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18 March 2002

Our current howler (part I): The great pretender

Synopsis: When Bush broke down at that first debate, Frank Bruni said that he might be pretending!

Ambling into History
Frank Bruni, Harper Collins, 2002

In the End, Two Candidates Can’t Resist Being Themselves in the Spotlight
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 10/4/00

Frank Bruni’s account is instructive. In his campaign memoir, Ambling into History, the Timesman describes George W. Bush’s performance at that first, key debate with Al Gore:

BRUNI (page 187): The skills that led to great debating were not ones that Bush naturally possessed, and his three subsequent debate performances made this clear. By any objective analysis, Bush was at best mediocre in the first debate, in Boston…In all of [the debates], he was vague. A stutter sometimes crept into his voice. An eerie blankness occasionally spread across his features. He made a few ridiculous statements…I remember watching the first debate from one of the seats inside the auditorium and thinking that Bush was in the process of losing the presidency.

Our instruction begins when we compare that account with the article Bruni wrote the next day in the Times. Bruni was Bush reporter for the New York Times from August 1999 through the end of Election 2000. And we now know it—as he sat in the hall and watched that debate, he thought that Bush was "losing the presidency." Surely Bush had done some serious fumbling. But here’s how Bruni’s report began in the next day’s Times:

BRUNI (pgh 1): It was not enough for Vice President Al Gore to venture a crisp pronunciation of Milosevic, as in Slobodan, the Yugoslav president who refuses to be pried from power.

(2) Mr. Gore had to go a step further, volunteering the name of Mr. Milosevic’s challenger, Vojislav Kostunica. Then he had to go a step beyond that, noting that Serbia plus Montenegro equals Yugoslavia.

(3) And as Mr. Gore loped effortlessly through the Balkans, barely able to suppress his self-satisfied grin, it became ever clearer that the point of all the thickets of consonants and proper nouns was not a geopolitical lesson.

(4) It was more like oratorical intimidation, an unwavering effort to upstage and unnerve an opponent whose mind and mouth have never behaved in a similarly encyclopedic fashion.

Bruni thought Bush was performing so poorly that he "was in the process of losing the presidency." But when he described the event the next day, he opened with a four-paragraph passage about was a big *sshole Gore was. For the record, those familiar with spin from Election 2000 will know the script which Bruni was typing. It was "Gore is like the kid in the front row who keeps raising his hand"—one of the many pieces of memorized cant with which your press corps made a joke of this race.

Strange, isn’t it? Bruni thought Bush was blowing the deal—but he opened with shopworn denigration of Gore! (Dropping all pretense of objective reporting, by the way, he noted that Gore was "barely able to suppress his self-satisfied grin" as he played the big show-off.) Weirdly, it was Gore whom Bruni chose to highlight—and he used some dog-eared spin as he did. But then, so it routinely went as the liberal Times spun this election.

Some are now feigning great surprise at Bruni’s new book about Bush. Here, for example, is Andrew Sullivan, throwing new feed to the cattle:

COULTER ON BRUNI: "Whatever Bruni’s style and political predilections, he is an honest and perceptive reporter." That’s Ann Coulter’s rave review of Frank Bruni’s book on FrontPage magazine. Coulter plugging a New York Times reporter’s book? Doesn’t that make you curious? There’s still time to get the book in time for next Wednesday’s discussion. What are you waiting for?

Sullivan pretends to be thoroughly shocked that Coulter would approve of a book from the Times. He types the most treasured spin of the talk-show right—the spin that the New York Times is, above all, the mecca of that ol’ debbil, Liberal Bias.

In fact, as Sullivan surely knows, Bruni was probably the most Bush-friendly reporter on the 2000 campaign trail. In fact, Bruni’s work perfectly tracked the press corps’ prevailing prejudices. How did Bruni’s reporting ebb and flow? As we’ve noted, Bruni generally pandered to Candidate Bush all through 1999. Then—after McCain shot up in the polls—Bruni’s reporting turned on a dime, and he began to lard his Times reports with trivial criticisms of Bush. When Bush slew McCain on Super Tuesday, Bruni—like the rest of his pouting cohort—spent the next few weeks punishing Bush for the noble McCain’s defeat. And then, by mid-April, all was forgiven—and Bruni pandered, fawned, and kissed up all the way through to the end of the race.

