Media Spectacle and the Wired Bush Controversy

by: Douglas Kellner / UCLA

During a media age, image and spectacle are of crucial importance in presidential campaigns. Media events like party conventions and daily photo opportunities are concocted to project positive images of the candidates and to construct daily messages to sell the candidate to the public. These events are supplemented by a full range of media advertising that often attempts both to project negative images of the oppositional candidate and positive images for the presidential aspirant that the ads seek to support. In an era of media spectacle, competing parties work hard to produce a presidential image and brand that can be successfully marketed to the public. In a forthcoming study of media spectacle and election 2004, a draft of which is available on my website, I sketch out some of the key structural elements of the media campaign spectacle, discussing primaries and conventions, advertising and spin, and the presidential debates, illustrating them with examples from the 2004 presidential election, which is emerging as one of the most highly contested and media-mediated in recent history.[1]

Election Spectacles and Resonant Images
The primary season requires that candidates raise tremendous amounts of money to finance travel through key campaign states, organize support groups in the area, and purchase television ads.[2] While the primaries involve numerous debates, media events, advertising, and then state-wide votes for delegates, usually a few definitive images emerge that define the various candidates, such as the negative image in 1972 of Democratic party candidate and frontrunner Edmund Muskie crying on the New Hampshire state capital steps while responding to a nasty newspaper attack on his wife, or front runner Gary Hart hitting the front pages with a sex scandal, replete with pictures, in the 1984 primaries. Michael Dukakis was arguably done in by images of him riding a tank and looking silly in an oversize helmet in the 1988 election, as well as being the subject of negative television ads that made him appear too liberal and soft on crime and defense. Bush senior, however, was undermined during the 1992 election with repeated images of his convention pledge, “Read my lips. No new taxes” after he had raised taxes and doubled the national deficit.

Beyond political primaries, spectacles can make or break campaigns for the presidency as well. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s decisive seizing of a microphone in the New Hampshire debates and insistence that since he was paying for the debate, he would decide who would participate produced an oft-repeated image of Reagan as a strong leader; in 1984, his zinging of Walter Mondale during their presidential debates (“There you go again!”) and making light of his age arguably assured his re-election. By contrast, Al Gore’s sighs and swinging from aggressive to passive and back to aggressive behavior in the 2000 presidential debates probably lost support that might have been crucial to his election and have prevented the Bush Gang from stealing it.[3]

In the 2004, Democratic Party primary season, Howard Dean was for some time positively portrayed as the surprise insurgent candidate. An energetic Dean was shown nightly on television and he received affirmative publicity as front-runner in cover stories in the major national news magazines. Dean raised a record amount of money from Internet contributions and mobilized an army of young volunteers. As the time approached for the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, however, images of an angry Dean increased and intemperate remarks, or critical positions taken out of context, made Dean look like a fire-breathing radical.[4] While he received significantly more media coverage than any other Democratic Party candidate in 2003, Dean received almost totally negative coverage in 2004 and his campaign came to an abrupt halt the night of the Iowa primary. Coming in a distant third, Dean tried to energize his screaming, young supporters and to catch the crowd’s attention when he emitted a loud vocal utterance, which followed an energetic recitation of the states he would campaign in. Dean’s “scream” was perhaps the most-played image of the campaign season and effectively ended his campaign.

The Presidential Debates and Images of the Wired Bush
The Democrats went for “electability,” chose John Kerry, and anointed him at their convention spectacle. Unleashing an unparalleled barrage of negative advertising, including the Swift Boat campaign, the Republicans sought to impugn Kerry’s integrity, paint him as a hopeless flip-flopper, and finally as a tax-and-spend “Massachusetts liberal.” After dropping “Stronger, Safer” ads that were intended to re-elect George W. Bush, the Republicans deployed a wide repertoire of positive ads of Bush combined with negative ones of Kerry, culminating in the infamous pack of wolves that were intended to scare the nation into voting for Bush.

