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January 25, 2006

Just As Happy To Get Ugly

Back-To-Gonzales

(view larger version here)

What happened to the White House PR strategy on Tuesday?  Given the Administration’s week long media offensive over NSA spying, how did these students come to upstage Attorney General Alberto Gonzales?

Or, did they?

First, Rove got things started on Saturday with a take-no-prisoners speech to the Republican National Committee.  Then Monday, Bush went to Kansas State University where he filibustered students with an interminable defense of his beloved GWOT.  Then Tuesday, Gonzales used his turn to try and legally rationalize and justify Bush’s sidestepping of the FISA Court and Congress.  This sequence of events, sandwiched by speeches and appearances by other Administration players, was designed to culminate today in a grand photo op finale featuring Bush at ‘wiretap central,” the NSA Headquarters.

Here’s the question, however.  Given the Administration’s acumen for message control — managing most every public event from the staging, backdrop and lighting, to the size, demographic, ideology and seating arrangement of the audience — how did this image come to be?  In other words, how is it possible these students at a policy forum at Georgetown University Law School were able to co-opt the Attorney General’s speech by silently turning their backs on him and then stamping the scene with their own handmade text scroll?

If I wasn’t so wary of Rove, I would say this image resulted from a calculated risk.  This assumes that part of the Administration’s strategy this week was to loosen the media controls and engage a public which has genuine, serious and bipartisan concerns about the surveillance program.  Maybe the thinking went like this:  Why not lower the drawbridge, provide freer access to BushCo., and take some criticism for the sake of venting tension generated by the program?  If this was the strategy, one could say it came off well in Kansas where a dissembling Bush took some unscripted and aggressive questions from the students, but survived relatively unscathed.  (Even if he did have to lie about cutting student loans.)  If that was the strategy, one could also say Gonzales’ afternoon was simply the price to pay for the appearance of openness and accessibility.

Except, I’m wondering if Rove wasn’t just as happy to see the picture get ugly.

In considering this image, I keep thinking about the subtitle to Walter Shapiro’s latest piece in Salon (Rove: It’s the (eternal) war, stupid!) (Link.)

In his first speech in two months, “Bush’s brain” laid out his plan for GOP victory: War, war and more war.

Shapiro believes that Rove and Mehlman actually regarded the leaking of the surveillance story as a positive.  According to this scenario, it allows Bush to reinvigorate the Administration’s first term histrionics over 9/11 and call into question the patriotism (not to mention the sanity) of anyone opposed to a “vital tool” in preventing the next devastating terror attack.  Focusing on 2008, Shapiro suggests it was no coincidence Rove started off this week by beating his chest before the RNC.  When it comes to elections, 9/11 has been the most effective, scariest (and, at this point, perhaps the only remaining) card in the Administration’s hand.

Back-Turned-2-1

Symbolically, turning ones back on the AG is a powerful metaphor.  Unfortunately, the only way it could have effectively (and poetically) translated was if photographers depicted the room from the stage.  As it turned out, this orientation completely loses the element of negation.  In fact, the visual produces the opposite effect.  By facing the cameras and especially introducing a banner, the students turned what was originally a subtle and powerfully non-invasive expression into grandstanding.  (And, that’s giving them a free pass for the further mixing of metaphors by including figures wearing hoods conjuring Abu Ghraib.)

Accordingly, the real question is, did these students succeed in subverting one act in this week’s Bush propaganda show, or did they simply play into a larger and more brutally divisive argument that Rove is framing for the mid-term elections?  (Considering Rove’s frame, by the way, one would not refer to these actors as “students” so much as “unpatriotic traitors” colluding with al Queda operatives who, right this minute, are busy tying up all those incoming international telephone lines.)

Perhaps we can better understand the battle lines with the help of the quotation proffered by these protesters.  On the one hand, Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither .”  On the other hand, Shapiro warns that Democratic critics can expect to “constantly hear variants of Rove’s assertion, ‘To retreat before victory has been won would be a reckless act — and the president and our party will not allow it’.”

(image 1: Charles Dharapak/A.P. January 24, 2006.  Washington.  Via YahooNews.  image 2: Evan Sisley/Reuters.  January 24, 2006.  Washington.  Via YahooNews.)