As usual, Sullivan is playing his readers for fools, assuming they’re clueless about Bruni’s coverage. He and Coulter pretend this week that the liberal Times surely tried to beat Bush. In fact, by the end of the long campaign, press apologists were struggling hard to explain away Bruni’s pandering coverage. Scribes explained why Bruni was going so easy on Bush while "Kit" Seelye was so busy trashing Gore.

On October 3, Bush was blowing the deal, Bruni thought. But his profile the next day tilted hard against Gore. This week, we’ll look at some other instructive points which turn up in the Timesman’s new book. But if it’s fantasy about Bruni’s work you crave, there’s another site eager to sell it.

Next: Bruni pandered to Bush while Seelye trashed Gore. One example? Just follow the money.

Visit our incomparable archives: Your chance to relive the halcyon days when THE HOWLER—incomparably—bruited Bruni:

  1. Et tu, Bruni? A scribe’s love affair had come to an end. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/00.
  2. When Bush beat McCain, he had to be punished. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/00, 3/17/00, 3/20/00, and 3/21/00.
  3. Bush then pandered, leaving Bruni restored. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/00.
  4. Our incomparable preview of the coming campaign included a section on Bruni’s buffoonery. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00.
  5. By the summer, apologists were explaining away Bruni’s fawning. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/7/00.

Some of the news wasn’t fit to print: We know it now, from reading his book—Bruni thought Bush performed very poorly at the October 3 debate. That doesn’t mean he should have blurted that view in the next day’s Times. After all, Bruni served as a Times reporter, with (slightly) less leeway than a pundit. For the record, Richard Berke penned the lead news report of the Bush-Gore debate for the Times. Bruni’s piece was a profile of the how the two warriors "came across" in the battle.

But strangely, Bruni started his profile poking at Gore, and on balance it was Gore whom he tweaked. Meanwhile, the ace reporter went out of his way to soft-soap all bobbles by Bush. In the following part of his report, for example, he described a fumble by The Dub. Now you know what Bruni really thought. See if you get any sense at all of how poorly he believed Bush had done:

BRUNI (pgh 23): They were dressed almost like twins, in red ties and dark suits. But they were hardly identical.

(24) Mr. Gore kept digressing to explain things, as if Mr. Bush needed the tutorials. Mr. Bush kept telling voters to listen to his own words and not Mr. Gore’s characterizations of them, as if nothing Mr. Gore said could be trusted.

(25) Mr. Gore recalled little encounters from his past.

(26) "When the action in Kosovo was dragging on and we were searching for a solution to the problem," he said, "I invited the former prime minister of Russia to my house."

(27) Mr. Bush either got a little confused or pretended that he did, displaying a softness of focus and good humor in response to a question about how, as president, he might deal with emergencies.

(28) "I’ve been standing up to big Hollywood, to big trial lawyers," Mr. Bush began, then stopped himself, breaking into a grin. "What was the question? It was about emergencies, wasn’t it?"

Paragraph 27 is as tough as Bruni got. So ask yourself this: Have you ever seen a journalist work this hard to let a fumbling pol off the hook? More specifically, you ever seen a scribe suggest that maybe a candidate just "pretended" to be confused? ("A little" confused at that!) And of course, Bruni quickly added another point—Bush was "displaying a softness of focus and good humor," he said. Indeed, even as he feigned confusion, Bush just that quickly broke into a grin. In Frank Bruni’s recurrent scripts, The Dub was always cast as the Nice Guy.

By the way, this is how Frank Bruni wrote when he thought that Bush was doing poorly. You can imagine what he wrote when he thought that The Dub had done good.


The Daily update (3/18/02)

On our use of a pungent metaphor: A reader—expressing views with which we sympathize—has criticized our pungent metaphor, "the cattle." Just so you’ll know, we principally mean this as a slam at the wranglers. For example, we’ve long stopped thinking that a player like Sullivan is dealing with his fans in good faith. We’re a bit surprised that readers can’t see it. But the major fault lies with the driver, not with the rampaging herd.

In the broader sense, many citizens are played each day by those on the talk-show right. For example, they’re quite convinced that the New York Times surely must have tried to help Gore. They’ve been thrown that meal a thousand times. We aren’t surprised when they wolf it down whole.

We’d like to be more respectful about the folks thus deceived. But the public discourse is being trashed by the wranglers who drive this herd on to market. And over time, we’ve reached a conclusion, one which explains our evolving tone. If you don’t smack the cattle between their eyes, it’s quite hard to get their attention.