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3 May 2000

Smile-a-while: Bruni agonistes

Synopsis: Forced to pander for all he was worth, Governor Bush gave us Bruni Restored.

For a Suddenly Accessible Bush, Everything Is on the Record
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 4/14/00

Bush, Gore can't win media primary
Howard Fineman,, 3/24/00

The Fight of His Life
Evan Thomas and Martha Brant, Newsweek, 2/28/00

That was then and this is now, Frank Bruni exclaimed as his article opened. In January, scribes who covered Candidate Bush didn't even get to fly on The Dub's private plane! But: "That was January. This is April," the exultant scribe was now reporting. And he drew a picture for puzzled Times readers of the one pander scribes truly love:

BRUNI: [Bush] not only slaps reporters' backs but also rubs the tops of their heads and, in a few instances, pinches their cheeks. It is the tactile equivalent of the nicknames he doles out to many of them and belongs to a teasing style of interpersonal relationship that undoubtedly harks back to his fraternity days.

"Undoubtedly" harks back? The scribe couldn't help it. When his hair all mussed and his cheeks pinched red, he fell back on an old love—speculation. Meanwhile, Bush—apparently deciding he has to play these scribe games—was smoothin' another reporter:

BRUNI: Last week, he turned to a reporter who grew up in the arid expanse of Australia's most famous rural region with a mock suggestion.

"Outback woman!" he said. "One of the things I'd like to do sometime is have dinner with you at the Outback steakhouse. That way, we'd have the Outback woman at the Outback steakhouse."

It sounded a little bit shaky to us, but it's the sort of thing scribes simply love. We all remember the tales of doughnuts and jokes on the "Straight Talk Express" this past winter. We think Howard Fineman explained it best in a reverie for NBC's dotcom (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/31/00):

FINEMAN: Reporters aren't as weird as you (or they) might think. We like people who like us, or who at least make our jobs seem rewarding, noble and fun.

Reporters also like people who pretend to like them, judging from Bruni's descriptions:

BRUNI: During flights last week, [Bush] talked baseball with one network producer. He listened sympathetically to another network producer's romantic travails. He confessed that he never loved the movie "Titanic" but loved "Austin Powers" and its sequel, phrases and gestures from which sometimes inform his banter.

Not only that:

BRUNI: [Bush] has also let a few reporters accompany him on his three-mile runs and let a few others have lunch with him at the governor's mansion in Austin.

As McCain proved so brilliantly, silly pandering to the press corps is the one pander pundits adore.

Bruni explained that Candidate Bush has now become "suddenly accessible." With primaries done, things are on the record. Bush has opened up to the press:

BRUNI: He articulated his hopes for the cows and bulls on his Texas ranch.

Stuff like that. And we were glad to hear the new excitement clearly audible in Bruni's restored voice, because weeks before, the unhappy scribe had been scuffing his shoe toes in anger. Evan Thomas had seen what occurred:

THOMAS AND BRANT: In an effort to catch up to McCain's "Straight Talk Express," Bush loosened up with reporters after New Hampshire. Bush jokingly called the campaign plane, alternately, Retooled One and Accessibility Two. On the plane, curtains between the candidate's compartment up front and the press in the rear swung open. From time to time, Bush bowled oranges down the aisle with reporters (an old boys-on-the-bus stunt).

That's when we got to the part about Bruni:

THOMAS AND BRANT (continuing directly): Bush even made a show of shaming Karen Hughes, his six-foot-tall minder sometimes known as Nurse Ratchet. In front of reporters, Bush pointedly asked Hughes about a New York Times reporter, Frank Bruni, whom Bush calls Panchito. (Bush has nicknames for everyone.) Bruni had written an article days earlier suggesting that Bush's campaign schedule was none too strenuous and Hughes had in turn ridiculed Bruni for taking a day and a half off. Bruni was sore, and Bush, sensitive to the power of the Times, demanded of Hughes, "Do you apologize to Panchito?" "Do I have to grovel?" she asked.

Apparently, yes—she does. This was at a time, you may recall, when Bruni was writing a string of mocking stories every time Bush got a word out of place (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/00). Gone were the happier days of autumn, when he'd described Bush as "the Puck of the political pack" (same reference). Others were having Big Fun on a bus, and Bush didn't seem like The Deal any more. Please revisit our earlier report to see the remarkable change in the tone of Bruni's stories.

Well, don't expect to see any more notes about Bush getting words out of place. Bruni—"Panchito"—is happier now. Now, perhaps hoping to swing some lunch, he's aiming his utter nonsense at Gore:

BRUNI: The vice president ultimately chose not to meet the press, but his aides issued their own news release, noting the amount of time that had passed—or "past," as the e-mail said—without Mr. Bush accepting the vice president's offer to begin a series of debates.

It's hard to believe the press corps' immaturity. But do believe it—they're happy to show you.

We don't blame Bush—not for a minute—for choosing to pander to this one crucial group. If we were Bush, we'd also pretend to share our deep thoughts with the scribes. But we sometimes picture Socrates—the Greatest of Greeks—returning to see how our discourse now runs. If he saw this nonsense, what would he say? We'd guess he'd say three words: "I told you."


Tomorrow: "Randomly" interviewing town hall forum survivors, Ceci Connolly got across her ideas.

Visit our incomparable archives: Why are hopefuls forced to pander? Because scribes will exact harsh revenge. In early March, Katharine Seelye was all het up because Gore wouldn't hold a press conference. To marvel at what appeared in the Times, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/3/00 (postscript).

Meanwhile, Bruni was pummeling Bush in early winter, transcribing each word The Dub got out of place. Remember—Bruni and Seelye are stewards of our discourse. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/00.

Happy ending: Careful, Governor! Those scribes can be fickle. Bruni closed with a pleasing self-pander reflecting some scribes' deep beliefs:

BRUNI: Late one afternoon, a reporter who was trying to get some work done had to implore Mr. Bush to retreat to his seat in the first row of first class so the chatter would cease.

Mr. Bush flashed a wounded expression, quickly replaced by a smile, and talked on, a reminder of the adage that when God is in a mood to punish, he simply answers people's prayers. [End of article]

Those pundits! Many of their portraits help illustrate one key belief—the belief that pundits are innately superior. This unnamed reporter, imploring The Dub to stop talking, was finally restored in his shaken belief.