The Art of Political Distraction





The questions flew hard and fast at President Obama last week as he stood on the White House South Lawn, preparing to escape for California’s gentler climes. How, Mr. Obama was asked, would he quell public anger over $165 million in bonuses for employees of the bailed-out insurance giant, A.I.G.?...

Mr. Obama is hardly the first American president to grapple with a distraction, a diversion — an outright red herring, some might call it — that grew bigger than itself. Ronald Reagan had the Air Force’s $7,622 coffeepot and the Navy’s $435 claw hammer, as well as an ill-fated effort to save money by classifying ketchup as a school lunch vegetable. Bill Clinton had midnight basketball and a high-priced haircut from a Beverly Hills stylist aboard Air Force One. George W. Bush was blindsided by an executive branch decision to contract with Dubai Ports World, an Arab-owned company, to manage terminals in six American ports.

What these stories share is a simple and clear narrative that captures the public imagination by tapping into some larger fear or existing perception — “a proxy for a bigger concern,” in the words of Ed Gillespie, former counselor to Mr. Bush. If that concern runs deep enough, the side issue becomes the main issue.



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