Triangulation, Again

The journalists are bored. Watch as they work through it, like depressed people in therapy. Feel for them as they search for formulations, metaphors, analogies—anything to explain this crushing dullness.

"I am suffering from George Bush Syndrome," wrote Richard Cohen in The Washington Post, barely a month into the Bush era. "GBS, as it shall henceforth be known, is rooted in the fact that Bush may be the dullest President since Calvin Coolidge."

The illness spread quickly from there, and it wasn't just liberals who got hit. Last week, it was The Weekly Standard's David Brooks, in a 100-days assessment on National Public Radio: "He's demonstrated some level of calm, boring, dull competence." This week it was The Times of London: "This Administration is distinct not only from its predecessor but those headed by Mr. Bush's father and Ronald Reagan. It is closest in form and tone to that of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. It was said of him that he was 'dull but decent and decisive.' "

This sort of thinking is everywhere, and it's understandable. If Presidents were foreign countries, Bill Clinton would be Brazil: a place where the party never stops, everyone wears a thong, and nothing is embarrassing except embarrassment. Bush feels more like Belgium, maybe even Canada. After eight years of carnival, we woke up in a clean, quiet place where rules are respected and people are nice to each other. For journalists, we're talking major hardship post.

But in letting ourselves spiral downward, I think we're missing something important. Think about it. This White House has convinced the media that the President of the United States is boring. The most powerful of all humans, an individual whose every utterance can affect people around the world, the guy who could push "The Button." Dull, empty, a so-so story best relegated to inside pages.

Pulling this off wasn't easy for the Bush people. It required tremendous skill, and a pitch-perfect understanding of the cultural climate and the media. Which is why Bush's boringness isn't boring at all, or shouldn't be to alert journalists. It's an extremely interesting boringness, much more interesting, ultimately, than the nonstop, out-there excitement of the previous regime. Because it's subtle, hidden, not obvious. And because it's working.

How? We all know the surface tactics, this President's decision not to seek too much attention, to be parsimonious about his media appearances, on the theory that less is more. "There was a dilution of our predecessor's bully-pulpit prowess by virtue of its overuse," Mary Matalin told The Washington Post last month. Thus, Bush declined to go meet the heroes of the Navy spy plane crisis as they arrived home.

But the strategy isn't just about shunning the spotlight. It's far more sophisticated than that, and actually takes a page from Clinton's playbook. To get his way in matters of policy, Clinton famously triangulated. On difficult questions such as welfare reform, he would play two opposing sides off one another, and wind up somewhere in between—the winner. Bush has done some triangulating of his own policies, but he's taken it a step further. He's triangulating the media.

Here's how it works. The President and his people put out two contradictory story lines, two different versions of his governing style. Version 1: He has vested unusual power in the formidable Dick Cheney. Version 2: Bush and only Bush is running the White House, and Dick had a surprisingly small role in the spy-plane crisis.

Another for-instance. Version 1: Bush runs a corporate White House and, as The New York Times put it on April 29, has a "penchant for bankers' hours." Version 2: According to the same day's Washington Post, Bush tracks down aides by cell phone late at night, and "arrives at the Oval Office almost precisely at 7:20 a.m. each morning," an hour when he has "deliberately" placed calls to a still-sleeping Senate Majority Leader.

Version 1: Bush is sensitive and prickly, much hotter than his father. Version 2: Bush is comfortable in his own skin, a master of self-deprecation.

The contradictory story lines go on and on. My National Journal colleague Alexis Simendinger pointed to others in a column last week: "Peacemaker or bully? Promisekeeper or shape-shifter? Representative or ideologue? Optimist or alarmist? So far, Bush has been telling us he's all of the above." I think that's the intention. He sends out both signals, then winds up on the third side of the triangle—ill-defined, gray, boring—and victorious. Look at those positive poll numbers, those largely warm 100-days assessments.

Last Sunday, the Associated Press had a story on the cast of The West Wing taking a special tour of the White House. "Notably absent was President Bush," the wire service reported, observing that the star of the series, Martin Sheen, recently called Bush a "moron," and that the series is about a Democratic President. This version prompted The Drudge Report to link to the AP piece, with the headline "Bush Snubs 'West Wing' Cast." But right in the same story, we also got Version 2. Bush's aides, including top honchos Andrew Card, Josh Bolten, and Joe Hagin, were "incredibly nice" to the visitors, according to one of the actors.

So is this President prickly about criticism like Nixon, or easygoing like Reagan? Steely or soft? Tough or nice? The two views defused each other, yielding a less-than-dramatic story that showed us practically nothing of the "real" Bush, whoever that might be. And this, I would wager, is exactly what he wanted.