Remixing Dubya


Rick Perry’s run for the White House is a stark reminder that not too long ago an identical media game plan was mapped out in Austin for then-Gov. Dubya:

Tout the Texas leader as the CEO, the man who runs a state like a buck-stops-here businessman.

Leverage national events against Texas themes so the candidate can claim to have solutions (“You want jobs? We got your jobs right here!”), all while suggesting that Congress and the White House are overspending idiots.

Cement the social conservative voting bloc.

And ignore sit-downs with tough-minded members of the media, opting instead for well-timed public appearances highlighted by unsubtle nods toward religion.

What’s obviously different today is that there are fewer and fewer dedicated national media resources to hold Perry to serious scrutiny. The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune, to name two outlets, once jumped early and hard to lead the way with major, time-consuming and probably costly stories about presidential candidate George W. Bush and his military background.

But today the usual, aching reasons—dwindling money and staff—make drilling down on any candidate’s record much harder to do.

Meanwhile, as Perry lurches forward it would be good to remember how Bush’s own presidential media strategy evolved.

After Bush got his ass kicked by John McCain in the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary, Karl Rove and the Texas insiders went into panic mode. A decision was made that Bush needed to devote his time to the hardcore Christian conservative base. Forget playing patty-cake with Texas or national media—and forget trying to convince anyone that Bush was a “compassionate conservative,” devoted to uniting, not dividing.

Bush turned his attention to “the base” in the next primary, in South Carolina. He infamously spoke at the evangelical Bob Jones University while, in the background, someone unleashed nasty anti-McCain e-mails suggesting the Arizona senator had fathered a child out of wedlock.

Bush won South Carolina and the strategy was affirmed: Preach to the social conservative choir, solidify that base, and deny the media deep access. 

That plan had its roots in master media manipulator Lee Atwater (who delivered George H.W. Bush to the White House, and who mentored Rove): Deride and ignore the media. Avoid pesky press conferences, interviews, Q&As and magazine profiles. Create base-flattering stump speeches disguised as “news events.”

So here we have Perry at Houston’s Reliant Stadium presiding over a prayer rally before 30,000 attendees and broadcast to 1,000 churches: “Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government, and, as a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us.”

Perry’s speechmaking skills are closer to Richard Burton than to Bush’s Elmer Fudd impression. But if Perry’s demeanor around some reporters is any clue, he seems to have every bit of Bush’s disdain for the media (a radio interviewer in West Texas said Bush called him an “asshole” in the 1970s; a national reporter said Bush cursed him as the reporter was dining with his wife and child in a Dallas restaurant in 1986; and in 2000, he called a New York Times reporter an “asshole”).

And Perry is clearly establishing the same “media” allies. Rush Limbaugh, who jump-started Bush’s campaign, is doing the same thing for Perry:

“He’s out there articulating the truth, he’s getting stupendous applause and yet, ‘Nah-nah-nah, can’t have Rick Perry. He’s from Texas. He’s too close to Bush. We don’t want anybody from Texas! Bush is from Texas … ’ This is the message from the elites, the inside-the-Beltway geniuses.”

Just as he did for Bush, Limbaugh is doing Perry’s media-bashing for him, yelling about how “the state-controlled media” is not happy with Perry.

As the campaign unfolds, watch Perry continue to avoid and dismiss the media.

Watch for him to pop up at more “news events” tied to social conservative themes—and see if the media really scrutinize who is funding and supporting those events.

Watch for Perry to continue aping Bush’s 2000 game plan.

And pray that the national media can do the reporting they should have done the last time a Texan ran for the White House.