< Calling on Helen


Friday, March 24, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. With his approval ratings in free fall, the President launched a public relations offensive this week, appearing at various forums to take questions from citizens, military families and the press. But wait--the press? The media filter he's been working around for almost six years? What an odd way to burnish his image, opening himself up to questions or screeds, like this one.

HELEN THOMAS: I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, you--your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is why did you really want to go to war?

BOB GARFIELD: That was Helen Thomas talking to President Bush. New York Newsday's conservative columnist James Pinkerton put forth a theory about that exchange in his Thursday column, and he joins me now to discuss it. Jim, welcome to OTM.

JAMES PINKERTON: Thank you. The theory, of course, is that the President knew exactly what he was going to get when he called upon Helen Thomas to ask him a question. She is well-known as noisy and extremely hostile to President Bush and the Republicans. So why then would he want a question from her? And the answer, I think, is that he was using her as a foil.

BOB GARFIELD: In other words, to tell his base and other Americans that, “see, see what I've been telling you all along--this is what I'm up against; there is no way you're going to get the straight dope about Iraq or anything else.”

JAMES PINKERTON: Exactly. Bush kept his sense of humor, didn't lose his cool, was nice about it, but let the press show off that they can be kind of scruffy and obnoxious. Now, of course, the press isn't running for anything. It's not their job to be smooth and rounded in their conversations and tones and so on. So Helen Thomas or David Gregory of NBC News can be obnoxious. But if they let themselves become the issue, such they get on the national stage, then I think it's the President's further hope that people will equate a somewhat obnoxious feisty press with the Democratic Party. And if that happens, then the Democrats are in deep trouble because if people have to choose between left and right in this country, they usually choose right.

BOB GARFIELD: So what you're suggesting is this isn't an isolated incident, that the strategy is to goad the President's opponents, whether they be in the press or in the Democratic Party, to further attack him and just to seem extreme and unreasonable and out of the mainstream.

JAMES PINKERTON: Right. In the short run, if President Bush is attacked by nothing but David Gregory and Helen Thomas, and anybody else who wants to ask bean ball questions in these press availabilities on TV, that only helps the President look moderate and heroic to his own base. I think the real test will come down the road if, for lack of a better term, Thomasism, sort of the descendant of McGovernism - if the Democrats get so energized and angry about the war and if they think that President Bush is to them what Richard Nixon was to Democrats three and a half decades ago, then the paradox they might face is that the Democrats nominate a candidate in response who can't get elected. He's just--he or she is so far to the left that he or she is not electable. That's what happened to the Democrats in 1972, and I'm convinced that Richard Nixon was a smart enough guy to realize that if he and Spiro Agnew stirred the pot back and forth with protestors and demonstrators and liberals and Democrats and so on back then, that the Democrats would take the bait and nominate somebody who couldn't get elected. In the final analysis, if it's a battle of the bases, Republicans benefit.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jim. Well, thank you very much.

JAMES PINKERTON: You bet, thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Jim Pinkerton is a columnist for New York's Newsday.