The Democrats and supporting 527 groups, in turn, produced a barrage of attack ads on Bush for his disastrous Iraq war, failure to get Osama bin Laden, and failed economic record. Both parties used their conventions to sell their candidates, and while the Democrats chose, perhaps unwisely, to go positive, the Republicans unleashed a unparalleled spectacle of mocking attacks on Kerry, including ritual “flip flop” displays and small purple band-aids to highlight the Swift Boat campaign message that Kerry exaggerated his war wounds and did not deserve a purple heart.

But it was the debates that provided a relatively direct confrontation of the candidates and that was probably the most revealing and perhaps important spectacle of the campaign. Television tends to exaggerate small defects and provides images of the candidates that their handlers might not wish to circulate. Al Gore was excoriated for his sighs during the first 2000 presidential debate and George W. Bush was taken apart for his petulant, testy, and often confused responses to Kerry’s sharp criticisms of his positions, and most commentators scored Kerry the decisive winner in all three debates.

But perhaps the most surprising television moment of the spectacle was revelations in the first debate that George W. Bush seemed to have a wire running up his back. One of the most intriguing stories concerned images circulated in regard to the mysterious bulge in Bush’s coat evident throughout the first debate. Speculation mushroomed over whether Bush was wired with Karl Rove feeding him answers, or if the wire malfunctioned or was jammed, causing Bush evident grief. John Reynolds in a commentary “Bush Blows Debate: Talks to Rove in Earpiece!” suggested that in the middle of an answer while the green light was still flashing Bush impatiently blurted out, “Now let me finish,” even though no one was seemingly interrupting him.[5] For Reynolds:

The ‘let me finish’ quip was clearly Bush talking to someone (probably Rove) in his earpiece- saying ‘let me finish’ (before you give me the next answer).

He blows it 60 seconds into his 90 second reply — so no warning lights had gone off and the moderator had not motioned for him to end as there was plenty of time left.

There is really no other plausible explanation for this huge blunder — who was he telling to ‘let him finish’? The voices in his head?

Is he talking to God again? Shouldn’t this be enough to warrant a major investigation of some sort — Bush is so incompetent he needs an earpiece to speak in public! (ibid).

Indymedia and other Internet sites circulated the images of the bulge and speculated that it was an electronic wire telling Bush what to say and a website quickly appeared collecting all the information and key stories on the phenomena at Once Salon broke the story on Friday,[6] all of the major Saturday newspapers had a story with lower-level Bush spokespeople saying it was “preposterous.”[7] The story persisted and on Sunday ABC’s morning show featured the images of Bush with the bulging coat that by now was blamed on his tailor. Yet the TV footage of the debate clearly showed what appeared to be a wire running along his back with a noticeable bulge around it.

Hence, when the third debate began on October 8 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, many were looking closely to see if there were any signs of a tell-tail wire on the back of Bush’s coat. While his shoulders and rump revealed rather strange tailoring, there was no evidence of a wire, as there was throughout the first debate, on Bush’s back until the end of the debate when he bounded on stage to meet with his and Kerry’s families. A picture in Salon suggested that a wire appeared to have popped out, as an astonished Kerry daughter looked at the strange hump in the back of Bush’s jacket.[8]

Speculations continued to fly over the Internet concerning whether Bush was wired, whether he had diabetes and the bulge was an insulin device, whether he had a heart attack (he had allegedly postponed his yearly physical this year), or whether the tell-tail bulge was just a flack jacket. Tailors weighed in and most said that the tell-tale bulges could not be explained by poor tailoring. The New York Times had an Op-Ed feature that showed pictures of New Yorkers walking down the street with big bulges in their clothes, but in these cases one could discern money-belts, shoulder pistols, flack jackets, and other devices. Critics like Dave Lindoff began looking at other tapes of the Bush presidency and finding evidence of a Wired Bush:

I just got a look at the full Fox tape of President Bush’s May ’04 joint news conference with French President Jaques Chirac. In that tape, as in several other tapes I’ve seen, Bush can be heard seemingly getting prompting from another voice. About 12 seconds into the piece, the leading voice says, “And I look forward to working to” Bush comes in with “And I look workin’…And I look forward to workin’ to.” The verbal slip-up makes it clear that this is no electronic echo or sound synchronization problem.

