The disciplined message starts with the president himself. As he showed in the 2000 presidential campaign, to the surprise of his critics, Bush develops a theme and sticks to it. He rarely allowed himself to be distracted from his principal themes, and he relentlessly hammered away at his basic message.
In his surprisingly successful 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Bush seized on a handful of big issues—welfare, juvenile crime, education, and tort reform. He repeated them constantly and rode the message to victory. From that experience, he learned an important lesson about the “vision thing” that so troubled his father. Bush defines a message, repeats it, and hammers it home.
Some of that discipline comes from his personal style. Some comes from Karl Rove’s laserlike vision of how to keep his man on track. And some of it comes from a painful lesson during the 2000 campaign. Sam Attlesey, a reporter from the Dallas Morning News whom the Bush campaign regarded as friendly, asked a question that seemed innocuous enough at the time: “Could you pass the White House security clearance as it relates to drugs?” Dogged by suggestions of drug use throughout the campaign, Bush curtly replied, “I’ve answered that kind of question already.”
Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon worried that the answer would seem hypocritical—that other White House employees would be required to answer a question that Bush refused to answer himself. So Bush followed up with a phone call to Attlesey and said, “If you’re asking me if I’ve done drugs in the last seven years [the period covered by the White House security clearance form], the answer is no.”
Bush’s cryptic answer invited a flood of follow-up questions and let loose an avalanche of stories. The governor addressed only the last seven years, which only dredged up more questions about the years before that. Was he high when he was flying a National Guard jet? Did his partying days as a youth include drug use? For a few days the issue threatened to swamp the campaign. But Bush’s relentless refocus on the basic themes helped the story fizzle and avoided continued questions that could have unhinged the Bush campaign.
From that point on, access to candidate Bush was tightened. His advisers focused sharply on the messages they chose, and worked to make sure that reporters covered the stories they wanted to get out. Some advisers worried that tight management of the message robbed the campaign of one of its greatest assets—Bush’s easygoing, charming way with voters. But the staff concluded it was better to put that asset at risk than to risk going off the track completely. The Bush team worked hard to manage the media carefully. They christened campaign press secretary Karen Hughes “Nurse Ratched,” the crotchety former army nurse who ran the psychiatric ward in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest with unyielding ruthlessness.