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Times Change, Even For Presidents

Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz nails what seems to be an obvious point in his online column today. Political reporters are always on the lookout for the latest trend, movement or twitch in the body politic, but what weight should we give these meta-stories? From Kurtz:
The confluence of two events--the bloodshed in Iraq and the diplomatic maneuvering on North Korea--has given rise to a new media template: namely, that Bush has changed (or had reality forced upon him by world events).

No longer, we are told, is he a saber-rattling unilateralist. Now the president is a man who works for consensus with allies and pleads for public patience when such efforts drag on.

But is this true, or is just that Bush is boxed in by the situation in North Korea, a country that already has a nuclear capability and could wreak great havoc on American forces in South Korea?

As Kurtz notes, this new narrative got its grand unveiling on the cover of Time magazine this week, in the form of an oversized Stetson hat and the headline: "The End Of Cowboy Diplomacy." Kurtz notes that The New York Times has picked up on the template as well, and similar themes are spreading throughout the media.

But while this new template suggests (at least in headlines and soundbites) at some grand, calculated change in the administration's foreign policy approach, the Time article itself hints at a change rooted in reaction to events more than anything:

The shift under way in Bush's foreign policy is bigger and more seismic than a change of wardrobe or a modulation of tone. Bush came to office pledging to focus on domestic issues and pursue a "humble" foreign policy that would avoid the entanglements of the Bill Clinton years. After Sept. 11, however, the Bush team embarked on a different path, outlining a muscular, idealistic and unilateralist vision of American power and how to use it. He aimed to lay the foundation for a grand strategy to fight Islamic terrorists and rogue states by spreading democracy around the world and pre-empting gathering threats before they materialize.
In other words, events have forced big changes in this president's thinking before and that dynamic appears to be happening once again.

Last week, we were treated to some on-the-couch examinations of the deeper meaning of President Bush's 60th birthday. But there's more (or less depending on how you look at it) at work here than pop psychology or magazine covers can explain. You might remember a time in the presidency of Bill Clinton where the narrative changed, literally, overnight.

On April 18, 1995, the president conducted a prime-time press conference. The Republicans were celebrating a burst of legislative successes from its first 100 days in power on the Hill and when two of the broadcast networks passed on covering Clinton's press conference (CBS News carried it), the president was left to make the case that he remained relative in the political equation. Asked about the disinterest of two networks to carry the event, Clinton remarked, "The Constitution gives me relevance, the power of our ideas gives me relevance, the record we have built up over the last two years and the things we're trying to do to implement it give me relevance."

It was a jarring scene for political observers to see a U.S. President make the case for his own relevancy. Yet Clinton's road to a comeback started the very next day when the awful bombing of the Alfred Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City made him more than relevant, it made the president necessary. The following months were spent with a fair amount of attention being focused on militia movements within our own borders; groups with a distinctive Republican tint to them. And by the time Christmas rolled around, President Clinton was besting his GOP Hill opponents in a standoff over a government shutdown. Presidential "relevancy" was a forgotten topic. Just a reminder to beware of new media narratives that seize on events of the moment to draw grand conclusions.