The biggest reason why Howard Dean's popularity has skyrocketed while the President's approval rating has crashed is without doubt the souring of public sentiment over the situation in Iraq. On Sunday morning talk shows, administration heads appear ever more flummoxed, struggling to convince viewers that U.S. forces are achieving something worthwhile by rebuilding that country and helping to create a representative government. You can read the frustration on their faces as they strain to figure out what the public wants them to say, and what it will take to get the American people behind the Commander-in-Chief again.
As anyone who spends more time in front of the TV than on it can tell you, the answer is simple: Don't take it over, make it over!
Americans have a limited attention span when it comes to complex, drawn-out foreign-policy imbroglios. On the other hand, there evidently is no end to our interest in makeovers. All the White House has to do to win back support for U.S. action in Iraq is take its cue from some of television's most popular shows: for example, by balancing reports by journalists such as CNN's Christine Amanpour with live feeds from "Trading Spaces" host Paige Davis.
I'm sure the conservative folks at Fox News would have no problem playing along. Just as she does on the weekly TLC megahit, Davis could offer viewers before-and-after peeks into Iraqi homes in dire need of designer intervention. Between Saddam's looting of his nation's resources and American bunker busters, lots of Baghdad domiciles with real promise are not currently fulfilling their style potential. If the latest ratings are any indication, U.S. involvement in the Gulf would quickly take on new relevance for the average viewer as the perky TV personality unveiled to American audiences one snazzily restored living space after another.
What could be more perfect than a series on the repair and restoration of the former tyrant's absurdly luxurious palaces by the team from "While You Were Out"? Normally the show's crew rushes in and transforms a favorite space with the help of a husband or wife while the spouse is temporarily away. The potential surprise arrival by the missing party would be less a factor in this case, of course, what with 150,000-plus troops on the lookout for Hussein. Nevertheless, I'm certain the show's fans would find this a real treat.
If this war is ever going to become more popular, what it needs is fewer administration types and more personalities like "Home Again" host Bob Villa. The average citizen has a hard time relating to wonks with complex -- or even not so complex -- global strategies. Especially when those strategies tend to place the average citizen's sons and daughters in harm's way. This conflict in Iraq seems to have more than its share.
At the same time, few things strike a chord with working-class viewers like the sight of someone who's not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. Whether it's getting Baghdad's power back on or rebuilding the city's infrastructure, something tells me Americans would get a lot more excited about the process if Villa provided step-by-step accounts.
The last thing U.S. citizens want is another Vietnam- style quagmire. They want this war over, and the troops on a plane home, at the earliest opportunity. So, when you need a mess taken care of in a hurry, who you gonna call? The cast and crew of TLC's newest contribution to makeover media, "Clean Sweep."
The folks on this show are used to creating functional living space out of clutter and chaos, and God knows Iraq has no shortage of both. Television news viewers would surely get behind the effort if reporters were embedded with the "Clean Sweep" crew as it rolled through the country and transformed acres of burnt-out vehicles, radioactive artillery casings and rubble into attractive public spaces.
The President may not realize it, but there is a secret weapon that could turn his poor ratings around. He should forget about WMDs and think GWMs. Five of them, in fact -- from Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
Kyan, Ted, Jai, Thom and Carson have quickly become America's favorite special-ops unit. They're like superheroes with mighty powers in the areas of interior design, fashion, culture, food and wine, and grooming. Each week they come to the rescue of a clueless hetero and transform the guy "from drab to fab." And when you get right down to it, isn't that pretty much our mission in Iraq at this point?
Whole sectors of disgruntled Americans would see Dubya in a new light if he called in these guys. I can see them playing a vital role both domestically and abroad. At home, of course, the first order of business would be to transform Bush's image from ornery cowboy to Visionary Man of the People. Can't you just see it? "Fashion Savant" Carson descends on the White House, swishes past Secret Service personnel and blows through the President's quarters, stuffing Levis, rattlesnake-hide boots and leather jackets into Hefty bags while scolding, "Swear to me now -- no more fighter pilot outfits. Ever!"
Meanwhile, "Culture Vulture" Jai could offer a crash course in world history, tutoring the President on the pronunciation of tricky foreign names. "Grooming Guru" Kyan could be in charge of turning that GI Joe coif into something a little more George Clooney. Overseas, the fab five could make up for all the troops our allies won't cough up. One look at these guys and the average Saddam loyalist will head for the hills. "Terror" will take on a whole new meaning for them.
U.S. forces have rounded up most of Saddam's top-ranking cohorts and blown up two of his pathological offspring, but so far they've come up empty with regard to the big Limburger himself. Nothing would restore faith in our military leadership and American activities in Iraq as fast or as fully as the former dictator's seizure. The bugaboo is, even if they did happen to find him, our troops probably wouldn't recognize him.
There's been a great deal of speculation in the media about whether the ousted lout has altered his appearance in order to elude capture. News consultants have conjectured everything from a shaved mustache to multiple plastic surgeries. This is a problem, but there is a way the Bushies could turn it to their advantage: They could make the search for Saddam into a real-life series a la "Extreme Makeover."
The popular ABC program tracks the transfiguration of people who seek personal fulfillment through tummy tucks, liposuction, lip reduction (or enlargement), breast augmentation (or reduction), Lasik eye surgery, rhinoplasty and other procedures. The way I see it, the government ought to take a tip from the show and book a weekly block of time on, say, C-SPAN and play to the same viewer interest. Each week a different cosmetic surgeon could present his or her professional opinion on what the missing dictator probably looks like today, based on the combination of procedures they believe he's most likely to have undergone. Man of a thousand faces? The possibilities are endless.
As is the potential for contests with huge, crowd-pleasing cash prizes. If the President's advisors were smart, they'd set up the show so viewers could call in and vote, "American Idol"-style, for the Saddam Makeover of their choice. Once he's in custody, players who made the best guess would win big. In the meantime, they and millions of other Americans would feel a lot more committed to the White House's efforts.
Successful politicians have always looked to popular culture for cues when attempting to connect with the public. Ronald Reagan invoked icons as disparate as Clint Eastwood and Bruce Springsteen. In his quest to rally support, George W. Bush might be well advised to embrace the heroes from today's equally influential makeover movement. Otherwise, he just may find himself trading spaces after the next election.