  • http://ruinsofempire.blogspot.com/ Rafael

    A simple turning of the backs would have been better. It would have minimized Gonzales presence and would have been perfect. The banner, while looking ok on TV, on stills like these looks more like 60’s protestors, which can be easily be painted as conceided and cluless.

  • Roy

    I think you’re working too hard on this one. This is the gang that cant shoot straight. Every once in a while an image gets thru they’re not nuts about. They can spin everything and overwhelm the field anyway. I’m surprised they even respond to the NSA drama since no one can do anything about it. Soon Scalito’s Way will make dissent illegal anyway. Grim words, I know. Without a Democaratic party Bush and Co do what they want. Report it – dont report it – no difference… we are a lazy country and we are getting what we deserve.

  • SEAS

    I don’t read this image as the naive, clueless efforts of some 60’s hippie wannabes*: It is one of the only images I know of where members of the “public” at an administration sponsored event emphatically reject the message the administration is trying to spoon feed them. These students learned from the Bush message team that you need to reduce your message to a memorable graphic (admittedly, this is kind of long; usually only about five words max are allowed). In this picture, the BushCo graphic can’t even be read. I think the hooded allusion to the Abu Ghraib scandal is a nice touch illustrating that this isn’t just a hypothetical concern about losing one’s freedom, it’s the practice under this administration.
    I don’t think this image would have been more powerful viewed from the stage. That thinking is implicitly premised on the assumption that all legitimate arguments are should be viewed from the administration’s perspective. This image is more affecting for me, since it appears to be from my perspective, as the targeted audience for the administration’s message that we should all be grateful that we have not been “hit” in the last four years. [And ignoring the fact that we were "hit" - have we all forgotten about anthrax?]. The students are facing the audience because they know perfectly well that the the people in this administration will not change their mind if they only knew of Benjamin Franklin’s wisdom. No one on stage appears to even acknowledge that this is going on in front of them. The students are trying to educate the same audience Gonzales is trying to educate. BAG argues that turning their back on Gonazales turned “a subtle and powerfully non-invasive expression into an act of grandstanding.” I am very concerned that a reliance on the subtle and noninvasive over grandstanding plays right into Rove’s strategy. Kerry refused to go all grandstanding in the face of Swift Boat ads. Kerry didn’t (and most D’s still don’t) want to call Bush a LIAR, going for the more subtle and civil “he’s being misleading” – implying that he’s technically correct, of course, but we don’t like people to view it that way. Meanwhile, Rove makes every presidential, or presidential surrogate event into an effective grandstanding opportunity. I don’t know of anyone who could characterize this administration as “non-invasive.”
    If you think Rove and company would like this image to be published because it undercuts the validity of the student’s arguments, you may also think that Rove is thrilled about the direction of the Plame investigation because he hasn’t been indicted yet. Your concern about avoiding a “brutal and divisive” argument in the mid-term elections plays into the Rove theory that people objecting to the unconstitutional spying on Americans without a warrant are too spineless to actually insist on constitutional protections if that would be divisive. If that is true, these students’ message will be prophetic.
    The proof of whether the administration likes what this image projects will be whether they continue to have these “open” kinds of meetings. I’m confident the only reason they’ve been more open is because they realize people are now understanding that, by and large, BushCo’s events are not really public meetings, so Rove is setting about to create the perception of openness and a willingness to listen to other points of view. Unfortunately, the event in Kansas put Bush in the awkward spot of lying about whether student loans had been cut. Even though that doesn’t seem like a huge problem, my guess is that Bush never wants to be put in the position of having to admit error on any subject, so we aren’t likely to see a repeat of those opportunities. [Oops - my bad. I was thinking that the press might at some point follow up on Bush's mis-statement and hold him to account, and thus that Bush might actually have to admit error. What could I have been thinking?]
    * Of course, we did get out of Vietnam at least in part because uppity students caused rude scenes like this one.

  • ummabdulla

    I was going to say some of the same things that SEAS just posted. I don’t think that the students simply standing and turning their backs would be so effective, especially if the picture was taken from the same angle as this one. You would just see the dark-suited guys in the front looking oblivious to some students standing in the middle of the room. Even in this picture, it’s like there are two different scenes: the guys on and near the stage and the audience.
    I think the quote on the banner is effective; I’m seeing it a lot lately, but it bears repeating. They should have made the “Ben Franklin” clearer, though.
    So are college campuses finally starting to get stirred up? And will reminding people of the ’60s antiwar activists help or hurt?

