Battle for public image of 'American Taliban' John Walker Lindh begins anew

SAN FRANCISCO - The images of John Walker Lindh's grimy face among captured Taliban fighters helped make him one of the most hated figures in America's war on terrorism.

"Looks like a rat, talks like a rat ... must be a rat" read the New York Post headline over one of the first photos from Afghanistan of the 20-year-old American. The San Francisco Examiner, near his hometown, called him "Johnny Jihad," and the San Francisco Chronicle asked, "How many Taliban soldiers lurk in U.S. burbs?"

Now, with Lindh back on American soil and facing charge that could bring life in prison, his defense team is battling to reshape his public image.

"Despite the government's effort to demonize him, he's a nice young man," Lindh's attorney, James Brosnahan, told The Associated Press outside the Alexandria, Va., courthouse where Lindh was read the charges against him Thursday. "Like an awful lot of Americans you meet who are 20 years old, he's got a sense of humor."

Brosnahan hasn't gone so far as to hire a public relations firm, according to a defense team spokeswoman. But the attorney has pushed Lindh's parents into the media spotlight to plead their son's case.

"John loves America," his father, Frank Lindh, told reporters on the courthouse steps Thursday. "He never meant to harm any American, and he never did harm any American."

"My love for him is unconditional and absolute," said his mother, Marilyn Walker, on the verge of tears. "I am grateful to God that he has been brought home to his family, me, his home and his country."

Inside, Lindh did his part, appearing clean-shaven and with a military hair cut. He stood up straight and answered the judge politely, saying "Yes I do, thank you," when asked if he understood the charges that he conspired to kill Americans.

National polls since his capture became public in December have found little support for Lindh.

In a mid-December Gallup poll, 70 percent of respondents thought Lindh should be imprisoned or executed. A newer poll released Friday by CNN-Time Magazine found only 3 percent of 1,017 adults said Lindh "did not do anything seriously wrong."

Succeeding in humanizing the "American Taliban" in the public's eyes may be impossible, say some of the nation's top image crafters.

David Gergen, a senior adviser to four presidents, both Republican and Democrat, said Lindh's defenders should concentrate on legal strategy and not bother trying to wage a public relations campaign.

"To convince the public that this fellow is anything but a man who betrayed his country is hopeless," Gergen said. "They've lost that battle. This is a battle to save their client in the courtroom and ask for mercy."

While first lady Laura Bush has expressed sympathy for Lindh's family, President Bush has focused on the charges and the legal process. Bush believes Lindh will "get the justice he deserves," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has repeatedly said Lindh alone decided to join the Taliban cause.

"He chose to embrace fanatics, and his allegiance to them never faltered, not with the knowledge that they had murdered thousands of his countrymen, not with the knowledge that they were engaged in a war with the United States," Ashcroft said after Thursday's hearing.

During the weeks U.S. forces held Lindh in isolation after his capture, the images of his hairy, mud-caked body appeared repeatedly in newspapers and on television. By his return, Lindh had become, along with Osama bin Laden, one of the most hated figures to emerge from the war.

His parents' response -- calling him a "good kid" and releasing snapshots of Lindh as an adolescent -- did little to soften that perception, say those who have defended some of the most vilified Americans of the past decade.

"The problem generally with these cases is that since they're big news, the politicians want to talk about them all the time," said Quin Denvir, who defended Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. "It's very tough for the defense to keep up."

Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, a jury consultant who helped O.J. Simpson's defense team, recommended Brosnahan hire professionals.

A public relations outfit could push positive personal stories about Lindh, though that, too, risks the perception of public pandering and overplaying attempts to again sympathy, Dimitrius said.

"If he is in fact apologetic for going the route that he did, people have a tremendous propensity to forgive -- if someone apologizes," Dimitrius said.

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