FRIDAY, AUGUST 16, 2002
RICHARD BERKES EXCELLENT ADVENTURE: Why must intelligent citizens doubt their press elite? Consider Richard Berkes August 9 speech to the Poynter Institutes National Writing Workshop. (The speech was broadcast live on C-SPAN.) Although several parts of the speech were odd, we invite you to focus on one of Berkes anecdotes. We invite you follow Berkes remarks about his news report from March 2000 in which he said that Candidate Bush had been rude to defeated John McCain.
Some background: On Super TuesdayMarch 7, 2000Bush eliminated McCain from the White House race. One week later, Berke traveled to Austin to interview Bush. During this period, pundits were trashing Bush and Gore for daring to defeat Saints McCain and Bradley. This was one of two brief periods in Campaign 2000 when the press simply lit into Bush.
Berke interviewed Bush on March 15, 2000; the session produced a page-one, New York Times lead story. Addressing young journalists at last weeks Poynter session, Berke told the story behind this influential report. His account provides another look at the soul of a deeply disturbed press corps.
According to Berke, when he went to Austin to interview Bush, he planned to ask questions on topics like tax cuts. We pick up his narrative there:
BERKE (Poynter session, 8/9/02): I asked him what I thought was a throw-away question about, Did you learn any lessons from John McCains campaign? Because when you beat someone after this grueling, hard-fought thing, usually the winner reaches out and says, Hes a great man, I want him on my team. And he said, Not really. And then I said, Well, anything about his campaign finance plan? No. And then I realized, Oh my gosh, hes not going to do the usual reaching out, which to me sort of demonstrates this real tension there, at least on Bushs part, still largely toward McCain. So I asked him about eight times, in different ways, during the interview. He said nothing nice about John McCain. And I made it the lead of the story. It was a big, front-page story in the New York Times.
Indeed, Berkes story was the front-page lead of the March 16 New York Times. The headline: BUSH REBUFFS BID TO EMBRACE VIEWS PUSHED BY McCAIN. According to Berkes article, Bush had [r]ebuff[ed] calls from prominent Republicans to reach out to Senator John McCain and was sparing in his praise of Mr. McCain during the interview session. Speaking to the young journalists at the Poynter session, Berke described the Bush camps reaction:
BERKE (Poynter session, 8/9/02): He said nothing nice about John McCain. I made it the lead of the story
And people were furious. The Bush people said I ambushed him: How dare you? You asked that question eight times! You were looking for that answer! And people looked at the transcript and said, Well, he didnt really attack him, he just didnt say anything nice about him. The reality is so different.
On and on the Timesman went, insisting that the Bush campaign overreacted to good honest journalism. It just amazes me how politicians sometimes do it to themselves, he piously exclaimed.
Twice, Berke told the Poynter audience that Bush said nothing nice about John McCain. But what actually happened when Berke sat with Bush? Luckily, when the Times published Berkes front-page piece, it also ran excerpts from the long interview. In these excerpts, Berke brings McCains name up three times. And guess what? Every time, Bush went out of his way to say something nice about John. Here are the published Q-and-As from the Berke-Bush interview session:
Twice, Berke told the Poynter audience that Bush said nothing nice about John McCain. The statement is disgracefully false, as these excerpts make abundantly clear.
BERKE: Wasnt [the ability to talk about Bushs vision] lost in fighting over tactics during primaries? Cant that happen again if Gore acts as McCain did?
BUSH: First of all, Al Gore is no John McCain. Please dont lump John into that category. Secondly, I think John McCain is a person that basically wanted to elevate the discourse and had a reason for running, rather than tearing somebody down
BERKE: Has John McCain elevated your consciousness about reform? Has he changed your views?
BUSH: No, he didnt change my views. He made me a better candidate. He forced me to play to my strengths better. I needed to make it more clear that I not only believe in reform, Ive got the record as a chief executive of getting reform done. Theres nothing like the humbling experience of getting whipped pretty bad in New Hampshire to cause a man to re-evaluate
BERKE: Is there anything McCain brought to light for you or changed your opinion on in any way?
