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Bush's TV image is remote from reality

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

A new study at the University of Missouri suggests that watching television's "The West Wing" gives people a more positive opinion of George Bush.

And of Bill Clinton, for that matter, and of the American presidency in general.

I'm not sure what all that means, but one thing seems obvious. In regard to Mr. Bush, I need to watch a lot of "The West Wing." I need to sit down and watch the re-runs this summer, hope there's "The Making of The West Wing" on DVD somewhere or, better yet, "The Making of the Making of The West Wing."

Maybe then, maybe, my opinion of the president would come within a hemisphere of his galloping approval ratings. There might not be enough "Wing" out there.

In the study, Professor Lance Holbert assembled 195 people whose average age was 20, dealt them a questionnaire to measure their perception of Bush and Clinton, then showed them an original episode of "The West Wing."

A subsequent questionnaire was then completed and the data divided by Holbert into three subsets that measured the president's principles (integrity, promise keeping, honesty, trustworthiness, work ethic, responsibility), his personality (warmth, sense of humor, loving nature, compassion) and his common touch (similarities to and understanding of ordinary people, willingness to fight for ordinary people).

Josiah Bartlet, the president on "The West Wing," got higher ratings in all three categories than Bush and Clinton.

"The study started because most of what we do in studying media relations regarding the president is geared to news," Holbert said on the phone from Missouri the other day. "In general the coverage of the presidency or of presidential campaigns is what we call 'horse race' coverage, and that creates a certain cynicism among the public. For this study, we thought, there is an entertainment outlet that deals with public affairs and it may have a different set of effects."

Holbert says this study proves that it does.

"The positive image of the American presidency found in the show translated to a more positive image of the sitting President Bush and the former President Clinton," he said. "The broader implication of 'The West Wing' is that it speaks directly to past research on entertainment television's influence on trust in the executive branch of government."

Which brings us to Bush's relationship with reality TV.

Reality and television are mutually exclusive terms, but when it comes to this particular White House, the further it can position Bush from reality and the closer it can keep the president to being a TV star, the better.

Presidents all the way back to Eisenhower have tried to manipulate television for political advantage, but the lengths to which this administration has gone to sculpt Bush's image are beyond propriety.

Never mind the shameless "Top Gun" scam, in which the president gleefully executed The Full Hollywood, landing on an aircraft carrier in flight gear to announce the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. White House media experts, many of them recruited from network production backgrounds, timed the show to bathe Bush in a perfect golden sunset, positioned in front of a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner.

The image was glorious, but the reality of our dubious accomplishment, displacing brutality in Iraq with destruction and chaos and clueless attempts at re-organization, won't be getting much White House production time.

Last week, WISH-TV in Indianapolis reported that in the staging of a presidential address on a tax cut there, White House aides asked people in the crowd to remove their ties to look more common, like the kind of people Bush laughably contends will benefit from his economic initiatives.

The image was neopopulist, but the reality is that the tax cut shamelessly benefits the wealthy and will create deficits so large it will only make it harder for people who don't wear ties to work to negotiate a tanking economy.

But image comes first, which is why protesters at last year's Bush visit to Neville Island were herded behind a fence like animals.

This administration is getting ready to slash Medicaid, but it had no trouble coming up with a reported $250,000 to build the perfect telegenic "set" at Central Command in Qatar for the big war show. It has no trouble shipping Musco lighting, the kind used to illuminate sports events, around the world to light Bush speeches. It has no problem designing and positioning the exact backdrops necessary -- such as the perfect juxtaposition of Bush's head along the stone row at Mount Rushmore -- to keep perception ahead of reality.

"I don't know if it's necessarily what public servants should be spending all their time on," said Holbert, "but we can understand that this is a time when image dominates."

I asked Holbert if he would consider launching another study. In this one, you'd take a group of people who see Bush only on TV, and another group that reads about him in only newspapers and magazines, where substance trumps style, and compare the perceptions. Then I caught myself. Could you even find that second group?

"No, no," he said. "Definitely not."

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.

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