doesn't cut it.

I guess Mr. Milbank was too busy to go back and count lip pursing, licking, and eye movements from other presidential speeches. It brings a smile to my face to consider a Washington Post reporter sitting in a dark dubbing booth rewinding the tape to count the eye flicks.

Maybe President Bush was just uncomfortable with Matt Lauer's questioning because the Today Show co-host is a bore and a dim bulb. That might explain my fidgeting while reading today's Washington Post!

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