Thursday and Friday of last week, President Bush participated in five conversations on Social Security in five different states. Yesterday, he participated in a conversation on class-action lawsuits, and today he participated in two more on Social Security. Indeed, the "conversation" is a tool that has been utilized very frequently by the President since the beginning of this calendar year. Occasionally, the term "discussion" is used instead, but they refer to the same thing.
The conversations share a general blueprint. The President, after being introduced, enters and sits in a chair on a stage in front of a backdrop with a small group of people. The President then begins with some acknowledgments and a general speech that may have little to do with the subject of the conversation.
The conversation then moves toward the intended topic. President Bush introduces one of the guests that share the stage with him. Usually, the first guest is someone whose credentials seem to establish him or her as an expert on the topic. For example, in yesterday's class-action conversation
, the first guest was Walter Dellinger, a professor at Duke University and a practicing attorney. This person will explain what he believes to be the problem and talk about possible solutions. The President asks questions aimed at clarifying a point or reframing it in a way that is more compatible with his goals.
Typically, there are a couple of speakers with some sort of expertise on the subject and one ordinary person who happens to be affected in some way by whatever the topic of the conversation happens to be. For example, the last speaker in the class-action conversation was Ms. Alita Ditkowsky. Ms. Ditkowsky spoke about her RCA TV which didn't work properly resulting in her receiving a coupon for $50 off a replacement RCA TV after being a party to a class-action lawsuit against RCA.
It is perhaps unsurprising that all of the guests onstage are supportive of the President's plan.
Aside from allowing the President to spread his preferred frames, the conversations serve to promote the President's plan in multiple ways:
- They create the illusion of an exchange of ideas. Indeed, just the word "conversation" (and the less frequent "discussion") suggests that the ideas are passed around. The President sometimes makes a comment like, "I want others to share with me their ideas." Of course, when all of the participants agree from the beginning, it isn't much of an exchange. The questions that the President asks might seem to suggest that he's really learning from the people he talks to, but anyone who follows the President more regularly knows that the foundations of the President's plan has already been decided on.
- They further the image of the President as the "common man." In addition to speaking to supposedly ordinary people, the President typically cracks quite a few jokes to further this end. Sometimes, he overdoes the folksiness. Take, for example, his words at the beginning of the January 11 conversation on Social Security: "Listen, thanks for coming today. As you can see, I am, uh, joined by some fellow citizens here on the stage." Do watch the video if you can. It's right at the beginning and it just isn't the same in print.
- They let the President present extreme cases of current problems. Ms. Ditkowsky and her television are one example of this. Sure, it's a shame that the lawyer in her case got $22 million and she got a coupon, but she isn't going to be the primary beneficiary of the President's plan. Likewise, in a January 7 asbestos litigation conversation, Bruce McFee talked about his company which was sued due to a mistaken identity. Few people would argue with the idea that the justice system didn't serve Mr. McFee and Ms. Ditkowsky well. However, most of the proposed legislation has little relation to these extreme cases. The President uses these examples to help push the entire plan, much of which is may be less beneficial to his "fellow citizens" than to large corporations like Halliburton (a subsidiary of which was recently hit with a $30 million asbestos suit).
In short, the "conversation" is an advertisement for the President's policies that hides behind the facade of an exchange of ideas.
(Also posted at Real Propaganda)
Update [2005-2-11 9:57:16 by NonemptySubset]:
Some MSM have reported on yesterday's conversations. Two mention opposition, and the AP article even goes so far as to call it a "campaign trail" event. Reuters fails to mention any dissenters.