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9 May 2001

Our current howler (part II): Geisha guy

Synopsis: Whenever it seems that Bush may have goofed, John Harris finds an upbeat explanation.

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

Geneva Overholser, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4/12/01

Dave Zweifel, The Capital Times, 4/13/01

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue as to how President Bush is performing in private. But ignorance doesn’t stop John Harris; in his review of the president’s First Hundred Days, he simply typed up the cheerful reports provided by loyal Bush staffers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/8/01). Bush was a tiger in private, they said; a whirling master of all he surveyed. So Harris cheerfully transcribed their reports, and obligingly puzzled over the way that Bush often stumbled in public.

But in truth, those loyal staffers don’t have to bother giving Harris their upbeat reports. Once the scribe got going in his own lengthy piece, he showed that he is fully their equal at concocting those cheerful explanations. Indeed, Harris rattled off a string of spins about Bush’s work that can best be described as simply laughable. Sweeping low before his new masters, Harris shows our courtier press corps at its obsequious best.

Indeed, Harris almost seems to be doing White House staffwork himself. The first non-bobble he skillfully limns involves Bush’s meeting with Gerhard Schroeder:

HARRIS (pgh 12): The meeting was intended as a diplomatic getting-to-know-you session. When it was over, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had gotten to know the new American president—but not in the way he might have expected.

(13) The subject was global warming, and Schroeder made plain that his government objected to Bush’s declaration that the United States no longer supported the Kyoto agreement aimed at limiting greenhouse gases. Rather than smoothing over the disagreement, one White House aide recounted, Bush challenged Schroeder, "Where are you going to get your energy in 20 years?"

(14) Bush White House officials later said that from their vantage point the session had gone fine, with the president just speaking his mind directly. But German Embassy officials here reported to other European governments that the exchange had been uncomfortably sharp, diplomatic sources said.

Hardly the end of the world, we would judge. But the Post courtier wanted to make it a triumph. Here is his entire assessment:

HARRIS (15): In the minds of many critics, there remains the suspicion that Washington is witnessing a scripted presidency, with Bush delivering lines crafted by the vastly more experienced vice president, Cabinet secretaries and senior staff. But the Schroeder session suggests a president who will not be stage-managed.

And that is all the Schroeder session "suggested" to our supine Post scribe. No other "suggestion" was mentioned. Might the session also "suggest" a president unsure on the international stage? Sorry, no—that "suggestion" doesn’t flatter. Our courtier manages just one suggestion—one that is flattering to Bush.

The pattern continues as Harris describes a boo-boo involving Kim Dae Jung:

HARRIS (16): When South Korean President Kim Dae Jung came to town, Bush’s national security team huddled with Bush before he met with Kim. That morning the newspapers had been filled with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s declarations that Bush would continue the Clinton policy of accelerated diplomacy toward more normal relations with North Korea. With Powell seated before him, another aide present at the session recalled, Bush made clear that he thought North Korea did not deserve any trust, and that he was not interested in an early rapprochement. And so with no apologies or hand-wringing, Bush reversed Powell on the spot. He has done the same thing at least twice to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman after she enunciated policies with which he disagreed.

Jeepers! Isn’t that an awkward thing, to be reversing your cabinet members like that, on the fly? Right in front of major world leaders? And mightn’t that suggest the possibility that things aren’t being managed real well in the White House? Sorry—no courtier ever would have such a thought. Harris kept on the sunny side:

HARRIS (17): "I have never seen the president the least bit concerned about being boxed in by a Cabinet member," said one senior administration official. "He assumes that he is in charge."

And that was it—the entire assessment! When Bush keeps reversing his cabinet honchos, that only proves that "he is in charge" and that he isn’t "the least bit concerned" that they might "box him in." And the other thing that’s simply great: there’s absolutely no "apologies or hand-wringing."

Other fumbling fades from view when our new valet shuffle-steps in:

HARRIS (24): After Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, other embassies were informed that there had been a clear contrast between Bush’s command of issues in the private sessions and the halting, tentative news conference he gave with Blair afterward.

We liked that one because it was slick. In context, you might well think that those "other embassies" were informed of Bush’s great private command by the Brits. But read again—it doesn’t say that, does it! Who "informed" the other embassies? Alas—we’d have to guess it was those same upbeat staffers who were "informing" Harris at the top of his piece.

