BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
SENATOR TED KENNEDY: Should we believe you or the President on the critical issue, whether the Administration is really willing to make a change in its policy?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy at Tuesday's confirmation hearing of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. With Gates now confirmed, and the release of the much-anticipated report of the Iraq Study Group, one question resounds through the media. What will the President decide? Because make no mistake, it's become increasingly clear that he is the decider. Here's Gates in his opening statement.
ROBERT GATES: I will give most serious consideration to the views of those who lead our men and women in uniform. Of course, it is the President who will decide what, if any, changes are made in our approach.
PRESIDENT BUSH: I'm inspired by doing this job. I believe strongly in the decisions I have made.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was the President with Fox News Channel's Brit Hume on Monday. Time was, the media narrative on President Bush was that he really didn't make his own decisions. You could see the Administration's frustration with that storyline reenacted in a 2003 Showtime documentary, DC 9/11, a White House drama set in the first nine days after the terrorist attack.
There's a scene between Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and Presidential Advisor Karl Rove. Rove is reading an article suggesting that the President's, quote, "real keeper" was actually Vice-President Dick Cheney.
ACTOR PLAYING KARL ROVE: See the Op-Ed column?
ACTOR PLAYING ARI FLEISCHER: The one about the photograph of POTUS on the Air Force One telephone?
ACTOR PLAYING KARL ROVE: Is he demanding that his real keeper, Cheney, let him go home?
ACTOR PLAYING ARI FLEISCHER: Karl, it's to be expected.
ACTOR PLAYING KARL ROVE: Is it?
ACTOR PLAYING ARI FLEISCHER: Most of them get it. The Cheney-runs-the-show myth is always going to be with some of them, but every day more and more see what's really going on here.
ARI FLEISCHER: Oh, I think unquestionably it was a media narrative.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The real former White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer.
ARI FLEISCHER: It was just kind of a constant buzz to much of the reporting and certainly to many of the questions, and it was 100 percent wrong. And the perception was President Bush doesn't know what to do, he just can't possibly be in charge, can he? Cheney must be running the show.
PAUL BEGALA: I think President Bush, for all of his career, has benefited from what he has called "the soft bigotry of low expectation."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Democratic strategist Paul Begala worked in the Clinton White House.
PAUL BEGALA: In fact, I remember Governor Bush even commenting on this, I think, on The Letterman Show. He said that to Letterman after one of the debates: As long as I show up, I look good, because everybody thinks I'm so dumb.
I think the Democratic narrative – and I participated in it – that Bush was dumb and, therefore, not really in charge was unhelpful to the Democrats, because what it did was it caused Democrats to focus on the monkey, not the organ grinder. Democrats all around the country ran around and said, fire Donald Rumsfeld, or they ran around the country and said Dick Cheney was a bad guy. And they ran around and they attacked John Ashcroft or Al Gonzales. And that's very much in the President's interest.
PRESIDENT BUSH: I read the front page and I know the speculation, but I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the Secretary of Defense.
RON SUSKIND: It's very, very difficult for the media that tends to be part of the so-called reality-based community to understand George Bush. It's been difficult for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron Suskind, author of The Price of Loyalty, about the Bush White House, and The One Percent Doctrine, on national security, first heard the phrase "reality-based community" from a Bush aide, who defined it as people – like journalists – who, quote, "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality."
But the aide told him, quote, "That's not the way the world works any more. We create our own reality."
RON SUSKIND: How is it that we didn't really understand this most important thing, of how the President decides what he decides to guide the ship of state? My God, that's right at the top of the list of what the media should be reporting. How could we have not gotten that right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The assumption was that even if the President lacked wisdom and experience, he had assembled a group of sage advisors who could guide the ship of state.
RON SUSKIND: I think what's happening now is people are realizing that, frankly, many of those people were discounted or discredited as doubters. And, hey, they are gone at this point. Their value, in terms of guiding the ship of state, was probably overstated, maybe wildly overstated, because at day's end, it was George Bush making decisions for good reason, bad reason or no discernible reason, but nonetheless deciding.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was really going on, according to Suskind's sources, was that the decisions of a nation of three hundred million were being made by a nation of two.
RON SUSKIND: The best way to put this is that Cheney's created, essentially, an architecture, a structure in which Bush can be Bush – his man-of-action motif – and make decisions accordingly.
PRESIDENT BUSH: When it's all said and done, I will have made decisions based upon principles, and I'm not changing my principles.
RON SUSKIND: Often the senior advisors, let's say, beneath Cheney, won't realize why he's making that decision or what's behind it. Then there's talk of this gut, this instinct, this preternatural faith-based surety of the President, this certainty, as he often says. What's its source? And that's where you get into a kind of fog, which is, I think, one of the reasons that the media has had so much trouble teasing this out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bush's famously preternatural gut, plus the latest dissenting memos leaked from former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have given rise to a new narrative. Democratic strategic Paul Begala.
PAUL BEGALA: The old narrative was that President Bush was dumb and therefore docile. And the new narrative is, well, still not so bright, but much more actually directing things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Former White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer.
ARI FLEISCHER: So politically it becomes convenient for those who used to say that the vice-President's in charge now to say George Bush is in charge, because it gives them one more criticism to launch at him.
Politics aside, he always has been in charge, and the problems that we're going through now in Iraq – and I say this as a supporter of George Bush – are because of the decisions that George Bush made.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Begala says that the old narrative didn't really serve his party, the Democratic Party, in the end. But what about the new narrative?
PAUL BEGALA: I think a narrative that focuses entirely on President Bush is more accurate. I'm not sure that it’s more helpful in that the reelection is over. The President can't run again. It is probably better for his party for Mr. Bush to be the lightning rod. And we're watching now the Republican presidential wannabees pushing off of Mr. Bush.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It does seem that both narratives have worked less well for the Democrats than for the Republicans.
PAUL BEGALA: The Democrats – you know what? It's a very, actually, important point about how Democrats deal with media versus Republicans. My party, Democrats tend to be the party of the laundry list. We have four-point plans for everything. We have more solutions than the country has problems.
Republicans, understanding the media better, because they mostly are still disciples of Ronald Reagan, a master of the media, they mostly tell narratives. They tell stories. And stories beat laundry lists every time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that's the story – for now. As the President said to Brit Hume Monday –
PRESIDENT BUSH: [SIGHS] You know, I'm the commander-in-chief. I make decisions based upon what I think is best to achieve our objectives.
[END FILM CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And like it or not, that presidential statement is solidly, decisively reality-based.
"Hang On St. Christopher"
by Tom Waits