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On the Nation's TVs, A Familiar Picture

By Tom Shales
Friday, September 14, 2007

In what NBC's Brian Williams said was George W. Bush's eighth speech on the Iraq war since he began it, the president finally talked about reducing American troop strength in that country. In a 24-minute address from the Oval Office that aired live last night on all the major networks, Bush said a total of 5,700 troops should be home by Christmas and, watching this on television, one could almost hear a nation shout hurray.

Katie Couric of CBS News called the speech a "state-of-the-war report," but Chris Matthews, looking more dignified than usual on MSNBC, compared Bush to Lucy in the "Peanuts" comic strip as drawn by the late Charles Schulz. Every autumn Lucy swore to Charlie Brown that she wouldn't pull the football away when he tried to kick it, and every year Charlie Brown fell for it and landed on his posterior. Matthews said Bush had been dealing in "false promises and false arguments again and again and again."

Even on Fox, the channel considered to be kindest to the Bush administration, opponents of the war were heard and few, if any, sounded impressed by Bush's speech or what he said in it.

Bush said his announcement could bring together opposing factions -- not opposing factions in Iraq so much as "people who've been on opposite sides" in the "difficult debate" about the war in this country. But one minute after the speech ended, Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, giving the pro forma Democratic response, said Bush offered "no plan" to end the war and that he should "listen to the American people and work with Congress" to come up with one.

And Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, said of Bush, in an interview on Fox News Channel, "He has made this case every six months for the last four years" and that it hasn't grown any better with age. The interview, with Fox's Carl Cameron, was taped Wednesday, when every big shot in Washington already seemed to know what would be in the speech.

Bush may have held out the promise of some troop withdrawals, but he came across as less than conciliatory in the speech, delivered in a stern, stony manner, something like a high-school disciplinarian getting tough, or rather staying tough, with a class of unruly students.

Bush was certain to anger his critics again when he once more tried to link the unconscionable terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the war effort in Iraq. He mentioned 9/11 specifically fairly late in the speech, and in his opening remarks referred to attacks by extremists "here at home," which also had to mean 9/11.

On ABC, in-house political expert George Stephanopoulos told anchor Charles Gibson that while he thought Bush had sent "a mixed message" on Iraq, the president seemed "less confrontational . . . with Congress" than in any other speech delivered since the war started.

CBS, the Cheap Broadcasting System, was, as often before, the network in the biggest hurry to get away from the speech and back to paid commercial programming. Couric wasn't even allowed to ask senior Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer for his analysis, though Schieffer was on hand and did appear briefly just before the speech began, to sum up what Bush would say.

NBC News stayed on the air the longest; then Williams and NBC's powerhouse pundit Tim Russert popped up on MSNBC a short time later. CNN stayed with the news, of course, because it's an all-news (or mostly news) network. Larry King, ludicrously inappropriate in a black shirt with thin silver suspenders, hosted a special edition of his "Larry King Live," and Obama managed to show up there, too.

The senator noted that, in his speech, Bush said one happy result of a U.S. victory in Iraq would be to drive al-Qaeda out of that country -- but, said Obama, the terrorist group "didn't exist" in Iraq "before our invasion."

All networks shared the same pool video of Bush from the Oval Office. Perhaps in an effort to make its coverage look distinctive, CNN pulled a very questionable stunt during the speech. Bush made reference to a brave soldier, Brandon Stout, who died while serving in Iraq, and CNN, having received a copy of the text in advance, obligingly inserted a photo of Stout into the picture, moving Bush slightly to the left, as it were.

But it's not the job of news organizations to help politicians, even presidents, embellish their speeches or assist them in making a point. If any other network did the same thing, it was a mistake. The president gets to command television time pretty much at his discretion; the networks don't have to give him anything but the space.

In a tiny historical fashion footnote, it appears that Bush's fondness for pale blue ties has caught on. A couple of anchors and pundits, and at least one politician, wore pale blue or powder-blue ties last night. Bush fooled them, however; he'd switched to a dark blue tie.

Matthews, before the speech, said that it was not a make-or-break appearance for the lame-duck president: "He doesn't have to win the argument, he just has to hold on." (Although Matthews has a reputation as something of a wild man on the air, he is probably the only anchor on any network who could correctly incorporate the word "leitmotif" in a sentence.)

As for the prediction on Bush, it appeared the president did indeed hold on, but it wasn't clear what's left for him to hold on to.

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