January 27, 2005
Communicator in Chief Keeps the Focus on Iraq Positive
ASHINGTON, Jan. 26 - President Bush's opening statement at his news conference on Wednesday was striking for what it left out: any mention of the 31 Americans who died overnight in the crash of a Marine helicopter in Iraq, the largest number of American deaths in a single incident since the war began.
Mr. Bush instead focused on his long-term goal of "ending tyranny in our world," and then cast the Iraqi election coming Sunday as part of a march of freedom around the globe. He said that if he had told the reporters in the room a few years before that the Iraqi people would be voting, "you would look at me like some of you still look at me, with a kind of blank expression."
The president's words were part of an aggressive White House communications strategy this week and next to frame the risky Iraqi election - a critical test of his assertion that the country is on the path to stability - in the best possible light. The goal, a Bush adviser said, was not only to lower expectations but to avoid any definition of success.
The newly installed secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and other top administration officials and military commanders will fan out this week and appear on the influential Sunday morning television interview programs to echo Mr. Bush's comments about the Iraqi election.
When the president was asked to define what a "credible" turnout in Iraq would be, he quickly side-stepped, saying only, "The fact they're voting in itself is successful."
Mr. Bush appeared with only 45 minutes' notice in the White House press briefing room at 10 a.m.
Though the tone of the news conference was at times light and bantering, in response to a question later Mr. Bush did address the helicopter crash: "Obviously any time we lose life it is a sad moment," he said.
By Wednesday afternoon, in an interview with Al Arabiya, the satellite television network, he had incorporated his response to the crash into his larger message about freedom.
"Today a tragic helicopter accident is a reminder of the risks inherent in military operations," he said in the television interview, again in response to a question.
"We mourn the loss of life. But I am convinced we're doing the right thing by helping Iraq become a free country, because a free Iraq will have long-term effects in the world, and it will help the people of Iraq realize their dreams and aspirations and hopes."
Mr. Bush's decision not to mention the helicopter crash in his opening statement, the Bush adviser said, was part of a longstanding White House practice to avoid having the president mention some American deaths in Iraq but not others.
"It's almost a policy," said the adviser, who asked not to be named because the president does not want aides talking about the inner workings of the White House, "because if you mention one, you have to mention them all."
The president took a similar approach in November 2003, when a Chinook helicopter was shot down in Iraq and 16 Americans died. Mr. Bush stayed at his ranch and let Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld do the talking, and officials said they did not want Mr. Bush to be consumed by headlines. "If a helicopter were hit an hour later, after he came out and spoke, should he come out again?" Dan Bartlett, a senior aide, said at the time.
More recently the president was criticized for not publicly speaking out about the tsunami victims in southeast Asia and for being slow to pledge aid.
On Iraq policy, Mr. Bush has sought this week to rise above the daily bad news - insurgents vowed this week to cut off the heads of Iraqis and their children if voters went to the polls - and to put a positive stamp on an election that could be disrupted by insurgent attacks on Sunday and set the tone for the next four years.
"Expectations do have to be set so it's clear that this is not a magnificent day in Iraq," said a communications strategist who talks regularly to senior officials at the White House. "The key message you'll be hearing is that even if we have an imperfect form of democracy in Iraq, even if we can't get the turnout in the Sunni areas that we want, it's substantially better than when one party controlled everything and the leader got 99.9 percent of the vote."
Mr. Bush made that point in the interview with Al Arabiya, which is considered more moderate toward the Bush administration than its chief competitor, Al Jazeera.
"You know, it is amazing, first of all, they're having a vote at all," Mr. Bush said in response to the first question, about whether he expected a big turnout in the Iraqi election. "A couple of years ago, people would have been puzzled by someone saying that the Iraqis will be given a chance to vote."
White House officials said that planning for the news conference began on Monday and that it was essentially Mr. Bush's idea. Although the president typically dislikes news conferences, White House officials also say he is closely involved in setting strategy in dealing with the news media and understands when it is in his interest to use his powerful podium to try to shape public perception of the news.
"The president viewed it as an opportunity to talk about the Inaugural Address, the elections in Iraq, and to look ahead to the State of the Union," said Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary. "He thought this would be a good time to do it." Mr. Bush's State of the Union address is set for Feb. 2.
On Sunday Ms. Rice is to appear on the ABC News program "This Week." John D. Negroponte, the American ambassador to Iraq, is expected to appear on morning news programs this week, as is Maj. Gen. David H. Patraeus, the American officer overseeing the training of Iraqi forces.
The message, a senior administration official said, is: "We're not going to wake up on Monday with the sparrows chirping in downtown Baghdad. This is not going to be perfect."
Mr. Bush and his advisers are also planning a communications offensive to coincide with the president's State of the Union speech. The day after the address, Mr. Bush is to travel around the country spreading the domestic and foreign policy themes of his second term.