How to Sell an Invisible War

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Bush urged governors to call up National Guard units to protect U.S. airports

As President Bush has made clear these part two weeks, America is at war. And war, of course, means sacrifice, hardship, even suffering for the cause on the home front. Or does it? "Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots," the President commanded the nation last Thursday. "Go down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed."

If you're confused by Bush's mixed message, you're not alone. "It's the big conundrum for the administration," says one of the President's advisers. "We're saying, 'This is serious business, this is war.' But we're also saying, 'Return to normal, get back to your lives.' Obviously there's a conflict in that."

Soliciting PR strategies [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Enough of a conflict, in fact, to have prompted Bush's two most trusted aides, Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, last week to begin quietly soliciting ideas from GOP consultants and public relations executives on ways to keep Americans focused on the war effort even as national life returns to normal. Proposals include everything from benefit concerts to patriotic television ads to a special web site giving up-to-the-minute progress reports on the war.

One possibility under consideration: a televised mega-concert with performers celebrating American values like freedom and democracy. Bush advisers both inside and outside the White House thought the star-studded telethon that aired Sept. 21 was, as one put it, "very nice, but a little too Hollywood and New York" — i.e., liberal. While the telethon focused on the victims of the terrorist attacks and featured multiple calls for ethnic tolerance, the White House-sponsored event would be aimed at "educating a new generation of Americans on what war is all about." And the talent, say some, would be different, too. Think Lee Greenwood instead of Fred Durst, Brooks and Dunn in place of U2, Tom Selleck rather than Brad Pitt. And way fewer candles.

A war without battlefields

The challenge is made more difficult because the war on terror won't be waged just on the battlefield. "There's no longer islands to conquer or beachheads to storm," Bush said last week. With so much of the effort — the diplomatic, financial and clandestine parts — taking place out of sight, the White House has to find ways to show that things are happening, that the war is being waged and won. The President himself is conscious of the problem. When he discovered the Treasury Department was slated to announce that the administration had frozen the assets of Osama bin Laden and 27 organizations and individuals linked to his terror network, the President nixed the idea. Instead, Bush made the announcement himself from the Rose Garden, calling the move "a major thrust of our war on terrorism."

Why turn such a relatively minor initiative, one that previous administrations had taken before him, into a Rose Garden photo-op? Because the public's overwhelming support for the war on terrorism might not last as long as the war itself. At some point Americans may start paying more attention to such tangible things as job layoffs and the all-but-declared recession than to an often invisible war. And if they do, support for both the war and its commander-in-chief could wane.