At another point, about one minute and sixteen seconds into the tape, the leading voice lets out a loud exhale of breath. Bush does not follow suit. There is no preceding voice when a reporter is heard asking a question. Also, at one minute and 28 seconds into this tape, Bush reaches up and manipulates something in his ear, at which point there is a static noise and the sound of a speaker acting up, until he removes his fingers from his ear.

There is no wire going up to his ear, indicating that the earpiece in his right ear is wireless.[9]

My own contribution to the Wired controversy emerged from a viewing of the extras on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (DVD) where one node appears at Bush’s press conference right after the 9/11 Hearings meeting between the president, Cheney and the 9/11 Commission. A subdued Bush swaggered out to the White House lawn to make a statement and meet with the press. After fumbling, he finds the words to describe the meeting and generally provided brief answers to reporters’ questions, often after a concentrated pause. As Bush turns around to return into the White House at the end one can clearly observe a bulging tell-tale sign in his jacket similar to the bulge observed during and after the first and third debates.

Of course, the bulge could have been a bullet-proof vest, but oddly the Bush handlers have not made the claim and in any case a flack jacket could easily hold and conceal a wiring device. A Wired Bush could explain his tendency to give answers in brief code words rather than sentences, although it is also possible that he is simply linguistically challenged. Wired or not, most commentators indicated that Kerry was the winner of the third debate on style and substance and that regarding the debates as a whole the Democrats scored a big grand slam over the inept Bush and the sinister Cheney. While Bush didn’t flub as bad as the first two debates, his performance was full of misstatements, evasions, and empty rhetoric. He smiled inappropriately both when he and Kerry were speaking and his eyes wildly blinked throughout. His painful attempt to smile was undermined by the right corner of his mouth turning down as though a botox injection had gone bad and blog commentators complained about spittle hanging over the corner of his mouth for much of the debate.[10]

Although John Stewart, Jay Leno, Dave Letterman, and other comedians continued to make Wired Bush jokes, the controversy was ignored by the mainstream media until Charles Gibson confronted Bush in a Good Morning America interview. In the summary of Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin:

As you recall, the bulge, most clearly photographed during Bush’s first debate, raised conspiracy theories that Bush was possibly getting audio cues over some sort of wireless device. This morning, in part two of his interview with Bush on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Charlie Gibson spit it out. Brandishing a copy of the photo, he asked:

“Final question. What the hell was that on your back, in the first debate?”

Bush chuckled.

Bush: “Well, you know, Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett have rigged up a sound system — ”

Gibson: “You’re getting in trouble — ”

Bush: “I don’t know what that is. I mean, it is, uh, it is, it’s a — I’m embarrassed to say it’s a poorly tailored shirt.”

Gibson: “It was the shirt?”

Bush: “Yeah, absolutely.”

Gibson: “There was no sound system, there was no electrical signal? There was — ”

Bush: “How does an electrical — please explain to me how it works so maybe if I were ever to debate again I could figure it out. I guess the assumption was that if I was straying off course they would, kind of like a hunting dog, they would punch a buzzer and I would jerk back into place. I — it’s just absurd.”

So it’s the shirt? Sure doesn’t look like a shirt.[11]

Salon weighed in with another story on the mysterious bulge images as a NASA and Caltech scientist did an electronic enhancement of the images that clearly showed that something looking like a wire device was in the back of Bush’s jacket. In Kevin Berger’s summary:

George W. Bush tried to laugh off the bulge. “I don’t know what that is,” he said on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, referring to the infamous protrusion beneath his jacket during the presidential debates. “I’m embarrassed to say it’s a poorly tailored shirt.”

Dr. Robert M. Nelson, however, was not laughing. He knew the president was not telling the truth. And Nelson is neither conspiracy theorist nor midnight blogger. He’s a senior research scientist for NASA and for Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and an international authority on image analysis. Currently he’s engrossed in analyzing digital photos of Saturn’s moon Titan, determining its shape, whether it contains craters or canyons.

