&ldquoW is for Women” reads one of the slogans for George W. Bush's re-election campaign. It reminds me of a badge that was very popular when I was a student: &ldquoThe earth is flat. Pigs can fly. Nuclear energy is safe.”
While following the US election campaign, many European observers have commented on how much muck is presented as valid opinion and unopposed fact in American media. Experienced commentators like Conor O'Clery of The Irish Times talk about how on the final stretch of a bitter campaign, &ldquocharges and promises are made that defy logic and truth”. Accusations fly on both sides but there is lack of any real dialogue – Mark Honigsbaum in The Observer writes that &ldquothere is little pretence of reasoned debate. It's yah-boo playground stuff”. What we have is mud-slinging, negative campaigning and spin. This is not just European bias – many US writers agree. The media, according to Columbia Journalism Review (a respected media watchdog based at Columbia University) is &ldquonot as much partisan as weak-kneed. As a result, what you have is spin – and at the moment, the Republicans are masters of spin”.
Recent polls on the gender gap show just how effective that spin can be. By manipulating the images of the women around Bush, the Republicans have eroded the traditional Democratic advantage among women. Commentators, among them Naomi Wolf, are suggesting that Laura Bush and Karen Hughes are winning the election for the Republicans.
In a recently published book, Bushwomen – Tales of a Cynical Species, writer and broadcaster Laura Flanders also accuses mainstream media of failing to highlight the gap between reality and gloss. Her sharp analysis of the heart of the Bush administration paints a picture of all-pervasive double standards and a cynical manipulation of the public. She points out how this has gone largely unchallenged in the press. The book examines how female cabinet members, supported by Laura Bush and Lynne Chaney, project a moderate, family-friendly feminist message while carrying out a Bush/Cheney right wing agenda which is eroding the very fabric of those values. Flanders provides a long list of examples to show how the reality of government policies are hurting families and working women – like the end of the equal pay initiative, cutting child care slots in the 2005 budget, and cuts in funding for ‘Headstart’, a programme to help disadvantaged pre-school children.
How would she sum up her analysis of ‘Bushwomen’?
&ldquoThe Bushwomen feign feminism while fuelling backlash. They talk about women's strength in the administration and cite their own advancements as proof of how far women have come, yet they collaborate with an administration that is rolling back the same civil rights and women's rights laws that helped these women get where they are, and they participate in an extremist effort to eliminate equal rights in the workplace, in education, in medicine and in the home”.
The Bush brand has been given a feminist makeover, and it has worked a treat. The brain behind this, according to Flanders’ book, is Karen Hughes. &ldquoWith Bush's assumption to the White House, Hughes rose to become one of the most powerful women in the land…she sat in on every meeting, oversaw the offices of press secretary, communication and speechwriting&ldquo. Hughes lead the 2000 Presidential campaign and remains a senior advisor and key communication strategist. She describes herself as &ldquoCounselor to the President, Wife and Mother”. Laura Flanders describes her as &ldquosupersmart”. Under her guidance, Republicans have learnt to use a language which gives the appearance of a compassionate conservative message. W [Bush] is &ldquoappreciative” to working mums; &ldquosensitive” to complex issues. It is widely assumed that the President's response in the third debate with Kerry, when asked what he had learnt from the women in his life, was pure Hughes. Flanders also credits Hughes with creating a good vs evil paradigm which has worked very effectively for the administration, defining dividing lines simply, eliminating grey areas and thereby making informed, complex debates more difficult to have.
Another woman subject to Flanders scrutiny is Condoleezza Rice. Images of the President listening attentively to his black, female Cabinet Secretary, have continued to send a message of diversity within the administration. However Rice's record shows her to be as much a tough oilman as Bush or Chaney. Flanders describes how Rice herself make references to her background, inferring credentials in the area of human rights, while her actual expertise has been in the expansion of US corporate reach and post cold war empire building. Yet the mainstream media, according to Flanders, talk a lot less about her record then her hairstyle and her place of birth.