FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2003
WE WERE YOUNG THEN, AND LIBERALLY BIASED: Some people still drive in their Model T Fords. Some people still swear by the Flat Earth Society. Andafter ten years in which the press corps trashed Clinton, then trashed Goresome of our pundits still pull on their chins and lament that ol debbil, liberal bias. They should probably take a lesson from Clinton. This week, the wise ex-POTUS chatted up Katie Couric. Republicans say that the mainstream media is massively liberal, Katie reminded. They say that, Clinton masterfully sighed. But that hasnt been true for a long, long time.
When was liberal bias really real? Were not experts on that matter, but in his landmark book, The Making of the President, 1960, Theodore White seems to describe a Golden Age of the much-maligned press corps preference. By the end of the 1960 campaign, reporters covering Candidate Kennedy had abandoned all pretense of objectivity, White says. Scribes amused themselves on the Kennedy plane singing satirical songs about Nixon (with JFK staffers singing along). Why did reporters favor Jack so? Because he pandered, White seemed to suggest:
WHITE (page 337): He would ask advice of newspapermen, which, though he rarely followed it, flattered them nonetheless There is no doubt that this kindliness, respect and cultivation of the press colored all the reporting that came from the Kennedy campaign.Forty years later, its embarrassing to read White explain how JFKs kindliness tilted the coverageand its embarrassing to read his credulous account of the hopefuls great love for the press corps. Kennedy has an enormous respect for those who work with words and those whom write clean prose, the scrivener gushed. He likes newspapermen and likes their company. Nor did White fail to note the way Kennedy staffers co-opted the press. It was not only that they respected the press, he wrote, but somehow as if they were part of the presshalf hankering to be writing the dispatches themselves. But where, oh where had the skeptic gone as Teddy White churned these embarrassing lines? Was it true? Were Kennedys aides hankering to be writing the dispatches themselves? You can bet your sweet bippy they had such a hankeringand, according to Whites landmark text, their fawning conduct allowed them to color all reporting that came off their plane.
With Nixon, though, things were different. The Republican held himself aloof, White said. [E]rratically, he would sometimes permit reporters to ride his personal plane and other times forbid it. And according to White, the hostility between the press and the Nixon campaign was, at least in major part, a fruit of this trivial disdain. Reporters have feelings too, dear reader. [T]he sense of dignity of these men, their craftsmens pride in their calling, was abused by Mr. Nixon, White says. And guess what? Nixons personal distrust of the press colored the attitude of his press staff, too. The results of this axis of evil werent pretty. At the beginning of the campaign, White judged, the reporters assigned to Mr. Nixon were probably split down the middle between those friendly and those hostile to him. But by the end of the race, he had succeeded in making them predominantly into that which he had feared from the outsethostile.
Wow! Theres the very image of that very well known and much bruited ol debbil, liberal bias! Reporters sang songs on JFKs plane and rolled their eyes when thrown in with Tricky Dick! The irony, of course, is that similar images emerged from Campaign 2000but the party affiliations were plainly reversed. In Campaign 2000, major scribes penned detailed reports about the Big Party on Bushs planeand about the poisonous relations between corps and Gore. According to a string of reports, it was Bush (and McCain) who fawned to the press, and Gore whom reporters now hated.
On Bushs plane, the livin was easy. In April 2000, the New York Times Frank Bruni described a new sociable course which Bush had adopted toward his chroniclers. Bush not only slaps reporters backs but also rubs the tops of their heads and, in a few instances, pinches their cheeks, Bruni wrote (without a hint of embarrassment). It is the tactile equivalent of the nicknames he doles out to many of them and belongs to a teasing style of interpersonal relationship that undoubtedly harks back to his fraternity days. And Bruni was gulled, just as White had once been: [N]ow that Mr. Bush is among [the press], he gives every appearance of enjoying being there.
Others chronicled this embarrassing process, which became known as the Bush charm offensive. In his post-election report in Newsweek, Evan Thomas described the way Bush won the affection-starved press corps affection. His description could have come straight from Whites writing, executed some forty years before:
THOMAS: By the Spring of 2000, George Bush was spending so much time back in the press section of his campaign plane that reporters were beginning to half-seriously complain. With his restless energy and infinite desire to charm, Bush, who began calling himself Mr. Accessible, made a campaign of winning over the traveling press corps. Though the reporters grumbled that Bush was a little too accessible, most of them were flattered, and in some cases privately thrilled, by his attentionAccording to Thomas, Bushs flattery of the press corps paid off, as it paid off decades earlier:
THOMAS: With a few exceptions, the Bush charm offensive paid off. Reporters began to show signs of losing their impartiality toward the GOP candidate. An otherwise tough-minded Wall Street Journal reporter kept a photo of Bush with her two children on the screen saver of her laptop Reporters asked Bush to pose with them for photos, or to make mobile-phone calls to their homes to surprise their spouses. Only some of the old hands from earlier presidential campaigns, crusty pros like Jules Witcover and Jack Germond of the Baltimore Sun, remained unmoved by Bushs attempts at intimacy. They warned against getting too close to the candidate.Give it up, homeboys! The press sought flattery in 1960, and the press wanted flattery still.
