How The Cult of Personality Works


Though he doesn’t seem to realize that Propaganda Minister Karl Rove is behind it all, the NY Times‘ Bush Campaign reporter, Jim Rutenberg, does a pretty good job of describing how Karl manipulates and maintains the Bush Personality Cult.

First, you book your man only into places already friendly to him, places where tv cameras are guaranteed a welcome of streaming, screaming crowds lined up for blocks in every direction to photograph for the evening news, places like military bases–although Karl has been doing less of that than formerly since the Iraq war turned nasty. The military isn’t quite the friendly place it used to be, so Karl sent Junior instead to Dubuque, Iowa, the Reddest city in one of the Reddest of states.

Second, you book him into those of the already-friendly venues that haven’t had a visit of such magnitude in some time.

News directors and editors said they were wise to what the campaign was trying to accomplish, drawing positive press in a market likely to be wowed by the rare presence of a president. But, several said in interviews, that they had few choices but to cover his visit as an event.”How often do you get a president of the United States not only in your state but in your backyard?” said Becky Lutgen Gardner, news director of KCRG-TV.

Brian Cooper, the executive editor of the Telegraph Herald, the major newspaper in town, said of Mr. Bush, “There are a lot of people who disagree with his policies and still think it’s pretty neat we’ve got him coming to town.”

Third, you “facilitate” the visuals.

Tears were flowing on “Live With Regis & Kelly” on Friday as a woman was introduced to the man whose life her dead son’s heart had saved.But the emotional moment was abruptly halted on Channel 9 here by breaking news. It was not for Donald H. Rumsfeld’s Congressional appearance (that would come later) or the severe storms brewing to the southwest.

It was, rather, for Air Force One’s approach, which the news camera followed as if it was that of the space shuttle.

“You can see a smooth landing at the Dubuque Regional Airport,” the anchorman, Scott Sanborn, said in a slightly hushed tone. “There is a lot of anticipation in Dubuque for the president’s visit today.”

That was putting it mildly. On local television and radio and in the main newspaper here, Mr. Bush’s stop in this Mississippi River town, part of his three-day bus tour, has scored blanket coverage for days, much of it downright giddy.

Karl releases the President’s flight plan to the local media (just as NASA does with the Shuttle; how else would they know where to put their cameras?), probably suggesting the best angles for the lenses, angles where the plane will appear most impressively majestic and otherworldly. Why shoot pictures of the President’s plane? In the movies you do it to provide context; it’s the same here. Karl is looking to awaken a sense of “Our Great Leader is coming! Coming to us! Look! There’s his awesome personal flight vehicle! Isn’t it a miracle? And he has used all that marvelous power and technology just to visit li’l ole us! Wonderful!” It works, too. People are ridiculously easy to flatter, a cinch to awe, because they refuse to guard against it. Those most easily manipulated are those who reject the notion that anybody could manipulate them.

Of course, letting the press know when and from what direction the president’s plane will be approaching does break security rules by making the information potentially available to a McVey-style madman with a rocket launcher, but hey, it’s a campaign. The visuals of the visit are more important.

And so you keep them coming. Fourth:

Provide plenty of pictures of adoring crowds in the thrall of His Presence, jamming forward in the hope that they might be able to touch the hem of The Beloved Leader’s closest garment. This shows all the doubters the multitudes who don’t doubt, not even a little, and effectively marginalizes them by surrounding Our Great Leader with an aura of reverence.

But, you will object, every candidate has his picture taken with adoring crowds–that’s part of the game–and there’s no suggestion of ‘reverence’ when they do it.

And there you’ve put your finger on Rove’s genius: the reverence proceeds directly from those shots of Our Great Leader’s plane arriving, a visual context the other candidate can never have and that other presidents rarely use (because of the breach of “national security” involved in releasing the flight plan), a visual designed to provoke that sense of reverence for the Superior Being Who Approaches. To some degree (much smaller, since they are real heroes as opposed to the image of a ‘hero’), visuals of the Shuttle returning from space have contributed to the movie-star-like reverence in which astronauts are held. Karl realized this and co-opted them for political use. He loves having Junior sweep in on AF1 or, better yet, fly a military jet and land it on a carrier. That is ‘awe’ for you. That is ‘reverential’. Karl would NEVER NEVER NEVER allow Junior to arrive in a *gasp* common, plebian bus.

No, that was Karen Hughes’ idea for showcasing Junior’s ‘common touch’. Karen, you see, is from the Old School; she doesn’t really get the idea behind The Cult. Neither does Junior, come to that. He accepts it, of course, silver-spoon in hand, as his right and just due as God’s Messenger on Earth, but he doesn’t understand that this image has had to be created–he thinks it’s genuine, he thinks people really do love him that much. Like many people who’ve grown up with riches and, since we worship money in this country, been pampered and kowtowed to all their lives by everyone around them, George II takes it for granted that he’s a fine fellow beloved by all but a few dissident cranks he can safely ignore. And Karl makes sure Junior has plenty of evidence around him that that’s true.

Manipulation is rampant in Rove’s America. Even Our Great Leader has to be manipulated for his own good to grow and maintain The Cult that will keep the radcons and baby theocrats in business well after 2008–if they can just get past 2004….

In addition, the rarity of such visits in such places inevitably short-circuits skepticism and leads to the ‘giddiness’ Rutenberg alludes to.

“Historic Visit” was the large-type headline in the Telegraph Herald of Dubuque on Friday morning; “A pretty spectacular day,” proclaimed Ron Steele, the KWWL-TV anchor. Almost all of the major local stations showed Mr. Bush’s nearly hourlong campaign speech at the Grand River Center, in which he lampooned Senator John Kerry and promoted his own record, live. Even on Thursday, news of Mr. Bush’s visit overwhelmed news about the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.

You can say that again.

The Telegraph Herald carried only a 50-word teaser to the Iraqi abuse story on the front page, half of which was occupied by three articles about Mr. Bush’s visit. One carried a headline that said in part, “no food will be allowed at president’s speech.” Another was about the hopes of nearby Cuba City, Wis., that the president’s motorcade would swing through.

So much for little things like US responsibility for the torture of prisoners; what’s that next to knowing that ‘no food will be allowed at the president’s speech’? Nothing, a waste of newspaper space.

And yet despite all this brilliant PR, Bush’s numbers continue to sink because there is one factor that over-rides the temporary lift of a personal appearance by Our Great Leader–reality. Once the public begins to suspect that the man behind the curtain is a fraud, the jig is all but up. Reality is the one element against which they have no defense.

Correction: In Comments, Seattle gently chides my assertion that Iowa is still a Red state; apparently it’s now a swing state (Dubuque, too?). He thinks it might have gone to Gore in ’00. If it did (and he’s probably right; he knows this stuff), I missed that little chunk of news completely. My apologies. But I’m not going to edit it to make myself look better. I goofed. Let it wave in the breeze.

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