West Wing Story: Live From Waco

If there was ever a made-for-TV event, it was the President's Economic Forum, held at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, on Tuesday. With Congress away and President Bush on his "working vacation," August is usually a slow news month in Washington. White House strategists knew that if they hosted the forum, a bored press corps would come.

And we did. Cable news shows set up makeshift studios at the summit for the day. Some even borrowed the White House's artful backdrop, which featured the presidential seal on a red, white and blue map of the United States. It seemed to suggest a Good Housekeeping stamp of approval on our economy. All afternoon long--after the half-day summit ended--anchors did interviews with the seven cabinet members in attendance. The secretaries dutifully went from one channel to the next getting out the White House's dual message: the economy is fundamentally sound, but we feel your pain.

Closed-circuit cameras captured every minute of the four "seminars" President Bush attended on a range of economic topics. (Vice President Cheney attended another four). Bush stayed for 20 minutes of each hour-and-a-half session, which were piped back to large flat screens set up in Baylor University's racquetball courts. Reporters shuffled from court to court watching the president volley with participants--businesspeople, economists and a handful of "real people" like Lucinda Harmon, a disabled nurse from Salado, Texas. Bush even went over and pet her service dog, a Yellow Labrador named Quint Essential, much to the delight of the cameras. The invited guests were more racially than economically diverse. Often Bush was flanked by a Latino or a woman or both. By design, there was never a shot of Bush without one of these "average Americans."

There was Flora Green, a feisty grandma who advocated Medicare reform during the panel on health care. "I want to speak for the heart of America, for the senior citizens that are suffering, who want action now," Green told the president. Bush's staff held its collective breath. Was she going to criticize the president? Like all the 240 guests invited to the forum, Green had been vetted. None of those attending had wildly differing views from the president. No one actually thought the tax cut was a bad idea, for example. Some were Democrats, most Republicans. They were picked because they had an interesting point to make. But, White House aides insist, no one told them what to say--or not say.

So as "Grandma Green" went on with her harangue, some wondered where it would lead. "Why should some bureaucrat tell me what to do?" the gray-haired grandmother of 24 proclaimed. Bush loved it. He nodded and chuckled. Behind him another artful banner, this one cleverly designed to include an electrocardiogram and declaring "Health Care Security." (Each session had its own banner proclaiming action like "Improving Education" and "Helping Workers," which fit neatly into the TV shot.) Bush himself made for good TV. He cocked his eyebrow at Green and playfully said: "Have you ever been to Washington?" The room broke into laughter. Instead of taking it on the chin, the president shared her disgust with D.C. bureaucracy and made his point: I'm one of you--the real people.

All day long the first M.B.A. president was on the side of the little guy. Bush told corporate executives--a group he used to proudly belong to--that they needed to "earn back our trust." In a move worthy of Mr. Town Hall himself, Bill Clinton, Bush made sure to weave the stories of the real people he had met into his plenary session speech, referring back to "Curtis" and "Janet" and "Phyllis." "People here are the people that really make America work," Bush said. "We're here to listen to you, to get a report from what I call the front lines of the American economy." At the end of the summit, Bush made sure to thank Baylor University--which defrayed some of the summit cost--for "putting on a great show."

Predictably, the Democratic National Committee--and many in the national press corps--dismissed the whole summit as just that, a show. "This is a love-in," reporters whispered to one another. DNC head Terry McAuliffe called it a "glorified photo op." No new policy came out of the summit. It was more an airing of ideas--most echoing the Bush administration. Charles Schwab, one of the financial heavies in attendance, suggested one new concept: to reduce double taxation of dividends. Most reporters were more interested in the fact that his company laid off several hundred workers yesterday. Indeed, the real economic news wasn't coming out of Waco, but boring old Washington, where the Federal Reserve decided not to raise interest rates.

Also predictably, the White House dismissed us dismissing their summit. They not only got great TV images that projected just the message they wanted, but they got good regional media coverage. Of the 300 reporters who signed up for the summit, about two thirds were from outside the Beltway--a big focus of this White House's media strategy. There is a whole department, Media Affairs, dedicated just to regional press coverage. At the summit, the White House even offered up its services to local reporters, happily setting up interviews for them with any of the real people. One aide proudly showed me the Waco Tribune-Herald, which lauded the Bushies for including local UPS driver Robert London in the summit. SPEEGLEVILLE MAN READY TO GIVE VIEW OF 'WORKING MAN, the front-page headline read. "[Bush] seems like he's with the people," London told the newspaper. That's just what the Bushies wanted you to hear--and see.