Three months with George W. Bush on the campaign trail has been time enough for the national media to learn what Texas reporters have known for years: He's a policy lightweight who enjoys schmoozing but has a hair-trigger temper when pressed and never forgets a slight. Further, he thinks of himself as a hands-off CEO and leaves both the ideas and the details to someone else. Hence, he contradicts himself and "misspeaks himself," sending reporters on a scavenger hunt for clarification, bouncing back and forth between Bush and his various spinners until he and his camp can come up with a story that they can recite as one.
Why, then, do national reporters generally keep silent? You'll have to ask them, but some answers come to mind when you look at how Bush treated Texas reporters during his five years as governor.
First, while Texas reporters, columnists and editorial writers appear to represent a wide political spectrum, the major newspapers themselves run from moderate to conservative, keeping something of a lid on what citizens read. Secondly, one Texas reporter has written that some of his colleagues have eyes for the job of press spokesman in a Bush White House, so they wouldn't want to make too many waves. It also helps that Bush spends time in his off-hours making casual, social calls to reporters, talking about sports and family, helping them along with the myth that they're all Bush buddies.
Karen Hughes, his main spinner, is another huge factor. She's not above tongue-lashing reporters in public when their stories don't jibe with her vision of things, and she tends to reward those who stay in line. And Texas reporters are accustomed to having someone, usually Hughes, standing near Bush during press conferences to correct him, feed him information, or pull him away when things are not going well. As Austin writer Robert Bryce has written, "Hughes, 43, can sometimes be seen mouthing the words to Bush's speeches as he delivers them."
None of these methods of keeping reporters in line, particularly the last one, will work as well on the national level at this point. So we're back to the original question: When will the national media get tired of George's Bush-league grasp of big issues and media tactics and call him on it?
They're starting to. During George's recent cocaine crisis, at least one national reporter observed that the 48 hours of Bush missteps, confusion and temper did not produce anyone in the Bush camp with the gumption to step up and settle him down. Writing in the Austin American-Statesman, Dave McNeely observed that Bush needed someone like the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.
"As Bush deals with matters like education and environmental policy, he might need an uninhibited kibitzer like Bullock ... Bush's own feisty and occasionally defensive nature may cause him to take hard stands on positions without fully understanding all their implications," writes McNeely. "Having a wizened governmental innovator as an advisor in the wings, someone not afraid to run against the grain of some advice Bush may receive, could be very valuable to keep him centered."
Of course, one wonders: What happened to the days when the president himself was the "wizened governmental innovator," not a self-described "C student" who, somehow, is expected to learn on the job?
The mini-mess over immigration costs is another example of Bush-league handling of issues and the media. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Bush was asked "if he would reimburse California for the estimated billions of dollars the state spends annually on services and education for illegal immigrants," wrote the Chronicle's Carla Marinucci.
"'No,' said the GOP front-runner. Asked for a reason, Bush said, 'Because that's not a federal role, in my judgment.' Republicans and Democrats both expressed surprise, noting that Texas -- under Bush's own administration -- has tried to recover such costs."
Days later, according to the New York Times, Bush spinner Mindy Tucker said her boss believed that the feds should compensate states, contrary to what was previously reported in the Chronicle. Tucker said Bush misunderstood the reporter's question. The Times continued:
But the confusion and criticism triggered by Bush's response raised other questions about his oratorical poise and underscored the intense scrutiny that he is under as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Responding to Ms. Tucker's statement, Steve Forbes, one of Bush's rivals for the nomination, said, "... Maybe he ought to get his ears checked."
Little by little, this typical Bush behavior is occurring outside Texas, and is beginning to get into print. In an interview with the Providence Journal's M. Charles Bakst, Bush was asked about East Timor. (His first real national embarrassment came when he described its residents as "East Timorians," not East Timorese.)
Bakst reports that Bush "rejected the idea of U.S. troops going to East Timor, but said he'd back a United Nations force. With U.S. troops in it? 'No, not with American troops.' Why not? 'Because I don't think that's appropriate use of American troops.' When I tried to follow up," Bakst continues, Bush "said, 'The answer is: No American troops.'" Bakst said Bush had an "edge" to him. No doubt; getting challenged gets Bush angry.
On Thursday, the Times' Maureen Dowd observed that it was time for Bush to make up for his glib, Quayle-like "East Timorians" gaffe with a thoughtful policy on the Timor crisis, but so far he hasn't risen to the occasion. Dowd won a Pulitzer for tirelessly skewering President Clinton last year. It may be that, finally, Bush is about to get the media scrutiny -- and criticism -- he deserves.