  • Lisa

    It’s about time. I’ve called my Representative and Senators demanding that they do something about the Bush’s FISA-free wiretaps. There should be a serious investigation and then possibly impeachment.

  • Chad

    What interests me is the differences in preparedness for the event between the students and the administration. You’d assume that the students had been getting ready for this moment all day (week?), yet in the photo they look scrappy and disorganized. Contrast that with Gonzales + officials who look so completely in sync, through the perfect spacing of the blue backdrops, matching suits, constant poise (and they’re the ones who get the flag).
    1. The government seems to spend all their money looking good on camera.
    2. In a day when every message on TV has a glowing CG sheen behind it, magic marker on paper doesn’t look so hot.
    3. Can you believe this is what we have to protest for now?

  • http://www.kn.com.au Earl Mardle

    Its interesting to juxtapose this story and photo of “turning the back” with this one in the times.
    http://tinyurl.com/bdoxb
    Story at http://tinyurl.com/c2k5k
    Interesting that they should appear in the ordert they have.

  • readytoblowagasket

    If this is a real protest — and I’m not convinced it is — why didn’t they stand on the tables? The message is too cerebral, the act too obedient.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/aog/ Annoying Old Guy

    Actually, Ben Franklin did not say

    Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither

    He wrote

    Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

    Not a subtle difference, I would say. But as usual, being accurate isn’t compatible with anti-Bush efforts.

  • http://happening-here.blogspot.com/ janinsanfran

    I think this worked pretty well for the protesters — without the banner, no message. Storming the stage, appropriate, but bad message. So this was as good middle ground as you get.
    The critical thing is for those who are concerned to make it impossible for any apologists or enablers of the theft of civil liberties to appear without protest. Preferably smart protest, but some is better than none.
    Then the questions arises, can they govern completely from locked down rooms? Possibly but it is worth finding out.

  • ShadowDancer

    OK, I was there when they did the ’60’s. Turns out (who knew?) they had inside agitators, COINTELPRO, etc., etc. So is this just a bunch of neo-lefties acting up just as their parents or grandmas did way back in the day? Using the same tactics, like, do we have to do this again?
    Or, in the spirit of true subversion of principle, is Rove & Co. letting these ‘protestors’ get through the radar, or perhaps even setting up the demonstration themselves? To what purpose, you may ask? Perhaps the next one, or the one after that, will get just a wee bit out of hand. Then the MSM will wring its hands and bemoan the lefties are out of control. Then they will demand that steps be taken to protect members of the administration when speaking. Then, if REAL demonstrators show up anywhere, voila’, they are immediately arrested and locked away where they can cause no discomfort to decent people. And all of this just in time for the elections.
    Suppose they were wearing hoods so that they couldn’t be identified as young republicans being paid for the gig.
    Remember this is the gang that took people out of the Iowa speech last year because they had the wrong bumper sticker on their car. They also arrested and held for several days (at the NYC convention) a New Yorker who was just going out to get a coffee.

  • black dog barking

    The Attorney General of the United States, a lawyer, is being deliberately shunned by a group that one day themselves hope to be lawyers. Clearly they don’t think he has lived up to the ideals they are still learning. Shame, not insult, is their message. The participants look sincere and respectful to me, the rag-tag look and feel bolster the impression. The “glowing CG sheen” Chad mentions is both unreal and expensive. The magic marker on paper didn’t require PAC financing and was applied by someone who cared, not a skilled and compensated technician.
    Karl Rove may walk on propaganda water but I suspect he’s a little busy these days trying to avoid indictment. Last I heard he was in charge of rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast too. How’s that going?
    Annoying Old Guy —
    The paraphrase of Franklin’s words work just fine for me, and fits the sign better. How is Franklin’s thought anti-Bush?

