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Caveat lector

18 February 2000

The Howler epilogue: Et tu, Bruni?

Synopsis: Valentine’s Week has come to an end. So has one scribe’s love for Bush.

Riding High, Bush Seeks Gravity
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 9/14/99

Shrugging Off Pressure, Bush Regains His Form
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 8/26/99

Bush Fund-Raising Machine Plows Ahead
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 8/28/99

Bush Is In Terrific Health, Doctor's Report Proclaims
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 9/29/99

Rival Biographies of Bush Are Rushing to Print
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 10/3/99

Book Lets Bush Explain His Life and His Policies
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 11/15/99

In New Hampshire, Bush Is the Image of Scrappiness
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 11/4/99

Levity Is at the Soul of Bush, the Puck In the Political Pack
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 11/27/99

Voters Can Now Curl Up With the Policies of Bush
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 1/8/00

Bush Improves on the Stump (With Reservations)
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 1/15/00

Bush Follows In the Missteps Of His Father
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 1/23/00

For love is ha-a-n-ndsome, love is charmin'.
And love is pre-e-tty while it's new.
But love grows cold as love grows older.
And fades away like mornin' dew.

"Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens." Traditional ballad. Appalachian.

Things were different, back in September, when the handsome guv was still talk of the town. One morning, our analysts wiped the sleep from their eyes and marveled as Frank Bruni wrote this:

BRUNI (9/14/99) (paragraph 1): When Gov. George W. Bush of Texas first hit the presidential campaign trail in June, he wore monogrammed cowboys boots—the perfect accessory for his folksy affability and casual self-assurance.

(2) But when he visited New Hampshire early last week, he was shod in a pair of conservative, shiny black loafers that seemed to reflect more than the pants cuff above them. They suggested an impulse by Mr. Bush to put at least a bit of a damper on his brash irreverence, which has earned him affection but is a less certain invitation for respect.

Phew! Once again, we saw how much mileage scribes at the Times can get from that magic word "seemed" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/27/99). A change of shoes allowed this scribe to craft a complete campaign portrait! But to the observant Bruni, one thing was clear: Governor Bush was "accessorizing perfectly" this autumn. Just as Brian Williams had marveled, back in June, at the jaunty way Bush slung his coat o'er his shoulder (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/1/99), so the Times scribe was now favorably taken with even The Dub's choice of shoes. The article was one of a string of pieces suggesting that love was in bloom.

For us, the affair had begun three weeks before, in the midst of the Bush cocaine flap. Writing from a Bush event in Goose Creek, South Carolina, Bruni penned a cheerful piece that told the world all was well. The article's headline said "Shrugging Off Pressure, Bush Regains His Form," and it featured a photo of a beaming hopeful. Bruni started like this:

BRUNI (8/26/99) (paragraph 1): On his first campaign swing since he found himself besieged by questions about whether he had used cocaine as a younger man, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas seemed unbowed and unworried today, making only the subtlest allusions to the tense events of last week and reconnecting with the loose, relaxed demeanor that is his hallmark on the stump.

The guy was simply fabulous! Two days later, things got better; the headline on Bruni's cheerful piece said "Bush Fund-Raising Machine Plows Ahead." (The "fund-raising juggernaut of the Bush campaign rolled on," but without "any sense among his supporters that Mr. Bush was so firmly in the lead...that they could start breathing easy.")

In September, Bruni used a technical term to describe Bush's health; it was "terrific," the Times headline said (as did Bruni's article). Soon after, Bruni made a remarkable claim; writing about the Bush bios then appearing, Bruni declared that Bush was so intriguing that (quoting the article's sub-headline) "Even if he falters in the months ahead, his story seems a compelling one." Bush was such a compelling guy, people would buy those books any-hoo. (The books have not sold well.) In early November, we met another side of The Dub. The headline read, "In New Hampshire, Bush Is the Image of Scrappiness:"

BRUNI (11/4/99): Gov. George W. Bush of Texas today wrapped up a feverishly busy visit to New Hampshire that saw him log hundreds of road miles, lunge for every hand in his path and, above all, look less like a carefree front-runner than a scrappy contender who had indeed broken a sweat.

(2) That is probably just the image that Mr. Bush wanted to project

Indeed, it likely was the image Bush hoped to project. And he was projecting it—right in the Times' upbeat headline.

On the fifteenth, Bruni reviewed Bush's own book. Headline: "Book Lets Bush Explain His Life and His Politics." Finally! Bruni opened with this:

BRUNI (11/15/99) (paragraph 1): He agonized privately over his decision not to grant a stay of execution for Karla Faye Tucker and felt "like a huge piece of concrete was crushing me" during the minutes leading up to her death by lethal injection.

This was described as one of the "scattered revelations" in the forthcoming bio, which "reflects the style of the Texas governor's campaign: cautious, disciplined, savvy." Of course, what was most interesting about this particular "revelation" was the way it appeared to contradict what Bush had told Tucker Carlson in an earlier interview for Talk. In his piece, Carlson said that Bush had ridiculed Tucker's request for a stay, even doing mocking impressions of her appearance on Larry King Live. There had been no talk of private agony. Bruni mentioned that briefly, in passing (paragraph eleven).

Three weeks later, the analysts simply tumbled right out of their chairs. The headline on Bruni's page-one piece did it:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE (11/27/99): Levity Is at the Soul Of Bush, the Puck In the Political Pack

INSIDE HEADLINE: Levity Is the Soul of Bush, the Puck in the Pack

Bush was now a figure from Shakespeare. In New Hampshire, Bruni praised his great wit:

BRUNI (11/27/99) (paragraph 1): As George W. Bush loped through the headquarters of the Timberland Company here, he might have been any candidate in the hunt for votes...

