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Social Studies


By Vincent Williams | Posted 9/14/2005

It always comes back to the pictures. Years ago, when Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast was skewering Boss Tweed and New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, Tweed reportedly roared to his subordinates to find a way to shut Nast up, claiming that none of his constituents read the articles, but the cartoons, they were killing him. You can’t not pay attention to the pictures.

And for this administration, it’s always been about the pictures. One Washington wag recently opined that for Karl Rove—as usual, one of the people George W. Bush has tasked with saving his political ass—”politics is television with the sound turned down.” This has always meant control of the visuals; if nobody sees the bodies coming back from Iraq, nobody might get the idea that perilously close to 2,000 dead U.S. soldiers have perished in that war of convenience.

Now with bodies floating up daily in the toxic swamp that once was the 35th largest city in America, the administration has lost control of the pictures, and with that the agenda. In White House briefings, where Bush mouthpiece Scott McClellan used to be able to prevaricate, deny, and duck whatever premise reporters gave him about the scene in Iraq, it’s painfully obvious that the reporters are telling the news to the administration for a change. Iraq news from half a world away can be filtered through official sources. In the case of the Gulf Coast, the secretary of Homeland Security had to be told by TV correspondents that there were people abandoned in the New Orleans Convention Center.

So it’s not surprising that one of the first moves made during the occupation of the disaster area by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, law enforcement, and the National Guard was to control access to the pictures. Reuters reported that on Sept. 7 FEMA rejected media requests to accompany rescue efforts and requested that “no photographs of the deceased be made by the media.” The same day, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams reported on his blog, The Daily Nightly, that law-enforcement officers and National Guardsmen had been pointing the muzzles of their weapons at reporters armed only with notepads. It’s all about control of the pictures.

If you have any doubts about this, recall the Utah firefighters flown to Atlanta to train as first responders for FEMA, only to be given sexual-harassment and community-relations briefings and then sent to be human backdrops for the president when he toured damaged areas in Louisiana. It’s straight off the first page of the Rove playbook: Get the president in the shot.

And whatever happened to that great Republican value, “accountability”? Bush has yet to admit to a single mistake during his five years in the presidency—foul-ups can be pawned off on the CIA for Iraq, various underlings and miscreants for Abu Ghraib, or “the bureaucracy” for anything else. And apparently we’ll have to wait until some unforeseen point in the future to find out why so many people are the floating dead in New Orleans. The White House has returned to its touchstone talking point: “Now is not the time for the blame game.” As the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart put it most succinctly, “When people don’t want to play ‘the blame game’—they’re to blame.

That having been said, it will be interesting to see how and when the GOP again tries to tell African-Americans how much it cares and wants their vote. Black people all across the U.S. are looking at those pictures, too.’s Jacob Weisberg pointed out that when Bush visited the Gulf Coast three days after the hurricane struck, it wasn’t to 67 percent African-American New Orleans, but to 71 percent white Biloxi, Miss., a jurisdiction with a governor, two senators, and a mayor who are all white Republicans. Those same black folk can probably recall last year when hurricanes Charley and Frances hit Florida, and Bush made four visits in six weeks, taking along relief checks to pass out himself.

There are a lot more ugly pictures to come out of the devastation of Katrina, and undoubtedly the administration will try and find a way to keep us from seeing any of them—perhaps to protect our delicate sensibilities. But this is an instance where we can see the chain of command with our own eyes, and it leads straight to the top. Now, finally, we know why George W. Bush doesn’t watch television.

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