  • http://www.billiondollarcheney.com JC

    I agree with the earlier poster, SEAS. The time for subtlety is over.
    These are students expressing themselves, performing their citizenship. This is not a PR stunt. This is real. To compare their efforts to the billion dollar Bush machine just doesn’t seem fair.
    We should be emphasizing, over and over again, the AUTHENTICITY of these protests, because they constantly try to portray our movement as if it is a scripted advertising campaign, like theirs. In fact, it’s not even a “movement.” It’s just reality: the majority of people in this country want them OUT.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/aog/ Annoying Old Guy

    black dog barking;
    Franklin’s thought isn’t anti-Bush, that is why it wasn’t used.

  • gleex

    You misunderstand:
    “essential Liberty” means all liberty, not a sub-set – rather that liberty itself is essential.
    otherwise he would have said “essential liberties”.

  • Zarza

    Oh come on, AnnoyingOldGuy.
    “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither”
    is a pefectly acceptable paraphrase of
    “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
    I hardly think you can use this as evidence that
    “being accurate isn’t compatible with anti-Bush efforts.” Stop Trolling.

  • http://happening-here.blogspot.com/ janinsanfran

    There’s an interesting post at a British blog that has a different, simpler picture — and the query (paraphrased) “why don’t we do these kinds of protests?”

  • itwasnt me

    Annoying Old Guy – I agree with Zarza. The shortening of Franklin’s phrase didn’t really alter the thought. I hear people paraphrasing the Bible all the time and nobody complains…

  • http://profile.typekey.com/aog/ Annoying Old Guy

    I must respectfully disagree. Contra gleex, “essential” is normally used a qualifier to separate one set of things from another. If one fanatically defends even the most minor infraction (such as monitoring non-domestic calls, something that long predates President Bush), then you are creating a situation where the citizenry will be taught the lesson “security vs. liberty – one or the other, but not both”. The point of Franklin’s quote is precisely the opposite of the point you are making. Franklin saw that liberty wasn’t a unitary thing, which one has or not, but that some of it is more important (“essential”). I will tell you now, if you force the citizenry to chose security or liberty, it won’t be liberty that wins. Is that really what you want?
    To see how this would play out, just consider what other war time Presidents have done, such as suspending habeas corpus or interning hundreds of thousands of people while expropriating all their property. That’s the kind of thing the American Street will accept. What is listening to non-domestic calls compared to that?
    But hey, go right ahead and waste your thunder on this. It’ll make it a lot easier when it’s time for the serious stuff.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Annoying Old Guy: I read Franklin’s quote as directed to us (“Those”), the citizenry (“who would give up essential Liberty”). But I read the protesters’ quote as directed to the guys (“Those”) on stage, the representatives of the government (“who would sacrifice liberty”). The word “sacrifice” can be both transitive (to “give up” something) and intransitive (“to perform the rites of a sacrifice”). I think Franklin is precise, but the protesters are not, because their quote can be read two ways. Therefore it is *not* an acceptable paraphrase.
    But I’m a bit confused by your last post. You seem to be blaming all fanaticism on the people who object to the NSA call-monitoring. When I hear Bush defend his right to approve the monitoring, I hear *him* as the fanatic. He’s who is making the liberty vs. security equation in the first place, he is the one defining liberty as unitary.
    And besides, the *issue* is about whether Bush broke laws which are already in place and which define the limits of his actions. (Another reason why I think the students are making an ineffectual statement, btw. And they are the lawyers-in-training.)

  • jt from BC

    Annoying Old Guy, what an accommodating, desirable illumination on civics and fundamental liberty…thanks
    RTBAG my concern is that many will give up a little freedom to supposedly get more security.
    “I have nothing to hide so whats your problem” was the response in Canada when Trudeau implemented the War Measures Act (FLQ Crisis) only one political leader opposed him. About a dozen of my acquaintances disagreed and thought the whole affair one of chasing shadows which in retrospect was precisely correct. Those who supported it then are reticent even now to reevaluate or learn from this travesty.

  • Derek

    “essential liberty” is pretty clear. I don’t see how AOG can misread it as he has. “essential” is an adjective, meaning of the utmost importance, indispensable. “liberty” means freedom. Franklin is describing freedom as being indispensable. Likewise he describes the safety gained by giving up that liberty as being temporary. The sentence is very clearly written. Franklin felt that liberty needed to be preserved, even if that meant safety decreased a bit. That is exactly the opposite of BushCo.

