Sometimes a writer comes under intense pressure to share or pass on a message. This is one such case. I have written about it in the novel “The False Truth” but the subject continues to fascinate me. So I have tried to talk to people who worked closely with some former leaders of this country and read widely for fresh information to update a piece I wrote for the “Tolling Bells” in THISDAY during the regime of late President Yar’ Adua. Of course, his bubble thickened into a balloon when his health condition worsened. It is interesting that a former President did not hear about the closure of a popular newspaper until it became an issue. And that one First Lady said she didn’t know her husband was unpopular in Lagos.
The subject is the Presidential bubble. Presidents all over the world live in them. But how ironic that a president who is the most powerful person in a country is imprisoned - put in a cocoon and fiercely protected - by aides. The result is a sad detachment from reality and the governed. It is why many presidents hardly know the true living conditions of their people. It is why even when they have failed, some presidents feel they are the messiah of their people.
The most celebrated bubble in recent history is that of former US President George Walker Bush. (Of course, there could be worse undocumented cases in less-open countries but we use what is available). In 2003, a New York Times editorial said this of him. “Mr. Bush thinks of himself as a man of the people, but carefully staged contacts with groups of supporters or small children does not constitute getting in touch with the people. It is in Bush’s interest, as well as the nation’s, for him to burst the bubble he has been inhabiting, and take a hard look at the real world”.
Security concerns require that a president is kept safe from threats during his public interaction, but when it is done in such a way that he does not see anything bad in the country, and therefore cut from reality, it becomes disastrous.
Highly rated Bill Clinton had this to say about the bubble shortly after his election.
“I think the Secret Service does a fine job. Goodness knows my life is more restricted now than ever before…..I mean, it’s hard enough to stay in touch with people as it is. It’s easy as a governor to get out of touch…”
Clinton left office years ago, but the bubble is still an issue in the US. It is so big that the Obama White House made it a New Year resolution to pierce the bubble. Senior White House adviser Valarie Jarrett said on NBC they were going to get the president out more to listen and engage with the American people. “It’s really what gives him his energy and his strength, and so we’re determined in the new year to make sure that his schedule reflects that priority,” she added.
Interestingly, before he got there, President Barack Obama, knew about the bubble so well that he had to negotiate with security to keep one of his two indispensable black berries. In an interview as president-elect, he told the Chicago Tribune, “You know, unfortunately, because I’m in this bubble, I don’t get to see all this stuff. It’s the hardest thing to adjust to about being president-elect….”.
Of course, as overzealous as security operatives may be around the presidents, it may find justification in the fact that a president should not come to harm under their watch.
I read this on the BBC website in 2009, but it still interests me:
“You can take the man out of the White House. But you can’t take the White House away from the man: And US President Barack Obama has arrived in London for the G20 summit with a large contingent of the White House staff with him.
“Hundreds of security guards, doctors, chefs and others are accompanying President Obama on his visit, and the entourage includes a number of presidential vehicles - including his new armour-plated limousine, The Beast, and aeroplane, Air Force One.
“The 4,000 sq ft Boeing 747 is fully equipped for the president to work while he is in the air. The exercise-loving president will even be able to use the onboard gym to keep fit inflight.
“After landing at Stansted Airport in Essex, Mr Obama was ferried into the heart of London on Marine One, his personal VH-3D helicopter, which always flies as part of a convoy of identical decoy aircraft. His helicopter peels away at the last minute only when the convoy has reached its destination.
“On the ground, the president rides around in The Beast, a brand new presidential limo finished earlier this year at a cost of $300,000 (£200,000). It comes with tear gas cannon, a night-vision camera and oxygen tanks. Its reinforced steel plating is said to be able to protect against bullets, chemical attack, and even a missile strike.
“And it will not be hard to spot on the streets - it will be accompanied at all times by a motorcade consisting of dozens of support cars, police cars and emergency medical vehicles.
“The president’s White House medical unit - nurses, surgeons and other medical professionals - are permanently on call in case Mr. Obama is taken ill. A supply of AB-type blood (the president’s blood type) travels with him for emergency transfusions.
“As well as medical personnel, Mr. Obama’s entourage consists of over 200 security officials, dozens of political aides and a team of personal chefs…”.
In the security bubble, a president could keep in touch with reality through the media, but of course there have been Presidents who didn’t hide their disdain for the media.
Yet, I believe that no matter how corrupt a country’s media gets they all can’t agree on sycophancy. The Nigerian media is even described by former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, as “Nigeria has a well deserved reputation of having a very active civil society, very active press some will even say over-active. But I think it is better to have that sort of situation than the other way around…”
George Bush is also known to have worsened his bubble with his attitude to the media. In an interview with Fox News, the president said he learned most of what he needed to know from morning briefings by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and his chief of staff, Andrew Card.
As for newspapers, Mr. Bush said, ‘’I glance at the headlines’’ but ‘’rarely read the stories.’’ The people who brief him on current events encounter many of the newsmakers personally, he said, and in any case ‘’probably read the news themselves.’’
Trying to know what the world says, as most presidents do, through only predigested bits of their appointees is equally disastrous. In Nigeria, many appointees are not known to tell their bosses the hard truth. They serve the ‘false truth’ to make the bosses feel good. Of course, only a few people have the guts to serve their principals unpleasant news.
It would seem that the bubble is inevitable in a Presidency. What would therefore be necessary for Presidents to do is to make personal efforts to look and listen out of the bubble. For example, everyday, President Obama asks for and reads 10 pieces of unvetted correspondence addressed to him by members of the public, even though he said that half of the letters call him an idiot.
To look out of the bubble, IBB was said to ask for newspapers, including those critical of his government, to read sometimes.
And to the displeasure of Security operatives, some Presidents make unscheduled visits to see things in their true state.
Bisi Daniels Launches Blog
Bisi Daniels, journalist, communications expert and author has launched his blog to reach out to the numerous readers of his books. Daniels is the author of 20 books, including seven novels, the latest being The False Truth. You can see more details on his bisiBOOKS blog on http://www.bisidaniels.com/
The blog, which showcases all his books and reviews, is also home of all his recent articles, including those published in his column, THE WRITERS’ WORLD in THISDAY on Saturday. Daniel’s other novels The Black Godfather; Love Wars; Sacred Seduction, The Governor’s Wife; The Girl From Nigeria; and Harvest of Beauty.