Reporters began to lose their impartiality toward Candidate Bush, Thomas said. But Thomas (and others) described a different tone from reporters toward Candidate Gore. In August 2000, for example, Seth Mnookin penned a cover story, The Charm Offensive, for Brills Content. After several trips on Bushs plane, Mnookin described reporters affection for Bushand their open hostility toward Gore. He acts like hes the fucking president already, one tough-talking typist now tattled.
PUZZLED THEN, PUZZLED NOW: Whites account of press-pol relations was perfectly echoed in Campaign 2000. And indeed, many scribes blamed Gore for his hostile press, as White had once blamed Nixon. But why did Nixon, then Gore, shut the press corps away? Perhaps because they were professional pols who had good professional judgment. By the time of Campaign 2000, Gore was an obvious press corps targetand pols who are targets of the press simply cant hand them rope for the hanging. In late 1997, for example, Gore was still hanging out with the pressand they turned a pointless remark about Love Story into a three-year referendum on the veeps troubling character. (Indeed, the Love Story foolishness made it official: Gore had a bulls-eye on his chest.) Basic rule: If the press is on a major pols case, that pol simply cant hang out with the press. And by the way, Bush surely understood this basic point too; he too shut reporters away until Saint McCain was defeated in March 2000. It was only after McCain left the race that Bush began his charm offensive. When McCain emerged in the polls in late 1999, the pandering press began pushing his interestsand Bush shut himself away from the press, probably judging that they were now looking for meaningless flubs they could flog. By the way, no one foofawed like the fickle Frank Bruni; for a full report on his foolish flip-flopping, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/00. Youll enjoy the flavor of Valentines Day we brought to this deathless report.
To Teddy White, it was all Nixons fault. He couldnt make himself say the obviousthat his colleagues engaged in gross misconduct as they sang their songs on the Kennedy plane. Forty years later, it was Gore who was trashedand pundits said it was all his fault, too. Remember the immutable, Hard Pundit Lawwhen the press corps engages in egregious misconduct, its always the other guys doing.
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: I was sort of appalled to see the way it played in the media The degree to which it became a symbol of the mans integrity I thought was very unfair. That, of course, was Karen Tumulty, one of only two reporters who heard what Gore actually said about Love Story. But tough sh*t. By late 1997, the press corps was ready to make Gore a targetand when your press corps reaches Group Judgment, it makes up tall tales that support its appraisal. Three years later, pundits were thoroughly puzzled by Gores strange aloofness. For the full text of Tumultys comment, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/25/02.
ANDREWS: Mr. Snow told several hundred executives [in Detroit] today that Mr. Bushs plan is based on what some people call a radical idea.Groan! Maybe Snow can follow with another strong point: The liberals wont even define rich.
Meanwhile, will someone give Richard Cohen warm milk and send him away to a snug and warm bed? Last Thursday, he rushed into print to praise Colin Powells masterful, compelling, persuasive presentation at the United Nations. (Cohen was part of a next-day stampede by Washingtons script-reading pundits.) But by yesterday, hed had a chance to review Powells work, and he offered a now-troubled cow-tow:
COHEN: In fact, to be perfectly frank, sir, parts of your presentation to the United Nations seem, in retrospect, to have overstated the case.Like a schoolboy with first hints about the Tooth Fairy, Cohen begged Powell to stop all the flim-flam. Please go back to playing your role, the disappointed scribe all but said:
COHEN: You, sir, are in a different category altogether. The nation looks to you as the voice of reason I sleep better knowing that you are in this administrationmaking policy, I hope, and not propaganda.Cohen wants to be told bedtime stories. For the record, heres another fairy tale he enjoys:
COHEN: Sir, in his kiss-and-not-tell book, David Frum, the former White House speechwriter, tells us about George W. Bushs insistence on honestyon refraining from even politically acceptable exaggeration. I accept what he has to say.Groan! Will someone give this guy warm milk and get him off the Posts op-ed pages?
By the way, Mary McGrory wrote the same op-ed that Cohen wrote last Thursday. (No surprisethe whole pundit corps wrote it.) The headline on her version read, Im Persuaded. Quoth McGrory: [Powells] voice was strong and unwavering, He made his case with no verbal embellishments. But by yesterday, McGrory had done some flip-flopping too. No, she didnt present any dissing of Powell. But her headline said: Shield Us From War.