Far From Washington, White House Stays on Message During Slow Media Cycles
By CHRISTOPHER COOPER
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
August 10, 2005; Page A4
Sweltering in August and swarming with grasshoppers, the Prairie Chapel ranch in Crawford, Texas, isn't everyone's idea of paradise. But a captive press corps and a slow summer news cycle are allowing President Bush to use the Crawford backdrop to push his agenda, far from the distractions of Washington.
Operating from the base his aides call the "Western White House," Mr. Bush devoted last week to touting his legislative success in pushing a Central American trade agreement through Congress as well as a bankruptcy overhaul bill. On Monday, Mr. Bush extolled the administration-backed energy bill. Yesterday he praised highlights of the economy, and today he will speak about the recently passed highway bill. Tomorrow, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at his side, Mr. Bush will talk up what he views as progress in Iraq before reporters at the ranch.
The president's critics frequently seize on his vacations as fodder for portraying him as an absentee White House resident. He has taken more than 300 days of vacation (not all of it in Crawford) during five years in office, eclipsing workaholics such as Jimmy Carter (79 vacation days in one term) and Bill Clinton (152 vacation days during two terms).
But Mr. Bush's August holidays also demonstrate how the administration adroitly times and airs its message. With Congress out of session, many Washington agencies on a vacation schedule and a traveling contingent of White House reporters cooling their heels in Crawford, Mr. Bush can count on dictating news coverage with a series of events that rely heavily on rhetoric and skimp on audience participation.
Yesterday, for instance, Mr. Bush and members of his economic team plugged the administration's economic policies and made their pitch for Social Security and medical-liability reform. "The economy of the United States is strong, and the foundation for sustained growth is in place," Mr. Bush said. He then took three questions from reporters, and largely avoided issues such as Iraq and the Supreme Court in addition to questions about the involvement of White House officials in leaking the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency operative that is the subject of a grand-jury probe.
"They've really perfected the art of spending time in Crawford," says Republican strategist Scott Reed. "They do a good job of driving the agenda every day they're down there. They push the story and keep the people in the other party out of the news."
Mr. Reed says the president's poll numbers historically rise when Congress is out of session, a lift the White House badly needs. According to an Ipsos-Public Affairs poll conducted last week for the Associated Press, the president continues to post a low overall approval rating of 42%. On individual issues, the numbers are lower: only 41% approve of his handling of the economy, while 38% support his strategy in Iraq.
Using Crawford as a base for getting his word out has served Mr. Bush well in the past. In 2003, for instance, he set the tone of the August news cycle by taking a number of day trips to highlight particular subjects and by limiting reporters' visits to his spread. Crawford offers a further benefit, allowing Mr. Bush to burnish his image as a tough ranch hand who approaches the world's problems with a chain saw and a pair of sturdy work boots.
But the strategy that has served Mr. Bush so well is in danger of being appropriated by critics. Cindy Sheehan, the 48-year-old mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, has spent a year trying to whip up antiwar support, with mixed results. But when she showed up in Crawford last week with a few dozen like-minded protestors, Ms. Sheehan, of Vacaville, Calif., was overrun by reporters captivated by her story. Along with other parents of soldiers killed in Iraq, Ms. Sheehan met with the president at Fort Lewis, outside Seattle, a year ago. However, she says she felt Mr. Bush treated her callously during that event and is asking for another meeting.
Pitching a tent on the shoulder of a country road leading to Mr. Bush's ranch and vowing not to budge until she receives a presidential audience, Ms. Sheehan says she has gotten more news attention after a few days in Crawford than she did from a year of participating in events around the country, including one in Washington earlier in the summer.
"I got some phone calls after the Washington protest, but nothing like this," Ms. Sheehan said. "It's pretty much been nonstop interviews since Saturday." She puts the chance of meeting with Mr. Bush at less than one-half of 1%.
Nonetheless, Ms. Sheehan, a self-described "broken-hearted mother," has been treated carefully by the administration, which dispatched National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin to meet with her. In recent weeks, Mr. Bush has emphasized that he is personally affected by the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq.
Some activists wonder if Ms. Sheehan may be the first in a line of protestors to descend on Crawford in the dog days of summer. "The coverage of Cindy Sheehan has been extraordinary. I see people in tents outside of the White House all the time and they never get any attention," says Judd Legum, deputy research director for the Center for American Progress, a liberal activist group. "I could see her inspiring others -- she seems to have found a soft spot."
If she does start a trend, Ms. Sheehan says, it will be by accident. "It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," to come to Crawford, Ms. Sheehan said. "If it puts a dent in the president's vacation, that's just a bonus."
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