This time it's television that is setting Bush's agenda On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 10, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- SECRETARY of State James Baker showed up on the border between Iraq and Turkey the other day to spend a period variously estimated at between seven and 12 minutes "inspecting" a Kurdish refugee camp. But the important thing, for Baker and the Bush administration and perhaps ultimately for the Kurds, is that this evidence of concern was shown on all the television networks.

On the face of it, the attempt to p.r. the Kurdish refugee crisis with a "photo op," as they call it here, was grotesque. But it pointed to a central irony of the situation: The administration that had exploited television so skillfully during the war in the Persian Gulf is now finding itself at the mercy of that same medium today.

The pictures of the refugees that have been running repeatedly over the past week to 10 days have been compelling. Who can ignore film of a woman carrying the corpse of her child wrapped in a blanket? Who can turn away from pictures of crying children with bare feet walking in the snow? Or of women dipping into mud puddles for water for their children? Or of the unceremonial burial of an old man who apparently succumbed to the rigors of the forced march to escape Saddam Hussein? Or of refugees scrambling for loaves of bread thrown carelessly from the back of trucks?

And who can have failed to be struck by the juxtaposition of such horrors with film of President Bush, fresh off the golf course, using legalisms to justify the failure of the United States to act quickly and decisively to deal with those horrors?

Just a few short weeks ago, the viewing was just what the Bush administration wanted -- and, through careful control of the news media exercised by the military, was able to arrange. The world was treated nightly, sometimes hourly, to film of the U.S. arsenal of "smart" weapons blasting away at Saddam Hussein and what was then called his "elite" Republican Guard.

The films of the explosions were supplemented with interviews with square-jawed American pilots who seemed right out of a World War II movie and with reports of their brave families waiting at home with their yellow ribbons. The "narrators" -- Cheney and Powell and Schwarzkopf -- were ideally cast.

Then there was the clincher, film of the resolute President Bush putting together an unprecedented international coalition and then leading the civilized world against another Adolf Hitler.

But now, except within Iraq itself, the censorship is a thing of the past. And the networks are free to report the aftermath of the war with all its chaos and cruelty as well as the apparent inability of the president to recognize the enormity of the problem and the special responsibility of the United States to lead in finding a solution.

The president who jawboned the United Nations into resolutions that provided the basis for Operation Desert Storm now seems willing to wait for the rest of the international community to take the lead. Airlifting 72 tons of supplies doesn't even make a dent in a crisis of such magnitude; it was, instead, another gesture to buy time until Baker could arrive on the scene.

But television doesn't permit Bush the luxury of distancing himself from the aftermath of the war. When there was genocide in Cambodia a generation ago no one acted because the television networks never were able to bring the story home until those pictures of the hundreds of human skulls were taken long after the fact. This time there is a daily accounting of the genocide being threatened by Saddam Hussein and of the response of the rest of the world.

In political terms, there is a kind of poetic justice in Bush getting nailed by television news coverage. In his campaign for the presidency three years ago his success could be traced in large measure to his ability to manipulate news coverage of the networks. He and his advisers were the ones setting the agenda for the day. And that success set a pattern for what the administration accomplished during the war.

But the fundamental rule of political life is that what goes around comes around. George Bush used television to set the agenda for the political campaign that put him in the White House. And President Bush used it again to define the success of Operation Desert Storm. But now it is television that is setting the agenda for the world.

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