For the past week, while at home, using his own computers, and off the clock at Caltech and NASA, Nelson has been analyzing images of the president’s back during the debates. A professional physicist and photo analyst for more than 30 years, he speaks earnestly and thoughtfully about his subject. “I am willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate,” he says. “This is not about a bad suit. And there’s no way the bulge can be described as a wrinkled shirt.”[12]

It remains to be seen if the Wired Bush controversy and photo widely circulates through the Internet during the last days of the campaign, makes it into the mainstream media, and has any effect on the election. Yet the phenomena reveals how television can scrutinize and capture minute details of behavior, personality tics, and focus attention on issues –- or ignore them. The Wired Bush controversy was clearly initially an Internet phenomenon that snuck into the margins of the mainstream media, but so far has not penetrated the center. Failure of the mainstream corporate media to not more seriously investigate the phenomenon shows the incompetency, cowardice, and pack journalism conformity of the mainstream media. And yet when the mainstream picks up on an issue, it can be devastating, as the Dean Scream spectacle proved for Howard Dean and the Watergate saga for Richard Nixon. Watergate was initially a highly marginal story, which briefly appeared before the 1972 election, and then returned to haunt Nixon and drive him from office after the election. And so marginal images and stories can proliferate and can generate unforeseen consequences and effects. In an age in which politics is mediated by media spectacle, those who live by the media can also die by it.

This text extracts from a forthcoming book to be published by Paradigm Press, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy: Terrorism, War, and Election Battles. Thanks to Dean Birkenkamp for support with this project, and to Rhonda Hammer and Richard Kahn for discussion and editing of the text. A draft of the text is available at my website.
By August 2004, a record billion dollars had been raised by both candidates, double the amount for the previous year. See Thomas B. Edsall, “Fundraising Doubles the Pace of 2000.” Washington Post, August 21, 2004: A01.
For details, see Douglas Kellner, Grand Theft 2000. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
Many media pundits were cool for Dean from the beginning although he got much good press when the long-shot contender became a surprise front-runner. On the very negative coverage of the Dean campaign by the media punditry and corporate networks, see Peter Hart, “Target Dean. Re-establishing the establishment.” Extra! (March-April 2004: 13-18).
John Reynolds, “Bush Blows Debate: Talks to Rove in Earpiece!”.
Dave Lindorff, “Bush’s mystery bulge. The rumor is flying around the globe. Was the president wired during the first debate?” Salon, October 8, 2004.
See Mike Allen, “Bulge Under President’s Coat in First Debate Stirs Speculation,” Washington Post, October 9, 2004: A16.
Farhad Manjoo, “The bulge returns. As this screen shot from the Wednesday night debate indicates, the Bush mystery will not disappear.” Salon, October 13, 2004.
Tongue partly in cheek, the Salon writer noted: “Salon looked hard for evidence of the president’s mystery bulge this evening, but for much of the debate, on the ABC feed we screened, Bush’s back remained out of view. At the end, though, as the president crossed the stage to thank his opponent, we caught this glimpse of something strange pushing out of the commander in chief’s tailored coat. Is it part of an in-ear prompting device? Is it a back brace? Body armor? Confirmation that Bush is an alien? The mystery deepens … ” Earlier in the day, trying to make light of the whole affair, a Bush spokesman had said jokingly that the pictures of Bush’s humped back and mysterious bulge reveals that Bush is an alien.
Dave Lindoff, “At each ear a hearer: Bulletin on the Bush bulge,” Counterpunch, October 18, 2004.
See Ayelish McGarvey’s 01:54 a.m., October 13, 2004 commentary on the American Prospect webblog “Tapped” and the same day’s Salon “War Room ‘04” weblog.
Dan Froomkin, “Bush Tackles the ‘Bulge,'” Washington Post, October 26, 2004.
Kevin Berger, “NASA photo analyst: Bush wore a device during debate. Physicist says imaging techniques prove the president’s bulge was not caused by wrinkled clothing,” Salon, October 29, 2004.

Salon article:Technical expert: Bush was wired
Wired Bush conspiracy site
Tom Watson’s Wired Bush comments

Please feel free to comment.