  • gleex

    AOG, even you capitalized the l in Liberty.

  • http://web.mac.com/schwinn/iWeb sponson

    Anyone who believes that the publication of the story about domestic spying in the New York Times is part of a Rove strategy is, in fact, a victim of a Rove strategy: the one he came up with to desperately “spin” people into thinking that he and Bush like the current situation. Shapiro is in effect, totally duped by Rove if he believes that. No one seems to notice that Bush and company tried as hard as they could to keep “the Program” a secret forever, and immediately lashed out when it was exposed, calling for the head of the whistleblower. They lost their cool so badly that they forgot that Bush still has not punished the “whistleblower” in the White House who illegally leaked Valerie Plame’s identity. This further embarrassed them, except in the minds of people like Shapiro.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Murray

    The message is too cerebral, the act too obedient.
    I agree, but there is no such things as “youth culture” anymore. Young people have no sense of power we just wonder how we’re going to pay for all the medical bills as the boomers age out.
    I think this is a good image. I feel for these students. If if they do seem rather uppercrusty–
    What will it take to see this kind of outrage from 19 year old working class kids?

  • jt from BC

    Susan Murray, I’m not an authority on protests, uprisings, radical shifts in governments or revolutions but: a sample of those that I have some knowledge of have been instigated, led or inspired usually by peasants, middle class students or University Graduates.
    Cuba-a lawyer, Chile-a doctor The Icon Che Guevara -doctor, Bolivia-truly a present, Venezuela-engineer, Mexico from Zapata to Pancho Villa were peasants.
    Workers in North America are Union Lead some have come from the ranks-these organization are virtually sidelined or eliminated. ( In Canada many of our early union leaders were from the UK )
    The Black and Native (AIM) radical movements(Panthers etc) had both highly educated leaders Like Angela Davis or Malcolm X to others who were self educated and very articulate
    There is a time to be cerebral and I won’t consider this act obedient however as you know probably most of these students are middle class- and will get a talking to.
    Unemployed working class kids would have been turfed out before the sign was unfurled.
    I could rattle on but hope this helps.

  • http://laloca.org jenny

    if anyone is interested in the reactions of the georgetown law community to the event, here are a few links:
    from the law school student newspaper:
    civil protest is standing up for the law
    open letters to AG gonzales
    protesters’ show of dissent immature
    from the law school dean: deanpage

  • http://areyoudressed.blogspot.com momly

    “What will it take to see this kind of outrage from 19 year old working class kids?”
    A few more tours in Iraq might do it.

  • ummabdulla

    A draft, or a draft lottery, would help, too.

  • jt from BC

    jenny, thanks for the links, Georgetown has one hell of a Dean, at least one confused first year law student, with a good article however to include in a resume for Alito later on) a very Politically Correct President of the Law Center STUDENTS body, well ‘disciplined, polite and clever demonstrators.
    As the US loses more rights and freedoms is Berkeley the other end of the tunnel.?
    —-
    yes to momly/ummabdulla, a little more fuel will fire this flickering flame, especially if we can get some of the potential future chicken hawks drafted. If its such a patriotic war why wouldn’t everyone want to be a hero?

  • David McCarthy

    I love it!
    God-damn it, whingeing about which direction they should have faced isnt going to help them or you. These kids got off their asses and are as someone so eloquently put it “performing their citizenship”.
    THAT is what your once-great country was supposed to be about.

  • David McCarthy

    Oh dear,
    i just read what Misha Tseytlin, the president of the Georgetown Law Center Federalist Society said about the students action..
    @Protesters’ show of dissent immature’
    “the students embarrassed themselves, their cause, and the Law Center. Rather than showing Georgetown Law as a school where different opinions are respected – they made it seem like a place where people have made up their minds and will turn their backs on anyone who dares disagree.
    Merely disagreeing with the administration does not give good reason to act disrespectfully.”
    My good lord, that twat is worried about ‘offending’ that shower of vampires, when he should be looking for a high enough window to throw them from.
    “Salute as they pass, son… merely Disagreeing with the Nazis does not give good reason to act direspectfully.”
    Mind your manners all you good Germans, we wouldnt want Bush&Co. to feel unwanted would we..

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