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Caveat lector

27 April 2000

Our current howler (part I): Keep on the sunny side

Synopsis: When Bush met with gays on April 13, the press corps chose not to yell "pander."

Bush Says He Won't Hesitate to Appoint Gays to Jobs
Terry Neal, The Washington Post, 4/14/00

Gays Visit Bush But His Views Are Unchanged
Alison Mitchell, The New York Times, 4/14/00

Bush Miscalculates on Gay Republicans
Jonathan Rauch, The New York Times, 4/17/00

Everyone knows that the celebrity press corps just hates insincerity and "pandering." And it's clear that they just despise flip-flops. We know this because they always say so—and because of their recent reactions to Gore. When Gore announced his support for a bill granting permanent legal residency status to Elian, the press corps erupted with denunciations of his "craven" and "disgusting" pander. Indeed, most of the scribes were so upset by Gore's conduct, they absent-mindedly forgot to explain how they knew that his stand was insincere (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/4/00).

That's why we braced for the storm to come when Bush met with gays two weeks later. On April 13, Bush had a meeting in his Austin office with a group of openly gay Republicans. Writing in the Washington Post the next day, Terry Neal noted something Bush said:

NEAL (paragraph 2): Bush did his most unequivocal comments to date, that being openly gay would not disqualify a person from serving in a prominent position in his administration.

Bush was quite clear on the subject:

NEAL (3): "It's not a factor," Bush said. "What's important is, can the person do the job and do we share a philosophy?" At a news conference following the session, he said, "The meeting was a wide-ranging discussion on issues. I'm a better person for the meeting. I enjoyed it."

Bush had really had a good time. And we agree with Bush that sexual orientation should not be a factor in such decisions. But we also noted that some of Bush's comments seemed to contradict things he'd said in the past. We braced ourselves for a press corps assault when we read what Neal wrote next:

NEAL (4): When Bush was asked before whether he would hire a gay person, he deflected the question, one time saying he would not ask the person's sexual orientation.

In truth, Neal was being charitable. We well remember a long, tortured colloquy aired on C-SPAN last autumn. Jay Carney of Time repeatedly asked Karen Hughes, the top Bush spokeswoman, if Bush would appoint open gays to high posts. Hughes—utterly puzzled as to how Bush would know if an applicant was gay or straight—found endless ways to avoid Carney's questions. The campaign's past evasions were rather plain. Writing in the New York Times, Alison Mitchell gave some flavor to Bush's demurrals:

MITCHELL: At another point [in the Republican primaries] when Mr. Bush was asked by a Christian radio station in Charleston, S.C., whether he would appoint an openly gay person, Mr. Bush said, "An openly known homosexual is somebody who probably wouldn't share my philosophy."

Today, by contrast, he said sexual preference "is not a factor" in naming someone to a job.

We cringed to see the eagle-eyed scribe noting a "contrast" in the things Bush had said. Indeed, Mitchell and Neal both mentioned something else; Bush's very act of meeting with gays was itself a bit of a flip-flop. Neal quoted Bush on TV:

NEAL: Five months after George W. Bush said he would not meet with leaders of the Log Cabin Republicans, an openly gay group, he met today with a dozen hand-picked gay leaders...

Last November on NBC's "Meet the Press, " Bush was asked by host Tim Russert whether he would meet with the Log Cabin Republicans. Bush replied "Oh, probably not," adding, "All that does is create kind of a huge, you know, nightmare for people."

Uh-oh! Another "flip" that the press corps could jump on! And Ol' Eagle-Eye noticed it, too:

MITCHELL: Across the campaign year, Mr. Bush has given out conflicting signals on how he feels about issues of concern to gay men and lesbians. During the primary season, he expressed no interest in meeting with the Log Cabin Republicans, a national organization of gay Republicans.

She continued. Things got worse:

MITCHELL (continuing directly): But since the primaries, Mr. Bush has been striving to move back to the center...His appearance with the gay Republicans, aides said, sent an important message of tolerance to such voters.

All the elements were in place for the latest feeding frenzy. Bush, "striving to move back to the center," was meeting with gays (he'd chosen not to before), and saying that he would appoint openly gay administration members (also a new declaration). He'd even told the group that he was "intrigued by the ideas of having a gay speaker at the [Republican] convention," Mitchell said.

