Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Shout it from the rooftops so that all who don't follow the news assiduously can hear: Bush finally broke his 4 1/2-year streak of never admitting any mistakes yesterday when he made the following statement at a White House press conference:
Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong.
I'll admit I was dumbfounded, unrepentant liberal shill that I am, to discover that Bush had violated one of his dearest-held implied PR imperatives. I guess there's just Something About Katrina--throughout his presidency, Bush hasn't seen fit to allow himself any errors on 9/11, Iraq, GSAVE, Social Security, or anything else aside from "appointing people." Other liberal bloggers are mostly either expressing complete incredulity or calling for criminal indictment, as expected. But what really surprised me was NYT columnist David Brooks' revelation on the Sunday edition of NBC's Chris Matthews Show (analyzed by MediaMatters) that that he has long been aware
from private conversations with Bush officials who "represent" what "Bush believes" that from its earliest days, the Bush administration adopted a policy of shielding itself from political damage by never publicly admitting any mistake -- even if it meant lying to the media and the American public.
Oh. Looks like the whole acknowledge-no-mistakes PR directive was a little more than 'implied.' And as the MediaMatters article notes, it's well worth considering the consequences of this media strategy. I can think of several off the bat: one, it further stokes Republicans' already strong inclination to take the government at its word since one of their own is in charge. When Bush blames others, or insists that no mistakes have been made, his followers don't bother to question him but aren't afraid to paint his opponents as knee-jerk naysayers. I find it rather odd that so many in the former party of limited government would be willing to adopt such a credulous stance vis-a-vis its traditional bugbear.

Two: psychologists have long known of the basic human tendency for people to blame their own failures on situational influences while blaming others' failures on dispositional factors. The phenomenon is reversed when attributing successes, and the psychological mechanism itself is called the fundamental attribution error. When Bush refuses to admit any mistakes, his followers' natural tendency to commit the FAE at the political level is enhanced. In other words, they view Democratic failures as indicative of inherent wrongheadedness, while Bush's failures are all caused by factors outside his control. Democrats do this as well, but without the assistance of an active FAE-enabler in the White House.

Third, Brooks outlines one of the reasons for the White House's policy of publicly insisting on an error-free record. In his own words:
. . . what [Bush] believes . . . is, if you admit a mistake, you get no credit from your enemies, and then you open up another week's story, because the admission of a little mistake leads to the admission of big mistakes and another week's story. It's totally tactical and totally insincere.
What this shows is that Bush is more concerned with maintaining his political image than doing the right thing for the nation at all costs. While the more politically cynical among my readers will surely sigh a collective "duh" at this apparently banal observation, I think it raises the question of why this man still commands so much loyalty in the absence of a single unequivocal public policy success in 4+ years. The answer is unsettling: voters just don't seem to care about competence anymore, preferring to focus on superficial aspects of personality and 'character'. It's a trait that ill befits citizens in a democracy, and if shared too widely could bring on the nation's premature downfall.