BUSH: No, not really. We agreed more than we disagreed. Thats the great irony. You know, primaries are struggles, arguments over shades of gray. And that's what makes primaries difficult. In my case, Ive known John a long time. And battling with John wasnt all that pleasant, because I like him...
Why did the Bush camp get angry with Berke? Because his piece in the Times was utterly bogus. Berke struggled and strained to construct a piece in which arrogant Bush was rude to McCain. His basic premise made no sense, of course, as is typical with work of this type; why would Bush, the winning candidate, adopt the policies of the man hed defeated? Did anyone think that Candidate Gore was going to adopt Bradleys health plan? Beyond that, it was perfectly clear, just from reading the piece, that Berke had misrepresented what Bush really said.
But in March 2000, the corps was angry at Bush, because he had dared to defeat Saint McCain. Pundits were writing ludicrous pieces trashing Bush and Gore as one, and those same angry pundits took Berkes phony piece and ran with it all through the following weekend. Their talking point? Bush said he didnt learn anything from McCain. All over Pundit Land, angry, hapless, vacuous pundits recited this well-scripted spin-point. Translation: When the press corps wants to trash a hopeful, a phony like Berke will ride off to war and hell give them pure twaddle to work with.
We wrote about this episode in real time (links below); Berke wont stop his misstatements even now. What a shame that budding young journalists are lectured (and instructed!) by someone like Berke. And what a shame that decent citizens are stuck with this wreck of a press corps.
THE LARGER MORAL OF THE STORY: Berkes piece showed how your press corps works when it wants to punish a hopeful. Berke gimmicked up a silly taleBush has been rude to McCain. For the next week, Washingtons mainstream pundit corps stood in line to batter Bush for his conduct. Almost no one mentioned the plain absurdity of Berkes contention. On that Sundays This Week program, George Stephanopoulos was a noble exception:
STEPHANOPOULOS (3/19/00): I read the whole transcript. Iand we werent in the room, so who knows what his tone was like, but if you read the whole transcript, it seemed to me like Bush is getting a bad rap. In this interview he says he likes John McCain, says he respects him, says they agree on more than they disagree on. So I think this was an example of maybe there was a little less there than meets the eye.
Stephanopoulos was right, of course. But in the lead-in, Cokie Robertsalways a reliable source of Press Corps Dogmahad said, This week in an interview, Governor George W. Bush made it clear that hes not seeming very welcome to John McCain. (Responding to Stephanopoulos remarks, she straight-facedly said, But you know, but, but you know, the trouble is, the perceptions now there.)
This was a familiar press episode. Berke invented a story about a disfavored hopeful, and the pundit corps then stood in line to recite some Official Approved Spin. But note wellBush was rarely subjected to this kind of treatment during Campaign 2000. He was battered for three weeks after Super Tuesday; he took three more weeks of pummeling in early fall. But for Bush, this kind of treatment was really quite rarethe clear exception to the corps normal conduct.
Not so with Candidate Gore. When Gore hit the trail in March 1999, the press corps began making up gonzo stories, and their astonishing conduct didnt stop until the election was over. In March 1999, they pretended that Gore said that he invented the Internet. (And that he inspired Love Story. And that he did chores on a farm when in reality he grew up in a fancy hotel.) In December, they pretended that Gore said he discovered Love Canal. In New Hampshire, they pretended that Gore was lying about Bradleys health plan. A few months later, they pretended that Gore flip-flopped about Elian Gonzalez. In September, they pretended that Gore invented a story about a childhood lullabye (and made up a tale about doggy pills). Candidate Bush was rarely treated in this familiar and ludicrous way. With Gore, the borking was constant for twenty straight months. Almost surely, it decided the race.
The press corps doesnt want you to know this, and theyll spin you every chance they get. In their Standard Account, none of this ever happened. Voters just didnt warm to Gore. Only God knows why that was.
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Incomparably, we discussed Bushs Berkeing in March 2000. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/00, 3/20/00, 3/21/00.
NEXT WEEK: Five-part spectacular! Anatomy of a press corps borking! We start with the peculiar events of October 7, 1999.