Yep. The analysts cowered under their desks and waited for the press corps' explosion. Surely the press corps would hurry to tell us how phony the Dub-man had been. But few such comments would ever appear in the aftermath of the April 13 meeting. Indeed, some reporters seemed to go out of their way to say that Bush had not changed his positions.

That was the headline on the Times' page-one article. "Gays Visit Bush But His Views Are Unchanged," the headline on the Mitchell piece read. It seemed fairly clear from Mitchell's piece that Bush had at least changed his stand on appointments. But the cheerful scribe led with the positive:

MITCHELL (paragraph 1): Gov. George W. Bush met for an hour today with a dozen gay Republicans, a meeting that he later said made him a "better person" but did not persuade him to reverse his opposition to gay marriage.

He didn't reverse his views about gay marriage? The headline went well beyond that. But so did Mitchell, two paragraphs later:

MITCHELL (3): Although Mr. Bush did not indicate that he had changed any of his views, the meeting and very public news conference were important symbolic steps...

"Mr. Bush did not indicate that he had changed any of his views," the Times' scribe said, in her own voice.

Why was Mitchell so upbeat (and inaccurate)? We don't live in scribes' heads. But from reading Neal, one thing became clear: Mitchell was saying the very same thing that the governor had stressed in his statement:

NEAL (2): While Bush campaign officials hailed the meeting as a historic event—no other Republican has met with a large group of openly gay leaders to discuss their issues, they said—the Texas governor made it clear that he had not changed any of his positions, such as opposition to gay marriage and adoption.

Bush said that he hadn't changed any positions. Mitchell said the same thing, in her own voice.

But you knew that it just couldn't last! A few days later, the Times ran an op-ed piece, accusing Bush of that pander-bear conduct. Its author, Jonathan Rauch, said this:

RAUCH: [T]he meeting was also part of a larger pattern that Governor Bush set early on during the primaries...His every move seems based on personal calculation rather than personal belief.

Boy oh boy, did that sound familiar! Rauch noted the flip on appointments:

RAUCH: He had first said a year ago that he would be willing to appoint openly gay officials, then seemed to backtrack in a talk with conservatives. Last week, he said that sexual orientation is "not a factor" in naming someone to a job.

Rauch said that Bush has "chosen his path with a mincing delicacy that suggests fear of being wrongfooted politically." He lamented the fact that "politicians are usually political; it's their job." He cast aspersion on Bush's "backbone" and "spine," and ended up saying that "in the end, [Bush's] meeting with gay Republicans was about positioning." That was "too bad," the pundit said, because the meeting "could have been about so much more."

It was exactly the sort of free-swinging screed we'd expected from the press, which hates panders. But in the aftermath of Bush's meeting with gays, Rauch's comments stood virtually alone. Almost no one else breathed a word of complaint about the governor's "move back to the center." We were a bit surprised by the change in tone from the pundits' drumbeat about Gore-on-Elian. So we soon began the incomparable study that we now call our Tale of Three Panders.


Tomorrow: Was Bush sincere in his comments on gays? We don't have the slightest idea.

Maybe he can marry the 21-year-old intern: We first got the tip ourselves this Tuesday. Donato Dalrymple isn't a fisherman—he just plays one on TV! The Miami man who saved Elian Gonzalez's life is really a Miami house cleaner. As the Washington Post explains today in a lengthy story, Dalrymple was out fishing with cousin—for the first time—on the day that they saved Elian's life. (For the Post's page-one story, click here. We recommend it.)

Why did you think that Dalrymple was a fisherman? Because you've heard him described that way again and again. And why have you heard that over and over? It made the story better. Peggy Noonan really took it and swam in Monday's Wall Street Journal:

NOONAN: From the beginning it was a story marked by the miraculous...And of course, this Saturday...the last one in the house to hold him, trying to protect him, was the fisherman who'd saved him from the sea—which seemed fitting as it was Easter-tide, the time that marks the sacrifice and resurrection of the Big Fisherman.

Noonan refers to "the fisherman" five separate times; we read about "the famous picture of the agent pointing the gun at the fisherman" and "the hoarse-throated fisherman who continues trying to save the child." It isn't exactly false, of course. Here on THE HOWLER's sprawling campus, we just call Peggy Noonan "Clintonesque."

Meanwhile, visit our incomparable archives: Long ago, we explained how the press corps improves the news. See "The 21-year-old intern (and other urban legends)," THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/99.