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Zurawik: TV's unblinking eye sees through William Barr

Zurawik: TV's unblinking eye sees through William Barr
Attorney General William P. Barr is seen on TV monitors as he delivers remarks on the release of the report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Olivier Douliery / TNS)

If the sight of Attorney General William Barr on TV Thursday looking and sounding more like a campaign spin doctor for President Donald Trump than the chief law enforcement officer of the United States made you as angry as it did me, take heart.

Barr and Trump have been using media and the considerable powers of their offices for nearly a month to keep the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller from the American people long enough for them to try and bake a narrative of exoneration for the president into the American mind.

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From Breitbart selling “exonerated” T-shirts online the past four weeks, to Sean Hannity insisting on Fox News that there was “no collusion, no conspiracy, no obstruction” by the president, they have been pulling all the levers in the right-wing messaging machine as hard as they can. And all of this before members of Congress, let alone the public, actually had a chance to read a word of the actual report.

Thursday morning brought a new low with Barr doubling down in his capacity as presidential apologist and protector.

“President Trump faced an unprecedented situation,” Barr said in a morning press conference that was clearly intended to contextualize the yet-to-be-released redacted report as a exoneration for Trump.

“As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates,” the attorney general continued. “At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability, yet as he said from the beginning, there was, in fact, no collusion.”

And there was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, once a widely respected federal law enforcement official in Maryland, standing behind Barr looking like someone in a hostage video.

It amazes me how older men who have had impressive careers allow themselves to become so badly compromised and damaged by going to work for Trump. John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, and now William Barr have discovered the price of power in this White House.

What a sorry media moment. The attorney general’s office had not looked that bad since John Mitchell was led off to jail for his crimes on behalf of his boss, Richard Nixon.

And yet, Barr and Trump have been winning the PR war since knocking the mainstream media surprisingly back on its heels with the attorney general’s flimsy and misleading summary of Mueller’s report almost a month ago.

So, why in the world am I saying to take heart?

As artificial and constructed as media personas can be, I am convinced that the unblinking eye of the TV camera, if given a good enough look, will eventually reveal the essence of the person on whom it is focused. Not with the professional performer or actor, perhaps, who is studied in creating false personas. But most politicians and government officials don’t have that kind of skill or training.

I am thinking of Joe McCarthy, the late Republican senator from Wisconsin, who destroyed careers and lives with unfounded claims and slanderous charges often leveled against innocent men and women from his protected perch of a U.S. Senate committee chair.

There were a lot of forces that eventually exposed him as a liar, drunk and character assassin, but it was the televised, live Army-McCarty hearings in 1954 that showed millions of viewers what a despicable person he was.

To a lesser extent, I am also thinking of Richard Nixon, and the way the TV cameras always found the line of perspiration of his upper lip and sometimes forehead as he dissembled on screen.

His eyes, too, were a problem as they often darted left and right offering a suggestion of shiftiness.

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It was as if he feared the cameras were seeing into his heart and soul.

Check out Rosenstein’s eyes for some of the same Thursday.

As disgusting as I found Barr’s performance on the small screen Thursday, I don’t believe it will have anything like the impact on his image that McCarthy’s did in 1954.

But I challenge anyone who is intellectually honest to tell me the man they saw on TV Thursday morning seemed more concerned with delivering truth and justice to the American people than he did protecting his boss.

Trump’s old fixer, Michael Cohen, is headed to prison. Now we know who his new one is.

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