MEDIA WATCH: President's aircraft-carrier appearance hailed as brilliant PR

When President Bush landed in a small jet on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean, TV crews beamed the images across the country and around the world, complete with comparisons to Top Gun and Independence Day. Bush's meet-and-greet with the crew on the carrier deck and his subsequent national address declaring the cessation of major combat operations in Iraq were also prominently played.

When President Bush landed in a small jet on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean, TV crews beamed the images across the country and around the world, complete with comparisons to Top Gun and Independence Day. Bush's meet-and-greet with the crew on the carrier deck and his subsequent national address declaring the cessation of major combat operations in Iraq were also prominently played.

Both Fox News Channel (May 2) and the Los Angeles Times (May 3) marveled that the cable news channels devoted a full day of news to the historic event. Newsday (May 3) was sufficiently impressed that it ran an editorial stating, "Bush's landing on an aircraft carrier on Thursday and his subsequent speech saying that major combat operations in Iraq have ended were great public relations." The media couldn't seem to get enough of the images of the President on the flight deck, dressed in full aviator's garb, with his helmet under one arm. The images of a victorious and popular leader celebrating the liberation of a country from tyranny amid a backdrop of American power was universally hailed as dramatic and brilliantly choreographed, even by Democrats, who decried it as self-indulgent grandstanding. Liberal CNBC host Bill Press called it "the greatest photo-op of all time" (May 2). The event was hailed as sheer genius from a PR perspective - with the media coverage chock-full of remarks that this was "the mother of all photo opportunities," and, "the kind of attention that other politicians can only dream about." While the move definitely had both security and political risks, many pundits and image consultants indicated that Bush was able to pull it off because the former National Guard pilot looked like a natural in his flight suit, exuding confidence. The media fawned over Bush, describing him as dashing, the way he strutted around "with the bowlegged swagger of a top gun" (The Washington Post, May 2). The glowing media coverage was all the more striking since politicians are usually rather staid figures, rarely receiving such flattering coverage for innovative and dramatic photo-ops. It was Bush's swashbuckling image and the fact that he had just led the nation to victory that made the use of the aircraft carrier all the more credible, reports said. This was contrasted starkly with Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis' ill-fated tank ride during the 1988 election that went down in history as one of the worst attempts at political image-making. It shouldn't be a surprise that Bush was praised as better than Dukakis, but many reports considered the aircraft-carrier backdrop to have even topped Ronald "The Great Communicator" Reagan. On more than one occasion, CNBC suggested that Bush bested Reagan's memorable "Tear down this wall" moment in Berlin. A number of reports predicted that these images would be too good to use once, forecasting that the public would see them again as part of Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. In fact, many reports indicated that this event should be considered the start of Bush's 2004 campaign, symbolically turning from war in Iraq to domestic issues, such as restarting the economy. For the record, although no one seemed 100% sure whose idea this was, the media most often credited Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, as being the man with the plan.
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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