Dan Bartlett, communications director for the White House, will be departing soon. He claims to be leaving to “spend more time with his family.” In Washington-speak, this can mean “I love my kids a lot,” or “I didn’t bury the bodies deep enough.” Bartlett has been a loyal friend to President Bush, shaping messages back in Texas in 1993 and following the team to the White House. He was close with President Bush and people claim he helped soften President Bush, particularly against the combative influence of Karl Rove. Bartlett downplays the role he brought in balancing advisors, and may be a minor figure in the mythology of the Bush White House. Even in his departure, Bartlett’s influence is unclear to outsiders.
Bartlett claimed in a GQ interview that the early George W. Bush was a pretty “raw.” Raw Bush made a few appearances during the 2000 campaign, calling a New York Times reporter a “major-league asshole” while simultaneously campaigning to raise the discourse in Washington. He attempted to link Saddam with Al-Qaeda in a 2004 debate. In 2006, President Bush approached German Chancellor Angela Merkel from behind and shook her with a vigor not seen used on a German Chancellor since 1933. Bush continued his streak with Europe, winking at the Queen of England in 2007. When asked directly if the 1993 Bush looked presidential, Bartlett said “No. N-O. And [President Bush] would probably agree with that.” I wonder what 1993 Raw Bush would have done with the Queen of England…
Communication surrounding the Iraq War also has some Bartlett fingerprints. Bartlett admits being part of the decision to embed reporters with troops. Embedded media was the greatest issue of the relationship between the Fourth Estate and the military. Placing reporters in danger stopped the discussion of a war’s merits and forced reporters to discuss everything in terms of action. A reporter riding in a Humvee had no perspective on the geopolitical movements because, as was said in Black Hawk Down, “when those bullets start coming at you, politics fly out the window.” Reporters, in the age of YouTube and military blogs, remain relevant with embedding. As the military actively shuts down the voices of soldiers, embedded reporters could become the major source for information on the war front. Bartlett, among others, has limited our access to information about the war in the early days.
Embedding, while stifiling debate, may still serve a noble purpose. An all-volunteer force grants most our generation the luxury of freedom from participating in war. Day-to-day danger is personal and visceral, easily closer to reality than the newsreels set to patriotic music. Edward R. Murrow was famous for being part of the action and inserting himself into the story, enhancing coverage of the war and giving a human dimension to horror. There is no piece of war reporting that matches Murrow but the embedded reporter has more access to the front than Murrow did during the war. Perhaps the public should blame the quality of reporters rather than the policy of embedding. Collaboration between media and government is a difficult issue for everyone but was successfully implemented by Bartlett and he has no regrets over that issue.
The one regret Bartlett has about the war, and his entire term, was the “Mission Accomplished” banner. Bartlett splits the blame with others, including former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, but believes that was a mistake. He says the phrase was never in the speech but he didn’t control the banner. He pawns mistakes of other members of the administration (Bartlett is responsible for all the communication that comes out of the White House, not just President Bush) on the difficulty of working with the staffs of other people. Dan Bartlett was to communication what some conservatives were to government. Conservatives that rail against government power and intrusion feel a bit of cognitive dissonance when forced to intervene in the lives of citizens. A White House with such a hostile relationship to the press and with so many stubborn staffers create a quagmire for communication. This White House is infamous for stonewalling the press, slight-of-word tricks with the public, and debate through force with each other. Bartlett was present for so much communication in the White House and appeared to do so little that I wonder if the better analogy is “Bartlett is to communication what Alberto Gonzalez is to law.”