One more example of lily-gilding followed the anecdote about Blair. Bush sought some tips on public speaking from Clinton, Harris reports:

HARRIS (26): Yet media contacts remain a chore for him. He grumbled before a recent appearance before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which came as the standoff with China over a U.S. surveillance plane was unfolding, complaining he did not want to take questions. His aides said there was no choice; every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has done so. Palpably ill-at-ease, he gave what even his normally upbeat counselor, Karen P. Hughes, confessed to other staff members "wasn’t his best performance."

"Wasn’t his best performance?" Harris is wonderfully kind to his lord; in his account, Bush was off a tad because he was understandably "ill-at-ease" due to China. Harris doesn’t let you know how some of the editors judged Bush’s performance. In an earlier article titled "The press treats Bush tenderly," Geneva Overholser, once the Post’s ombudsman, had described the event Harris glossed:

OVERHOLSER: Last week, I watched President Bush make a speech before a group of newspaper editors here. Then I saw the press coverage. I’d have to say that the picture you’re getting is missing some pieces.

For one thing, you’re not seeing how unsure of himself George W. Bush appeared to be—how guarded, how tense, even programmed. Or how uncertain about important issues.

The appearance wasn’t "a failure," Overholser said. She said that Bush worked from a good prepared script, which he delivered capably. But:

OVERHOLSER: The problems come when he goes off-script. It’s clear what he’s been briefed on: He gave one clipped, rehearsed answer on the day’s biggest story—the crisis with China—and told a second questioner he had no more to say on that.

Then, asked to share his views on freedom of information issues, Bush froze. His smile grew stiff. He emitted several puffing sounds that showed up on transcripts as "laughter." He stumbled—then grasped at the familiar. He used to e-mail his dad and daughters, he said, but no longer: "I don’t e-mail any more out of a concern for the freedom of information laws, but also concern for my privacy."

"News reports showed none of the president’s apparent discomfort," Overholser wrote, quoting an upbeat passage from the AP report. "Nothing about his evident lack of familiarity with First Amendment issues. Nothing about the nervous dismissiveness." And Overholser said that she wasn’t alone in her surprise at the president’s weak performance:

OVERHOLSER: Many editors talking to one another after Bush’s inhabitance of the Marriott stage spoke of their surprise that he has yet to figure out how to look at all presidential. They wondered why he hadn’t been briefed about a topic so likely to be brought up at an editors’ gathering as freedom of information. They noted the short time he allotted for questions and answers, the long period afterward he spent shaking hands. The overall effect, said more than a few, was unsettling. Even scary.

Overholser wasn’t the only scribe who said that Bush’s appearance had caused some concern. In a column in the Capital Times (Madison, Wisc.), Dave Zweifel said that Bush’s outing "had the convention buzzing." Bush "wouldn’t talk about China, seemed utterly confused about the Freedom of Information Act, and appeared not to have a position on the looming airline strikes." Some of the editors "were shaking their heads after his luncheon appearance," Zweifel said. "You really have to wonder how he communicates with heads of foreign states when he doesn’t have a prepared text to guide him."

Luckily, the compliant Harris now has told us how Bush communicates with those foreign heads of state. He is "not the least bit concerned about being boxed in by a cabinet member," Harris says, and there is a "clear contrast between his command of the issues" in the private sessions and "the halting, tentative news conferences" he gives later. So don’t worry, Dave! And don’t fret, Geneva! Moments before you saw Bush in Washington, he was backstage making the elders marvel at his mastery of FOI and those strikes.

Still there? Good, because the plumed hat of the courtier Harris swept low in one other comical passage. Harris explained the kinds of questions Bush asks in his private sessions:

HARRIS (19): Bush is not disengaged, but there are clear signatures to the way he engages. His questions at meetings, say participants, usually focus on practicalities: What coalitions back a particular bill? Has someone or the other been consulted on this?

(20) Bush’s curiosity has an almost tactile quality it, gravitating to the small and concrete rather than the broad and conceptual. When the crew of the U.S. military plane detained in China was ready to fly home, he asked how long it would take and where the flight would refuel.

