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Caveat lector

8 May 2001

Our current howler (part I): Order in the court

Synopsis: Bush’s staffers said Bush was great. So John Harris typed it right up.

Conflicting Image of Bush Emerges
John Harris and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 4/29/01

John Harris started things off with an anecdote. In his review of The First Hundred Days, Harris described a recent event involving President Bush and an aide:

HARRIS (pgh 1): The cell phone rang just as Nick Calio was sitting down at the Caucus Room restaurant a few weeks ago for a late dinner with out-of-town friends. It was President Bush on the line—again, just a couple of hours after they had last spoken.

(2) The Senate was debating the $1.6 trillion tax cut at the heart of the Bush agenda, and the new president seemed to be everywhere. Or so it seemed to White House aides like Calio, the legislative liaison, who recalled his boss as a hovering presence, inquiring constantly about the latest vote counts, filled with instructions on which senators to call, immersed in internal discussions about possible deals to be struck. Bush hung up with Calio that night, only to call him at 7 the next morning for a new update.

Calio’s portrait was "striking," Harris said. In paragraph 3, he also said why:

HARRIS (3): This portrait is striking if only because on Capitol Hill that week the same man White House aides describe as the everywhere president was virtually nowhere. He made a few calls to lawmakers, but the most important lobbying was done by Vice President Cheney. At week’s end, after the Senate rejected Bush’s plan, complaints smoldered among Republicans that he had been missing in action…

"One hundred days after his inauguration," Harris wrote, "the contradictory images of Bush during his first Senate showdown neatly encapsulate the contradictory ways of looking at his presidency." To some, "[h]e is a natural operative who serves as the most important tactician of his own White House." To others, "he is a passive leader who relies no proxies to carry out important tasks." But which one is The Real George Bush? To Harris, that is "the biggest question mark in [Washington’s] new balance of power."

To Harris, the Calio anecdote is important because it provides one of the "contradictory images" of Bush. But to a press watcher, Calio’s anecdote is intriguing for a quite different reason. It is interesting because Harris opened his major article with the story, though he cannot possibly know if it the story is true. Harris has no apparent way of knowing that the incident really happened as described.

One must presume that Calio himself is the source for Harris’ anecdote. But how is Harris supposed to know if Calio’s account is accurate? Did Bush call at the times described? If so, did he ask those trenchant questions? Most important, did Bush really "seem to be everywhere" to aides like Calio, as Harris clearly states? Maybe Calio really thought that Bush called him up with a bunch of dumb questions. How can Harris possibly know what Calio thought about Bush?

The question is obvious because Calio’s anecdote expresses prevailing Bush White House spin, which pictures Bush—behind the scenes—as a tiger in charge of his turf. But then, Harris is persistently willing to accept, as fact, staffers’ upbeat representations of Bush, leading to the state of affairs on which his whole article is based. Throughout this article, Harris is puzzled by what he calls Bush’s "contradictions." Sometimes Bush doesn’t seem up to speed—but sometimes Bush is, quite simply, The Man. And Harris obligingly puzzles and ponders about these "contradictory" images.

Bu there’s an obvious problem with Harris’s work—all the portraits of Competent Bush are provided by loyal Bush staffers. And they all describe Bush behind the scenes, where his brilliant functioning can’t be confirmed. Here, for example, is Competent Bush, described later on in the article:

HARRIS (9): Within the confines of the White House, Bush emerges as a man of supreme self-confidence. In meetings, briefers never get through their presentations; Bush interrupts without hesitation when he feels he has heard enough. On several occasions, he has casually issued edicts with little concern that he has undercut members of his Cabinet. There is little doubt that it is Bush—his personality, his likes and dislikes, his political values—who is the animating force of this White House.

According to Harris, "there is little doubt" that Bush himself "is the animating force of this White House." But how does Harris know this? Has Harris ever attended the meetings at which Bush "emerges as a man of supreme self-confidence?" There is no sign that he has. Indeed, Harris’ images of Competent Bush are based on what he’s been told, by Bush staffers. By contrast, Harris’ images of Fumbling Bush are largely based on his own public observations. "At the same time," Harris writes in paragraph 10, "[Bush] is perhaps the least confident public performer of the modern presidency" (emphasis added).

Weird! In private, Bush is a Total Master. In public, Bush is "perhaps the least confident performer of the modern presidency!" And it never seems to occur to Harris that there may be a reason for this odd "contradiction." It never seems to occur to Harris that he is perhaps being spun—lied to; misled—about Bush’s private performance.

Actually, it does occur to Harris, just once. In the course of a 4160-word piece, here is his one word of caution about the Bush staffers’ reports:

HARRIS (11): This article—the first in a series that will examine political power in the aftermath of eight years of Democratic control of the White House—is based on interviews with Bush and his senior aides, as well as with legislators who have worked with and against him. Bush’s subordinates are loyal, and they understand the importance of dispelling suspicions that he is less than fully in command of his own presidency. Their relentlessly upbeat portrayals of his leadership style must be greeted with a measure of detachment.

According to Harris, reports from the staffers "must be greeted with a measure of detachment." But that is precisely what Harris doesn’t do at any point in this article. Right from the opening Calio anecdote, Harris types up staffers’ accounts of how brilliantly Bush is performing in private. And, aside from his one pro forma caution, Harris never betrays the slightest doubt about these staffers’ accounts.

Alas! Here at THE HOWLER, we really don’t know how Bush is performing in private. But we can judge Harris’ work in this piece. Throughout the course of his lengthy article, Harris accepts what staffers tell him as fact. And as we’ll see in our next HOWLER, when Bush performs in ways that might seem unsteady, Harris himself finds "upbeat" ways to assess what the prez has done.

But then, we live in an age of a courtier press, in which scribes like Harris pose, preen and pander. Harris would grade Bush’s First Hundred Days. But, given the Post scribe’s risible work, we must give him failing grades of his own.

Next: When problems arise, Harris can think of nothing but "upbeat" explanations.


Smile-a-while (5/8/01)

Anchor’s pet: We couldn’t help chuckling when Heather Nauert filed her final report about Gore-as-a-teacher. Nauert, a student in Gore’s journalism class at Columbia, has been reporting in to FNC shows ever since the course began. She has generally shown good solid sense in knocking whatever went on in the class. Last Tuesday night, semester done, Bill O’Reilly started off with a joke:

O’REILLY: Now, first, I want to dispel the rumors that instead of giving the teacher an apple, in Mr. Gore’s case, you guys are giving him devil dogs because he put on so much weight.

At first, Heather tried not to go there. But O’Reilly continued the jibes about weight, and Nauert, the savvy Fox News Contributor, showed she has learned her key lessons at J-School:

O’REILLY: You know what a devil dog is? It’s a doughnut, one of these chocolatey things. He porked up a little throughout the semester, didn’t he?

NAUERT: You know, I think—

O’REILLY: A little heftier?

NAUERT: I think the press would have focused on substance had he actually said something. And his absence—his not saying anything newsworthy caused them to start focusing on his weight.

Hay-yo! Gore made the press focus in on his weight! And so Nauert gets a solid A-plus for understanding three basic rules: 1) You should always cater to powerful anchors; 2) On Fox News Channel, if Gore does it, it’s wrong; and 3) The most important rule by far: Whatever dumb*ss thing goes on, it’s never the press corps that did it.


Commentary by Heather Nauert, Bill O’Reilly
The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News Channel, 5/2/01