Don't Touch the Guitar

— Will San Diego be Karl Rove's Waterloo? President George W. Bush has now made two monumental missteps while addressing San Diego sailors. The blunders have energized his opponents and enraged some of his supporters. The anti-Bush weblogs are sizzling with sarcasm. Democrats love it. Where was Rove, the alleged genius?

Two of the president's San Diego photo ops backfired in spades. I doubt that any other metro area can make that statement. On May 1, 2003, Bush landed on an aircraft carrier off San Diego. It bore a sign, "Mission Accomplished." Declared the president, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended." The mission was hardly accomplished, as the Democrats gleefully stressed in the 2004 election. As the Iraq War drags on, Bush takes more heat for the stunt.

But late last month the president may have topped that gaffe. On August 30, the day after Katrina devastated New Orleans and Mississippi, Bush addressed 9000 sailors in Coronado. Subject: please support the Iraq War; terrorists might seize the oil wells. Ugh. This is no time to get people feeling sorry for the oil industry. There was a passing reference to Katrina suffering. Goodness. Karl Rove must be human after all.

Afterward came a real muddleheaded move. Backstage, country singer Mark Wills handed the president a guitar. He pretended to play it, smiling broadly. While photos of dying citizens of New Orleans flashed all around the world, so did the image of a beaming president purportedly plucking the guitar.

One blogger summed it up the best: "This guy just oozes gravitas, doesn't he? But seriously, I can't believe the famously image-conscious Bush communications corps let him look so stupid at a time when he's as unpopular as he's ever been."

"While Bush Fiddles, New Orleans Dies," screamed the headline over a Jimmy Breslin column in Newsday on September 4. Growled Breslin, even more indignantly than usual, "George Bush was at North Island in Coronado, California, speaking to a blindingly white audience of 9,000 sailors in uniform. At the hour, blacks were drowning in New Orleans.... Wherever cameras swept, the only thing that was white was a towel being waved by a black woman begging for help.... [Bush] barely seemed to understand there was a hurricane for the first three days. He was in Coronado."

Also on September 4, New York Times columnist Frank Rich said that in San Diego, Bush "was standing at the totemic scene of his failure. It was along this same San Diego coastline that he declared 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln more than two years ago." This time, explained Rich, citing the Washington Post , "the president's stage managers made sure he was positioned so that another hulking aircraft carrier nearby would stay off-camera, lest anyone be reminded of that premature end of 'major combat operations.' "

Breslin and Rich were Milquetoasts compared with some of the bloggers. Here are some captions on the guitar faux-fingering photo as it swept across the Internet:

"President Nero Fiddles While New Orleans Drowns."

"Bush Plucks While New Orleans Sinks."

"The prez decided to do a little strumming on a guitar...THAT HAS THE FUCKIN' PRESIDENTIAL SEAL ON IT!!! THIS IS SICK!"

One blogger with the ability and equipment to juxtapose photos slickly sent out a real zinger. There was an African-American woman weeping, baby in hand, in New Orleans. Next to her was George Bush happily pseudo-strummin' the gee-tar.

In 2003, Bush's team managed to make the "Mission Accomplished" gaffe worse. Bush told reporters the sign had been put up by the Navy, not the White House. The Navy rejoined that while the banner was its idea, the White House made it. The administration had to admit that.

Now the White House is making the Iraq War speech and the guitar incident worse. Bush toured the stricken areas -- in flashy garb. He stuck his foot in his mouth by recalling his pub-crawlin' days in the Big Easy. He said he couldn't wait until Trent Lott rebuilds his mansion so the president can sit on the front porch. Rove and Bush's communications director concocted a plan to blame officials of New Orleans and Louisiana for the delay in helping ravaged areas. But the president and his aides have made so many dumb statements -- we didn't know the levees could break, we didn't know about those folks in the convention center, for example -- that this plan may fall flat.

As Peter Preston of Britain's Guardian points out, the Republicans did not handpick George W. Bush in the 1990s "for his magnificent managerial skills." In fact, he had been a flop in the oil business, and "his only relevant job had been governor of Texas. He was chosen as folksy symbol, heir to a dynasty, born-again communicator" with a great communications team led by Rove.

But how did that team break every rule of good public relations in San Diego? Public relations texts preach that the lowliest machine shop should have a disaster-communications plan. But this time, the White House seemed to have none. After the "Mission Accomplished" speech had gone sour, why did Bush go back to San Diego sailors for another critical address? Was there no realization that any pro-war San Diego speech would remind the public of the May 2003 one? Because the administration had slashed spending on the levees over the last four years, shouldn't it have been extra-sensitive about New Orleans? Why didn't Bush cancel the August 30 speech and head to New Orleans? Bill Clinton sometimes got to a disaster area before it became one.

Wasn't there a handler there to keep Bush from grabbing that guitar during the photo op? Didn't someone know what would happen after the Associated Press sent the picture out? Does the Bush administration underestimate the power of the blogs?

Comments Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor and Publisher , "What that trip [to San Diego] did produce was a picture of Bush laughing with a country singer and strumming a guitar." That picture, compounded with the doltish statements and bureaucratic inability to provide help, suggests, "This is not mere incompetence but dereliction of duty. The press should call it by its proper name."

Maybe the Republican Party should cast Republican San Diego County adrift. In the early 1970s, another Republican president, Richard Milhous Nixon, believed San Diego was his lucky city. So he planned the 1972 Republican convention here. Alas, a funding scandal arose and the convention was moved elsewhere. Finally, San Diego got a Republican convention in 1996. The city was thrilled -- so thrilled that it concocted a plan to underfund its pension system to pay for it. Yikes!

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