Molly Ivins

No Dress Will Pretty This Pig


There is something faintly risible about the American habit of thinking we can fix problems through better public relations. We seem to think a positive mental attitude and high approval ratings can solve anything from shingles to famine. Global warming? Spin that puppy right out of existence. Economy bad? Send the treasury secretary out to predict the creation of 200,000 new jobs a month—that’ll make everybody feel better.

We have public relations firms that specialize in business disasters—does one of your products turn out to kill people? Have you been putting asbestos in people’s homes for years? Are you a notorious polluter? What you need is a good PR firm—yes, my friends, a multimillion dollar campaign to convince people that despite your current problems your firm is warm and cuddly, cares about the environment and supports the Boy Scouts.

I am told that in Hollywood, there are PR people who specialize in repairing the damage to the reputations of movie stars who get nasty divorces and otherwise misbehave.

Despite what I am sure are the invaluable services of the many PR people of our nation, sometimes it is actually smarter to attack the problem itself than the public relations surrounding it. I suspect that’s where we are with the situation in Iraq.

I have enjoyed the administration’s PR offensive. The Bush White House’s touching efforts to try to get the media to report that the glass is half-full rather than half-empty have yielded several nuggets of black comedy. George Nethercutt, a Republican congressman from Washington state, spent four days in Iraq and told an audience at home: “The story of what we’ve done in Iraq is remarkable. It is a better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day.†Major oops. “Let’s ignore the dead soldiers†is not going to improve anything.

Sending out letters to the editor supposedly written by soldiers serving in Iraq reporting that everything there is tickety-boo didn’t work out well, either. The news that the letters had been sent without the soldiers’ knowledge or permission got considerably more attention than the letters themselves would have.

The administration’s efforts to spin the results of the conference in Madrid were equally unimpressive. Of the touted $18 billion pledged, only $4 billion is in grants—the rest is loans. They want it back.

Bush has been touting the cheerful reports brought back by congressional delegations. Right. It’s so secure in Iraq, the delegations spent their nights in Kuwait. A Washington Post story by Dana Millbank reports the Pentagon is enforcing for the first time a policy that dates back to Gulf War I: no pictures of flag-draped coffins. This is apparently an attempt to control what Gen. Hugh Shelton calls “the Dover testâ€â€”the public reaction to photos of coffins that flow into Dover AFB in Delaware.

The Pentagon believes public support for a military action is eroded by photos of coffins, so it’s fixing that problem by stopping the photos. Reminding people of the real cost of Iraq, which is not in billions of dollars but in dead young Americans, seems to me something the media have an obligation to do. However, the flag-draped coffin photo is only one way to do it. “News Hour With Jim Lehrer†has been running photos of the faces of those who have been killed in complete silence at the end of the program.

In another tragic triumph of reality over public relations, the attack on Al Rashid Hotel “narrowly missed†Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, according to The Wall Street Journal. The attack injured 17 and killed a lieutenant colonel. The Financial Times reported that Wolfowitz was “shaken… unshaven, with his voice trembling shortly after the rocket attack.†Not to wish ill on Wolfowitz, but he is the one who promised us this war would be “a cakewalk†and that Iraqis would greet us with dancing and flowers. Ironic that he got a chance to see the real results.

Since President Bush declared our “mission accomplished†in Iraq, 256 American soldiers have died there and thousands have been wounded. (The Department of Defense no longer gives out the number of wounded, like that’s going to make it better.) That is not a public relations problem. That cannot be fixed by chipper reporting.

I suggest we drop the public relations offensive and concentrate on fixing the problems on the ground. When you look at the real problems, the question is not whether the media are misreporting the situation, but whether anyone in the administration knows what they’re doing. Disbanding the Iraqi army was a terrible mistake; sending in Turkish troops will be another, according to those who know the region; and the corporate contracts awarded without open bidding turn out to be dripping with gold plate.

As Casey Stengel once demanded, “Does anybody here know how to play this game?â€

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her new book with Lou Dubose is Bushwacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America (Random House).