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18 June 1999

Our current howler (part II): Warming to Bush

Synopsis: Bush blew hot and cold on warming. The press didn't utter a word.

A Candidate Called W.
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 6/7/99

GOP Bets Farm On Bush--And Crosses Fingers
Paul Gigot, The Wall Street Journal, 6/11/99

Bush warms to climate (Inside Politics)
Greg Pierce, The Washington Times, 5/21/99

No doubt about it. If Spectrum’s oil wells had gushed like Eric Pooley, the company would still be in business (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/17/99). But despite Pooley’s fawning testimonial to Bush, the press corps swore it was waiting to pounce on any error the governor might make. The Monday before, in the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz had been heard loudly boasting:

KURTZ: The governor’s problem, like Gov. Bill Clinton’s in 1992, is that the great hunt is on for negative material--and that the scrutiny is coming so early in the game...The inquisition has begun.

By Friday of the W Launch, Paul Gigot had pretty much the same view:

GIGOT: [N]one of this will matter much unless Mr. Bush can stand up to the tidal wave about to hit him. Every candidate makes mistakes, but his will be broadcast in tongues.

Or will they? Gigot expressed the standard press corps self-portrait--we’re just waiting to tear into Dub. But Gigot’s own column from Friday’s Journal suggested a different reality. In the column, Gigot wrote about a recent Bush “blunder,” committed that week, on the New Hampshire tax pledge. We’ll let Gigot--one of the press corps’ straight-shooters--explain it in his own words:

GIGOT: Another concern is that Mr. Bush’s core campaign talented but thin and overconfident. That may account for this week’s blunder, when a spokesperson told a New Hampshire newspaper that Mr. Bush wouldn’t sign a no-tax-increase pledge.

The spokesperson involved was (we think) Karen Hughes, as best we’ve been able to determine. Gigot went on to say more:

GIGOT: Anti-tax maestro Grover Norquist says the governor had told him last fall that he’d sign. And the morning after the mistake chief strategist Karl Rove called Mr. Norquist, who got his letter from Mr. Bush within hours. But you’d think the campaign would have crossed this “t” earlier.

And you’d think that self-proclaimed bulldog press would have been primed to examine the incident. This one had everything they said that they wanted! Confusion within the governor’s camp! A statement one day, contradictory action the next! The indication that a major candidate was buckling to a powerful interest group! And Gigot, a bulwark of the conservative press, calling the action a “blunder!” No one could hold those junkyard dogs back, once they got wind of this big blunder. Why, it was just the sort of red, raw meat they’d sworn that they hoped to devour!

But in fact, the tax pledge incident got almost no coverage from the five major papers we cover. The Washington Times reported that Bush had signed the pledge, never mentioning the confusion Gigot highlighted. The New York Times and USA Today, in a pair of short treatments, didn’t mention the misstatement either. Only the Washington Post, among our Big Five, mentioned the mix-up in the Bush camp at all. Those junkyard journalists, straining on chains, were now whimpering, if not wholly silent. (See bibliography below.)

Here at THE HOWLER, we do not believe that the press corps should tear up the hopefuls. Because of the press corps’ limited skills, we believe they should set humble goals. But there was another incident, over Kick-Off Weekend, that made us wonder if the press corps was willing to critique Bush at all. The analysts were watching their favorite, Tony Snow, conducting the panel on Fox News Sunday. Then, they exchanged quick looks of surprise when they heard the Fox pundits say this:

LIASSON: But I think that [Bush] has done something very Clintonesque. He’s moved to co-opt all the good things that Clinton has done and make them his own. I mean he talks about ending social promotion in schools, doing something about teen pregnancy, he wants standards, school standards, he wants more money for public education. He’s even been quoted saying he believes in global warming.

SNOW: Bush retracted the global warming thing.

LIASSON: Yeah, he retracted it later. But I think he’s done something very smart.

He’s done something very smart? The global warming retraction, cited by Snow, has been mentioned almost nowhere in the press--you know, that junkyard press corps that jerks its chain every time that the governor walks past? The only treatment we’ve found in Our Five appeared in the Washington Times:

PIERCE (5/21): Texas Gov. George W. Bush has changed his tune on a key environmental issue, saying he no longer believes there’s any question that the globe is warming, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports.

Apparently, you now have to read the Fort Worth press to get the political coverage! Pierce continued:

PIERCE: “I believe there is global warming,” [Bush] said at a news conference last week. Mr. Bush had said just a few weeks ago that the “science is still out” on global warming. The governor, who is leading a crowded field of GOP presidential candidates, said his team of advisers had changed his mind.

But by June 14, according to Snow and Liasson, he had changed his mind again. He had changed his view in the middle of May; then had switched it again weeks later. If you don’t like Bush’s view on global warming, just wait--a set of flip-flops Liasson described as “very smart.”

When the analysts looked back at the Pierce dispatch, puzzled looks played across their young faces. They had seen CelebCorps slobber and snarl, straining to snap at Dub’s trousers. But the tax pledge “blunder” and the warming mess had disappeared without a trace; and the Fox gang, which knew about the confusion on warming, smiled and praised Bush for being so smart.

By the way, the Fox gang went on to talk about Gore--and their tolerant tone quickly ended. You think the governor can change on a dime? We take a look at double standards tomorrow.

Monday: While coolly avoiding global warming confusion, the press corps gets steamed about Love Story!

Biblio: Articles on Bush’s tax pledge:

The Washington Times: With Bush’s no-tax-increase vow, entire Republican field on board. Ralph Z. Hallow, 6/10/99

The New York Times: If Elected, Bush Says, He’ll Oppose Tax Increase. David E. Rosenbaum, 6/10/99

USA Today: Bush Pledges. John Bacon, 6/9/99

The Washington Post: Bush Takes Pledge Against Tax Hikes. Dan Balz, 6/9/99