At a Labor Day event in Naperville, Ill., Monday morning, apparently oblivious of the microphone just inches from his mouth, Gov. George W. Bush made a crude offhand remark about a reporter that those in the campaign of his rival, Vice President Al Gore, hope will take some of the shine off Bush's warm and sunny veneer.
Waving and smiling to the crowds, Bush and his running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, seemed to be enjoying the generous reception offered by the Republican enclave in the Chicago suburbs.
Then Bush spotted New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, who has been with the paper since 1977, serving as national political correspondent during the 1980 presidential race, as polling editor from 1983 to 1990 and as political editor during the successful presidential campaign of Bush's father in 1988.
"There's Adam Clymer -- major league asshole -- from the New York Times," Bush said.
"Yeah, big time," returned Cheney.
Because of the crowd noise, few if any of the audience could hear the remarks. But reporters -- especially those with radio or network TV sound equipment plugged into the microphone -- heard the remark clearly. As of early afternoon Monday, media executives were reportedly deciding whether or not to use the tape.
The Bush campaign had no comment. Gore's campaign, however, was quick to seize on the gaffe. "Bush promised to change the tone and now he's broken his word twice," said Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway. "He launched negative personal attacks on Al Gore" both through a recent negative ad against Gore, "as well as on the stump, and now he's using expletives to describe a New York Times reporter in front of a crowd of families. He talks out of both sides of his mouth about changing the tone."
Bush has made civility a major issue in the campaign. When Gore expressed irritation at Bush's waffling on the presidential debate schedule, calling it "put up or shut up time," Bush said, "We have to do something to change the tone of the discourse," adding that "politics doesn't have to be ugly and mean."
Yet within hours a Bush-approved attack TV ad that mocked Gore personally and was paid for by the Republican National Committee was running in more than a dozen swing states.
"I thought it was tongue-in-cheek," Bush said, when asked if the ad went against his pledge to "change the tone." Later, when asked about the ad by two of Clymer's colleagues at the Times, Alison Mitchell and Frank Bruni, Bush dismissed complaints about the ad, saying, "This is politics."
Though he's done a decent job of hiding it in this election cycle, Bush has been known to use salty language. At the Republican National Convention in 1988, he was asked by a Hartford Courant reporter about what he and his father talked about when they weren't talking about politics.
"Pussy," Bush replied.