(2) But there was something different about Governor Bush's approach, something jazzier and jauntier.

This guy was really something! "[H]e is physically expansive and verbally irreverent, folksy and feisty, a politician more playful than most of his peers," Bruni said. "Interestingly, it is sometimes Mr. Bush's most mischievous moments that demonstrate how astute he can be."

BRUNI: But unlike other politicians with a similar zest for contact, Mr. Bush does not appear to be moved by any profound need for affirmation. He seems to operate from utter confidence, a happy and lucky man for happy-go-lucky times.

In closing, Bruni said this—not that Times writers ever give endorsements:

BRUNI: Mr. Bush seems to be having a ball, and why not? His campaign treasury is ripe. His poll numbers are robust. And with every wink, hug and bit of effortless banter, he projects a spirit as mirthful as many voters would undoubtedly like their futures to be.

Yep. Even as late as November 27, you could sense something special going on when Bruni wrote about that ol' Dub.

But as the folk poet wrote long ago, love sometime fades like the dew. And by the end of the fall, another man had come along—one who was letting scribes ride around on his bus, and telling better jokes than Bush did. We're not quite sure if that helped produce the startling change in Bruni's posture, but suddenly Bush wasn't quite so appealing. Now, every time Bush opened his mouth, Bruni told us what a big dope the guy was:

BRUNI (1/8/00): Away from the printed page, Mr. Bush was having a little trouble with eloquence—or at least pronunciation—this week.

Bush had somehow pronounced a word wrong, and Bruni told readers all about it. Friends, if the Times would present this much detail about the Bradley health plan, we'd know whether Gore has been right:

BRUNI (continuing directly): Television viewers who watched the Republican debate on Thursday night probably noticed this when Mr. Bush, wearing an expression of apparent satisfaction with the big word he was about to unleash, promised that he would never "obsfucate" as president of the United States.

That is a good thing, because the verb is "obfuscate," and this was the third time in two days that Mr. Bush seemed to mangle it.

On each occasion, he paused slightly either before or after, the oratorical equivalent of a drum roll or cymbal crash. And on each occasion, it never sounded quite right.

On Thursday night, it was clear why. He has the consonants mixed up, the letter "s" in the wrong place.

What had become of the scrappy Puck—the one with the really good shoes? Bruni went on for two more paragraphs, explaining other mispronounced words.

One week later, he was at it again. Bruni devoted four paragraphs to his subject this time. This gives you a bit of the flavor:

BRUNI (1/15/00): Later that day, in Mount Pleasant, [Bush] muffed a line in the foreign policy section of his speech, referring to the danger of "potential missile launches" with a phrase that sounded like "potential menshul losses." The second word is spelled phonetically, because the word itself does not exist.

Oh. By 1/23, the Times gave Bruni a special article on Bush's dumbness. Headline? "THE SYNTAX—Bush Follows In the Missteps Of His Father:"

BRUNI (1/23/00): As Gov. George W. Bush of Texas campaigns furiously through this state in the final days leading up to its caucuses on Monday, he is amassing examples of twisted verbiage and oratorical bloopers that bring to mind his famously tongue-tied father's forays into linguistic limbo.

"Bring to mind?" No—bring to Bruni's mind. We'll spare you the latest examples. But can this possibly be the same dazzling guy Bruni was writing about all last year?

Something has changed in Frank Bruni's hard heart. But love can be like that. Love hurts.


Monday: We begin an extended look at the John McCain coverage. He's the one with the funny jokes now.

After the boys of summer have gone: Times coverage of Bush was embarrassing last summer. Bruni's cheer-leading was simply endless, and the paper never met a photo of Bush with minority kids it didn't rush right into print. The low point didn't involve Bruni at all; it came with a page-one story in the August 4 Sunday Times about a Texas ranch Bush was planning to purchase. The story had no imaginable national news value, but there it was, right on page one, with a pointless picture of a nondescript gate. The story did give the Times a chance to publish the latest Bush hagiography, as the paper drew breathless comparisons to Lyndon's Johnson's presidential ranch.

Now, for some reason, the paper engages in endless nit-picking about pointless errors. This is exactly the kind of tendentious, minute parsing-for-errors that we have criticized in the press corps' coverage of Gore. Where does this silly coverage begin? It begins when editors let writers exhibit such silly subjectivity as we saw in Bruni's pieces last fall. When writers speculate about what loafers mean, something has gone wrong at a newspaper.

By the way, with our ear to the ground we incomparably predicted that this turn in the coverage of Bush might occur. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/17/99, to reread our incomparable analysis.

One final note: we hope this is obvious, but none of what is printed above is intended as a comment on Governor Bush. Bush didn't write the stories we've critiqued. We suspect he'd play things a bit straighter.

Palmetto polling: We've been amused to see the press continue with full-bore polling stories from South Carolina. The polls in New Hampshire were vastly wrong in both parties, a fact we saw discussed in a short New York Times piece, but pretty much ignored everywhere else. It's hard to poll in these open-style primaries. If we had to guess, we'd guess the polls will be wrong in South Carolina as well.

Why don't newspapers discuss this more often? We'd guess they just love those poll stories. Polls provide easy stories to write. Why admit that the stories are guesswork?