  • Televised news engenders images with meaning. So what is the cultural logic for what gets anointed for heavy rotation, and what does not? Or, why ‘image a’ and not ‘image b?’

    Why do John Kerry’s snowboarding, Dick Cheney’s “lesbian daughter,” and the ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’ (or ‘Spin Boat Vets’ as Bob Somerby of the has labeled them) achieve media saturation, while ‘Wired Bush’ does not? How do ‘the innocuous,’ ‘the irrelevant,’ and ‘the patently false,’ respectfully, trump ‘the legitimate inquiry?’ This is an image that might impugn the ethical conduct of our political debates. It is not a conspirator’s Polaroid of Bigfoot.

    As Douglas Kellner hints, images of a ‘Wired Bush’ may still gain political gravity. Perhaps there will be additional photographs or evidence of technical problems that will force ‘mainstream’ journalists to do their work.

    After weeks of speculation, and as John Kerry issues his concession speech on the television behind me, one thing is certain — over the next four years we will again have the opportunity to spot this ‘Bigfoot’ for the mainstream media. Happy hunting.

  • Public disinterest?

    It strikes me that in this particular instance, maybe the public has accepted that our political leaders are mearly composites of the various interests that they serve. With that in mind, maybe the idea of a wired Bush is comforting for some and thus unnecessary to expose…at least it’s only one wire on his back…not the multitude of string pulled by those often vilified “special interest groups”.

  • Bush as marionette

    As DG posted, I have opted to find it comforting that our Commander-in-Chief has a bird on his shoulder. Being that I have so much trouble seeing him as anything other than a puppet for various interests on the right, this makes sense and it keeps me from dismissing him as the embodiment of all that is evil. Well, maybe I still do that last part, but I TRY to see it as a little more complicated than this….

  • Big Picture Politics

    It is hardly surprising that the increasing evolvement of media coverage and multi-million dollar, technology-based campaigns coincides with the devolvement of the “informed” viewer and his subject by assocation. Bush’s lack of mental and verbal abilities both on and off camera has already been noted among the well informed. The relative disinterest of the media in the story, and the viewers by association, point to a proven phenomenon equally at work in the propagation of Dean’s war cry. While the above post hints (quite rightly I think) that the phantom “wire” may be only an expected step in the totality of the new all-seeing, all-knowing American government (although I wouldn’t call this “comforting”), Keller falls into his own trap by spiralling into the same obsessiveness characterized by so many in the democratic campaign who missed out on the persuasiveness of the big picture, and lost the campaign in the process.

  • Has President Bush disgraced the public’s perception of the United States Presidency? From the lies, decpetion, and verbal miscues, one would think so. But lo and behold, the public adores him. Bush, back by popular demand, has been elected by one of the largest margins in recent history. The public has embraced this man who has sent the United States into one of the most blantantly deceiving acts of militarism. At this point, it seems as if Bush could have been holding a paper cup with a string attached directly to Karl Rove, and the public would have praised his morals and southern values. It is interesting to find that mainstream media has not publicized this controversy. The apparent lack of presidential criticism in the media is inherently undemocratic. There is too much anxiety about being ‘unpatriotic’ that one of the basic rights we have been granted as Americans, has inadvertently been suppressed. It is quite possible that Bush is telling the truth when he says there is nothing to the wire controversy. The problem that has arisen, though, is the lack of an outcry from the public to know the truth.

  • I find it very distubing that very few in the mainstream media have brought up ties between the Bush family and certain shady, wealthy oil families. It seems that no one is intrested in the entire truth, because after all doesn’t the media just give the public what they want to see or hear? Aren’t they just after ratings at the end of the day? Well, in recent times it seems a bit more complicated than that. It seems that our “dopey” President is a bit more cunning than we give him or his staff credit for. They’ve used the media to instill fear of terrorism to implement their personal and political agendas and keep the questions of their actions to a minimum. No one would of ever stood for atacking Iraq if they hadn’t been frightened to near death by the constant barrage of 9/11 images. It seems to me that the staff President Bush has been wired to has given him just enough to frighten the public, have them admire him, and all the while seeming like a very simple country boy, giving the public no reason to raise any questions or concerns.

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