But now, less than six months since the beginning of the second term, the Bush White House is in massive trouble. The media people are losing control, and with nothing underneath, things could get messy quickly.
Exhibit A is this AP report about the Pentagon/Newsweek Quran abuse fiasco. It's generously headlined, but the content is devastating: White House Plays Down New Quran Reports .
Some key passages:
"I think on this issue, they fell into a trap," [Joe] Lockhart said. "They saw a way to push back on a damaging story by making it look like it was just out-of-control journalists, and now they've had to admit that it has happened."
The Pentagon confirmed Friday evening — after the networks' evening news shows had aired — that a U.S. soldier had deliberately kicked a prisoner's holy book. The report also said prison guards had thrown water balloons in a cell block, causing an unspecified number of Qurans to get wet; a guard's urine had splashed on a detainee and his Quran; an interrogator had stepped on a Quran during an interrogation; and a two-word obscenity had been written in English on the inside cover of a Quran.
Pretty negative stuff from AP. But the real killer is the finish - Laura Bush's goodwill tour provides the money quote:
"We've had terrible happenings that have really, really hurt our image of the United States," she said. "And people in the United States are sick about it."
Somehow I don't think that particular talking point was on the card they gave her at the beginning of the trip.
Exhibit B is a Washington Post piece, Bush's Optimish on Iraq Debated. The subhead is "Rosy View in Time Of Rising Violence Revives Criticism."
The toughest graph in this one is actually unnecessarily "balanced;" the pro-administration lead sentence is editorializing. But in the end it serves to sharpen, rather than soften, the force of the blow to come:
It is not unusual for a president to put the most positive spin possible on U.S. policy, especially during a time of armed conflict when public support is crucial. But the administration's assertions about Iraq have been a source of controversy since the earliest days of the operation, from the insistence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to Cheney's claim of links between Iraq and al Qaeda to the rosy forecasts about how welcome U.S. troops would be.
Exhibit C is not really on the same level as the other two, but it's included because of how it fits into the overall picture - it's probably not a good sign when the AP has two completely different stories running the wire getting headlines with the words "White House Downplays" in them
White House Downplays Missing-Arms Report.
McClellan said that the United States has helped to remove low enriched uranium and radioactive sources, offered jobs to weapons experts from Saddam Hussein's programs to keep them from taking their expertise elsewhere, and helped Iraq establish an independent radioactive source regulatory authority.
The somewhat humorous thing about the apparent White House strategy on this story is that the basic idea they are using is actually true - the only real serious WMD threat is nuclear. Biological and chemical weapons are a pretty minor proliferation threat, comparatively speaking.
But since the nuclear piece was always the very weakest part of the case for invading Iraq, and the best justification the White House can now use for the war is that Hussein could have theoretically started manufacturing chemical or biological weapons anytime (by definition, since they are easy to manufacture), it's got to be hard for McClellan to use this argument with a straight face.
I don't doubt he can do it, but the current media climate is finally making me skeptical that he will be able to get away with it. Four big news weeks coming up for the White House - they need a good June or they could be in big-time trouble.