If there’s a propaganda hall of fame, Newsweek has surely earned a place in it with its recent interview with George W. and Laura Bush (12/3/01).
Written by Newsweek senior editor Howard Fineman and White House correspondent Martha Brant, the profile of the Bushes focused relentlessly positive attention on the “First Couple’s” emotional responses to the September 11 attacks. At the time of the interview, new details about atrocities by U.S.-backed forces in Afghanistan were emerging daily, but the central question in Newsweek exclusive was: “From where does George W. Bush–or Laura, for the matter–draw the strength for this grand mission, the ambitious aim of which is nothing less than to ‘rid the world of evildoers’?”
Faith, prayer and love of family were the article’s main themes, with almost no space devoted to political questions. “The First Team has been exemplary in the eyes of the American people,” declared Newsweek. Bush “has been a model of unblinking, eyes-on-the-prize decisiveness. His basic military strategy…has proved astute. He has been eloquent in public, commanding in private. He had survived the first blows, made the right calls and exceeded expectations–again.”
“Another source of strength,” noted the magazine, “is physical conditions.” According to Newsweek, Bush “is in the best shape of his life, a fighting machine who has dropped 15 pounds and cut his time in the mile to seven minutes…He feels destined to win–and to serve.”
The magazine was also thorough in addressing–and dismissing–facts about Bush that might be perceived as flaws. The president doesn’t read many books, Newsweek explained, because “he’s busy making history, but doesn’t look back at his own, or the world’s….Bush would rather look forward than backward. It’s the way he’s built.”
The one moment of apparent tension came when the magazine challenged Bush to denounce an official enemy in harsher terms: “Do you think that Saddam Hussein is evil and that we should expand this to Iraq?” When Bush answered without using the word “evil,” the magazine followed up with, “Why wouldn’t you say he’s evil then?”, to which Bush replied simply: “He ain’t good.” Showing a diligence unmatched elsewhere in the interview, the reporters asked once again why he stopped short of using the word. A beleaguered Bush gave in, saying, “Maybe because you’re trying to force me to say in, and I’m stubborn….He is evil. Saddam’s evil.”
Newsweek says that the White House spin machine had nothing to do with their portrayal of Bush. In this interview, wrote Newsweek, “there were few mangled sentences. The handlers at the table were listening, not handling.” Maybe that’s because Newsweek was doing their job for them.
In times of war and crisis, it is doubly important that media aggressively seek truth and report it to the public. For a major newsweekly to turn an exclusive interview with the president into a puff piece would be disappointing under any circumstances, but it was particularly so at a time when the U.S. government was taking extreme measures to cloak controversial military and law enforcement actions in secrecy, both at home and abroad. Newsweek‘s cover story was one of the few interviews Bush granted during this time period–and it had all the earmarks of being written by journalists who were willing to trade soft coverage for access.