What does the president do with his leisure time in Crawford, Texas, when he's not clearing brush or riding his bike? One idea might be an hour or two in front of the TV to watch the new 13-part drama "Over There" on FX.
Created by Steven Bochco, whose credits include "NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street Blues," "Over There" is being sold as the first TV drama about the current war in Iraq. It also lays claim to being the first small-screen series about any war to be aired during the conflict. To TV critics, it's a mixed bag. Some question its apolitical position; others praise its realistic portrayal of war. (The New York Times' critic called it "slick, compelling and very violent.")
But to the White House it means something entirely different. The art-imitates-real-life idea is breaking new ground in both TV and politics, posing a curious question for President Bush and his aides: could "Over There" affect the already-fragile poll numbers on Iraq? According to one senior Bush aide, the president has voiced a strong interest in the series but hasn't yet seen it for himself. Bush quizzed his aides last week about how the show was produced and how faithful it was to the conflict. "Does it really depict what is going on? Do you get a sense of it?" Bush asked. In fact, just a handful of senior aides have seen the show and report it to be "riveting" and "pretty vivid." But the senior aide says, "We don't have an official opinion yet. I don't think enough people have seen it."
You can understand why Bush's aides would be unsure of the show. While the White House likes to honor the troops in Iraq, it remains uneasy about other institutions speaking for those same troops. For much of the last year, the president has come under intense pressure from conservative Republicans, especially those representing military districts, to outline more clearly the path to success in--and withdrawal from--Iraq. That nervousness turns up time and again in the polls. According to the latest Gallup poll, 53 percent of Americans say the war was not a mistake, yet the same number believes that U.S. forces either can't win or won't win. Those numbers vary with the precise wording of the polls. When Gallup asked last month whether the war was worth it, that same number--53 per cent--said no. It's obviously way too early to tell if the graphic drama of "Over There" will tilt that fine balance one way or another.
Against those nerves, the White House can at least feel reassured by FX itself, which is part of the Fox TV empire. One of the favorite shows among White House aides has been "24," the Kiefer Sutherland counterterrorism cliffhanger drama. White House aides regularly swap stories about their favorite Sutherland shoot-outs with foreign agents, terrorists and generally bad guys. "Over There" may be a different beast, but it probably appeals to the same crowd.
It's not all vacation. Kicking off his monthlong sojourn at his ranch, Bush on Thursday will play host to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who will be in town to discuss his country's efforts to combat guerilla groups financed by drug cartels. The subject of the talks is important--Bush has likened the Columbian drug war to the ongoing fight against terrorism. But perhaps most important is the message that Bush is sending internationally by embracing Uribe as one of a select group of foreign leaders who have been invited to the ranch.
Scoring an invite to the Western White House is something akin to making it past the velvet rope at the world's most exclusive club. Only 13 heads of state have been asked to meet with Bush in Crawford, invitations that have typically been reserved for top allies in the war on terror or for major diplomatic efforts. Back in November 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to visit the ranch. British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited in 2002, Prime Ministers Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and John Howard of Australia in 2003 and King Juan Carlos of Spain in 2004. Last April, Bush hosted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Only two leaders have been invited back more than once: Mexican President Vicente Fox, who started out as Bush's best friend (at least before 9/11) and who has visited the ranch twice, and Saudi Arabia's newly crowned King Abdullah, also a two-time visitor as crown prince. All told, Saudi officials have visited the ranch three times--far more than their foreign counterparts. Bush first met with Crown Prince Abdullah in April 2002, then with Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar in August 2002, in the run up to the Iraq war. The Saudis visited again last April, amid concerns about rising gas prices.
Administration officials have described Uribe as one of Washington's strongest allies in South America, a significant statement of support considering the administration's strained ties with officials in countries like Argentina and Brazil. Thursday will mark Bush's second visit with the Colombian president in recent months. Last November, Bush flew to Cartagena, where he touted the Uribe's efforts to promote democracy in the country.
Last month, Uribe scored White House support for a controversial plan that would grant lenient sentences to some of Colombia's most notorious paramilitary fighters in exchange for demobilizing. Under the so-called Justice and Peace bill, guerillas engaged in peace talks with Uribe's government could avoid extradition to the United States to face trial on drug-trafficking charges. The plan has angered human-rights groups and several members of Congress, who have threatened to withhold as much as $3 billion in U.S. aid to the country because they believe the plan sets the wrong precedent for combating the war.
According to the White House, Bush will underscore his support for Uribe's peace plan during tomorrow's meeting and will press Congress to approve additional funding for the demobilization effort. It's an important endorsement as Uribe moves to secure other diplomatic support for his plan--and as he prepares for a re-election fight back in Colombia next year.