Harris describes Bush in a private session, asking an utterly trivial question. So what does this show about his liege? It shows that Bush’s amazing curiosity "has an almost tactile quality." If you can figure out what that means, maybe you can be a courtier, too. But then, this kind of gloss is nothing new for the upbeat gang covering Bush at the Post. At one point during the China crisis, you’ll recall, Bush apparently asked his staff if our downed fliers were in good health. Remember how the Post treated that? Dana Milbank and Dan Balz praised The Dub for asking such a "detailed" question (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/01). The passage drew derision from a number of pundits. No matter—Harris topped it when he praised the president’s "tactile" (sorry—almost tactile) curiosity.

Please note—here at THE HOWLER, we aren’t assessing Bush’s performance or abilities. We don’t know if Overholser and Zweifel are right in their assessment of Bush at the ASNE, for example. And we certainly don’t claim to have any idea about how Bush behaves with his staffers in private. We don’t know what kinds of questions he asks, and we can’t gauge the amount of hand-wringing.

But because we aren’t a bunch of geisha girls, we can occasionally think of possibilities that don’t drip with praise for our master. Harris, a courtier, has surrendered that right; he preens and panders, and praises his sovereign, typing things he’s told to type by those upbeat staffers. His article can most charitably be described as a joke; the Post should be embarrassed at his grisly obeisance. But don’t worry—some others at the Post have become geishas too. Embarrassment ain’t part of the work code.

Next: Hay-yo! Smile-a-while! Post ombudsman Michael Getler fields complaints about Harris’ article.

For the record: Rich Oppel, outgoing head of the ASNE, wrote a rebuttal to Overholser, generally disagreeing with her interpretation of Bush’s performance before the group. "China incident left little time for editors’ issue," The Austin-American Statesman, 4/15/01.


Smile-a-while (5/9/01)

More mots from Marty’s Folly: That Brawling Brit was at it again in the pages of TNR. Andrew Sullivan was splaining why it’s a good thing to downsize the government:

SULLIVAN: This point seems to me particularly acute when you consider the amazing prosperity we now enjoy. There is a strong case for government helping those who really cannot help themselves—in providing a safety net, some basic health care for the truly indigent, good public education, and so on. But as prosperity increases, it seems logical that these needs would diminish. The more people earn and the better off they are, the less they need the government to save them from penury. Since even the poorest today enjoy health and prosperity unknown to the middle class a generation ago, you’d think government’s role might shrink as the resources of private wealth make it increasingly unnecessary.

Say what? "Even the poorest today enjoy prosperity unknown to the middle class a generation ago?" The Brawling Brit should tell it to Morley—you know, Frank Morley, of the Harvard Morleys? Sully might find him ordering butlers around on his yacht, which is docked on the Charles:

BOB HERBERT: Frank Morley seemed out of place in the crowd of young people moving excitedly to the loud music and the exhortations in Spanish at the rally in Harvard Yard. Mr. Morley is 60 years old and not particularly well educated, and he was dressed in the uniform of his trade, which is janitor [at Harvard]…

Once, such a man might have been poorly paid. But, given the wonders described in SullivanThought, that’s all ancient history to Morley:

HERBERT: Frank Morley lives in Mansfield (he can’t afford to live in Cambridge) and his daily commute is more than an hour each way. He takes home $309.46 for a 40-hour workweek, which is not enough to cover his expenses. For more than two years he worked a second job bagging groceries and stocking shelves at a supermarket. He got only four hours of sleep a night and was in a perpetual state of exhaustion. He recently gave up the second job.

"I’m in a hole," he said. "I had to take money out of a retirement fund to pay debts. Pretty soon the retirement money will be gone. When I finally do retire, all I’ll have is—whatever. Social Security, I guess."

Luckily, that will let Morley continue the lifestyle which the middle class once only dreamed of.

(Note: From 1977 to 1999, after-tax income of the lowest fifth dropped 9% in real terms. See Steven Pearlstein, The Washington Post, 3/11/01)

Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic, 5/14/01

Disparities at Harvard
Bob Herbert, The New York Times, 4/30/01

Should the Tax System Redistribute the Wealth?
Steven Pearlstein, The Washington Post, 3/11/01