President relies on repetition

Message: It suits Bush's style to pound hard on what he wants Americans to hear, and to make sure his staffers show the same discipline.

War in Iraq

April 03, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - At Camp David last week, reporters asked President Bush whether the war in Iraq could last months.

His reply: "However long it takes to win."

"However long it takes to achieve our objective," he then said by way of elaboration.

Then he stressed that the conflict would last "however long it takes."

He finished by saying that, "Saddam Hussein will be removed, no matter how long it takes."

As a wartime leader, Bush has remained true to his style, sticking relentlessly to the same messages, determined to choose the few sound bites that Americans will hear from him on a given day.

Despite swirling questions about whether the Pentagon had adequately prepared for the war, Bush has avoided the criticism, and his message each day has changed little.

In Philadelphia on Monday, brimming with confidence, he said, "When victory comes, it will be shared by the long-suffering people of Iraq, who deserve freedom and dignity."

The president, sticking to his theme, will deliver almost the same remarks when he visits a military base in North Carolina today, aides say.

Analysts say Bush is relying on a time-honored strategy favored by all presidents. It's the same thinking that explains why the same TV commercial is shown over and over: To make sure you reach your audience, constantly repeat your message.

But Bush, the nation's first president with a graduate business degree and a firm believer in disciplined communication, seems especially committed to the idea.

Two weeks before he launched the war, Bush gathered his communications staff in the Roosevelt Room of the White House and told staffers that as they crafted the administration's war message each day, they should use as much discipline as commanders in the field of battle do.

The White House established an Office of Global Communications, in part to coordinate what U.S. officials say around the world each day, from Washington to the United Nations to the U.S. Central Command in Qatar, and to make sure they speak with one voice.

The result, on many days, has been scripted language that is delivered to the American public repeatedly - at least to those watching briefings or interviews during 24-hour television coverage.

Wartime, in particular, provides opportunities for an administration to speak directly to an attentive public. To that end, some administration officials have brushed aside questions that do not invite a recitation of the day's theme.

On several occasions, the same language - from branding Hussein's paramilitary troops "death squads" to declaring that "day by day" victory is approaching - has been invoked in unison by officials around the globe.

In the run-up to the war and since it began, Bush at times has seemed irritated when reporters have persistently questioned his message.

At the pre-war meeting the president attended in the Azores Islands and while meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain at Camp David, he turned testy when pressed to explain why some traditional U.S. allies in Europe opposed the war.

Bush has insisted that the war effort enjoys the support of a broad coalition.

An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in recent days White House officials have expressed anger at journalists who reported that some military field commanders had questioned the war strategy.

Those news accounts, contributing to a perception that the war was not going as smoothly as expected, have stood in contrast to the administration line that the war has achieved much progress.

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who served as an adviser for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, noted that presidents tend to utter the same language and themes repeatedly.

And like Bush, other presidents have often chosen not to respond directly to a question but instead to offer a reply containing the message they wish to express that day.

"The advertising industry works the same way and can tell you the number of commercials it takes to reach an audience," Hess said.

"So a president calls together a press conference clearly designed to say one thing over and over. He may get bad marks from the press for doing that. But the real question is, did he reach that street in West Virginia?"

The strategy, Hess said, matches Bush's natural style. He noted, by contrast, that Blair spoke far more expansively in response to questions at Camp David than Bush did.

Nevertheless, Hess noted, the president achieved what he wanted to: Newspapers and television networks carried Bush's message that the war would last "however long it takes to win."

"He is not subtle with his words - that's just not what he's about - so he is very cautious about using them," Hess said.

By using the same language repeatedly, Hess said, the president was able to "write" the top of the stories in the next day's newspapers.

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