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8 May 2000

Our current howler: Got a new atti-tude

Synopsis: Transferred (we surmise) to the Bush campaign, Ceci Connolly sang a new tune.

Evoking Memories of Reagan
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 5/7/00

Jabs Fly in Presidential Ring Over Social Security's Future
James Dao and Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 5/4/00

Image-Conscious Bush Targets Calif.
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 5/6/00

Here at THE HOWLER, as you know, we try not to read individual scribes' minds. But Sunday morning, we were sorely tempted as we read Ceci Connolly's "Letter from California." Apparently, Connolly's beat has been changed; she now seems to be covering the Bush campaign. And her first profile of Bush contrasted quite sharply with the writing she's done this past year.

"Evoking Memories of Reagan," said the headline. The sub-head could hardly have been more approving: "Bush Melds a Jaunty Manner With Talk of Compassion." Who's writing these headlines—the early Frank Bruni? Calling to mind Bruni's silliest profiles—when Bush was "The Puck of the political pack" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/00)—Connolly offered a flat-out pander to the new hopeful she was reviewing.

Bush "shows little hint of reprising his father's presidential style," Connolly noted at the start. But there is a prez Bush did bring to mind. That prez was better liked than HW:

CONNOLLY (5/7): Instead, on a three-day swing through Southern California, Bush the younger evoked memories of another governor-turned-president: Ronald Reagan.

Bush is a "cheerful patriot" with a "sunny disposition" who offers "tough talk for criminals," she says. "There's just a bit of swagger for the party faithful." And we get a picture of the sine qua non—according to Connolly, Bush is even willing to grit his teeth and pretend to be pals with the press corps:

CONNOLLY (5/7): There are even instant replays in this campaign drama. When one television network accidentally missed his comments on the death of Cardinal John O'Connor, Bush sportingly delivered his lines again. (Only later, in the confines of his chartered airplane, does he draw back the theater curtain, handicapping each performance with his band of travelling reporters.)

Even instant replays! (They show Bush is "sporting.") But the real portrait here for democracy-watchers is certainly not the portrait of Bush. Instead, it's the portrait of the unprofessional and immature press corps—wanting to be treated like the hopeful's little "band," eager to see itself portrayed as buddies of the hopeful it covers.

There is so much wrong with this syrupy "letter" that one hardly knows where to begin. Are Connolly's impressions the impressions of voters? Is Bush "evoking memories" of Reagan for them? If real voters are responding to Bush in the manner described, that of course would be big news. But Connolly offers no evidence that Bush is connecting with voters in the way he's connecting with her. (Connolly's letter comes from a state where Bush is behind in the polls, for example.) If these impressions—evoked memories—are Connolly's only, it's not clear why they belong in the Post.

But there is one purpose served by this striking letter. It provides a remarkable contrast with the last thirteen months of Connolly's writing—a year marked by invented "quotes," omitted data, and endless, shoehorned, negative spin. Connolly's attitude swerves in a brand new direction; indeed, if we were the Post, we'd be embarrassed to publish such tripe. In particular, the sense that hopefuls should be reporters' friends—an egregious attitude found all through last year's McCain coverage—would rock our world with warning flags, if we were in charge of this newspaper.

Could journalism possibly get any sillier? Connolly wrote this—and it went into print:

CONNOLLY (5/7): Even gray skies didn't dampen Bush's sunny disposition as he journeyed from Dana Point on the Pacific Coast to the mission at San Juan Capistrano...

Even that!! Has it been the experience of Connolly's editors that gray skies tend to "dampen hopefuls' dispositions?" If not, what is this nonsense—this absolute twaddle—doing in the Washington Post?

Connolly's letter defines a new attitude as she happily writes us from a new beat. And it makes our democracy work extra hard to overcome its old enemy—twaddle.


Smile-a-while! Cinco de gonzo: A comical matter has already surfaced in Connolly's first days covering Bush. Last Wednesday, Frank Bruni filed a report from the Bush campaign plane (published on Thursday, May 4). On the plane, reporters asked Bush to respond to Gore's critique of his stance on Social Security. Repeatedly, reporters seemed to be trying to egg The Dub on. At one point, Bruni wrote this:

BRUNI (5/4, written on Wednesday, 5/3): After a reporter told Mr. Bush that Mr. Gore, whose first grandchild was born on the Fourth of July, sometimes says to Hispanic audiences that he hopes his second grandchild will be born on Cinco de Mayo, Mr. Bush muttered, "Totally pathetic."

We file this under a well-known adage: Never joke in front of a reporters, because later on, they'll repeat your words straight. In several other reported exchanges, reporters seemed to be trying to goad Bush into rude comments. We'll report in detail later this week.

At any rate, Bush's remark was made on Wednesday, May 3. On Saturday, Connolly filed her first Bush report. The story was datelined Friday, May 5. Here's part of what she wrote:

CONNOLLY (5/6, written on Friday, 5/5): Bush focused his message today on the virtues of education, entrepeneurship, faith and family—all themes that fit today's Cinco de Mayo celebration. "We have a lot in common," he told a breakfast crowd sprinkled with Hispanics. And when he learned that Gore often jokes with Hispanic audiences that he hopes his second grandchild will be born on Cinco de Mayo, Bush whispered to an aide: "Completely pathetic."

Connolly at least tells her readers that Gore's comment is meant as a joke. But is this a staged re-enactment? Connolly has Bush making this comment on Friday, May 5. Bruni reported Bush making the same remark on Wednesday, May 3. It may be that Connolly is misreporting a two-day-old incident, trying to make it sound like it's current. Or the facts may be somewhat more amusing.

In her profile, Connolly described Bush staging "instant replay" to let a reporter tape a comment. Did Bush also stage an "instant replay" to let Connolly report his remark about Gore? We don't have the slightest idea. But we'll try to find out. Here's our letter.

Key note: Once again, we state the obvious: Governor Bush doesn't write his own coverage. Our criticism concerns the Connolly "letter," not the governor's campaigning. And we repeat: Given the way reporters punish major hopefuls who don't pander to them and pinch their cheeks, we don't blame hopefuls—not for one minute—for playing the scribes' childish games.