The death of stay the course
August 27, 2008 · Updated 8:29 PM
by Jason Salzman
President George W. Bush, as one newspaper headline put it, wont stay the course on staying the course. The president wont use the oft-repeated phrase any longer to describe his administrations Iraq War policy. The New York Times and other news outlets carried major stories announcing this rhetorical shift.
Good for the news media, right?
When it comes to the Mr. Bushs administration, its just as important for journalists to cover marketing tactics as substantive policies. Thats because marketing, not substance, has been the presidents hallmark.
The Iraq War is a case in point. Look at what the administration did when it wanted to invade Iraq. It developed a meticulous marketing plan, which explained that Mr. Bush should not call for war during August. Why? For national security reasons? No. Because from a marketing point of view, you dont introduce new products in August, according to then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, quoted in The New York Times.
The communications strategy called for Mr. Bush to begin marketing the Iraq War in his speech on the anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy-a speech that everyone knew would grab headlines and TV cameras. (Hence, the speech was delivered in New York Harbor, against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty.) And the PR plan went on from there, culminating in the United States invasion of Iraq.
But like many a marketing plan that ignores reality, the presidents Iraq PR has been exposed over and over again. There was the staged toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad. There was Mr. Bush, flying to Baghdad, serving turkey on Thanksgiving. There was Mr. Bush, in a flight suit, aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier with Mission Accomplished blazed on a banner above him.
All of this and more have been choreographed by advisors for maximum effect on television. The administration has manufactured media-friendly images galore and rhetoric to go with them. You could fill a small book with the catch phrases, chief among them the War on Terror itself, developed to manipulate Americans into believing that the criminal pursuit of terrorists should be thought of in epic proportions, involving armies and countries in battle.
But ultimately stay the course was the most damaging of Mr. Bushs media phrases. The president developed it as part of his 2004 re-election campaign to cast himself as a strong leader, getting the job done and sticking to it, as opposed to Hope Is on the Way Sen. John Kerry.
And it worked. With the news media still refusing to own up to its failure to report on the intelligence disaster that formed the basis for the preemptive war, voters turned to Mr. Bush to lead America in wartime. Sen. Kerry didnt quite make the commander-in-chief cut. Stay the course helped Mr. Bush stay in office.
And now the phrase is dead, marking a milestone in sorting out truth from spin in the administration. The fact that Americas news media made such a big deal about the end of a phrase leaves me with some hope that the marketing wizards wont be able to manipulate our countrys journalists-and hence the American people-so easily in the future.
Jason Salzman is the author of Making the News: A Guide for Nonprofits and Activists, and board chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a Denver-based media watchdog organization.