Friday, January 26, 2007

Control Freaks

Dana Milbank gets in some observations as to the inner workings of the Bush White House.

Memo to Tim Russert: Dick Cheney thinks he controls you.

This delicious morsel about the “Meet the Press” host and the vice president was part of the extensive dish Cathie Martin served up yesterday when the former Cheney communications director took the stand in the perjury trial of former Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Flashed on the courtroom computer screens were her notes from 2004 about how Cheney could respond to allegations that the Bush administration had played fast and loose with evidence of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. Option 1: “MTP-VP,” she wrote, then listed the pros and cons of a vice presidential appearance on the Sunday show. Under “pro,” she wrote: “control message.”

“I suggested we put the vice president on ‘Meet the Press,’ which was a tactic we often used,” Martin testified. “It’s our best format.”

For an administration that claims it doesn’t care much about polls — yeah right — they seem to be obsessed with controlling their image. Dick Cheney sounds like another Dick that served as vice presdient; Richard Nixon used to stay up nights worrying about how to control the message that came out of the White House, but compared to what the current occupants are doing, Nixon was an amateur.

It’s also interesting to note that the administration that took such pride in it’s efforts to restore “honor and dignity” to the White House is being run like a boisterous and rude frat house, and in trying to control their message, they are using some techniques that are so old and hackneyed that they’ve entered the realm of popular culture.

It is unclear whether the first week of the trial will help or hurt Libby or the administration. But the trial has already pulled back the curtain on the White House’s PR techniques and confirmed some of the darkest suspicions of the reporters upon whom they are used. Relatively junior White House aides run roughshod over members of the president’s Cabinet. Bush aides charged with speaking to the public and the media are kept out of the loop on some of the most important issues. And bad news is dumped before the weekend for the sole purpose of burying it.

With a candor that is frowned upon at the White House, Martin explained the use of late-Friday statements. “Fewer people pay attention to it late on Friday,” she said. “Fewer people pay attention when it’s reported on Saturday.”

That’s a technique known as “Take Out the Trash Day” as noted in an episode of The West Wing.

Every administration thinks they’re going to be the one to finally control the message. It’s never happened, it never will, but it sure makes things fun to watch as they try.