He was once Mr. Access, taking reporters' questions every day or so, but ever since the "sublimanable" press conference a few weeks ago, George W. Bush has been as scarce as a pork pie in Sen. Joseph Lieberman's fridge. Bush has ceased holding press avails altogether.
When asked about the change in policy, communications director Karen Hughes fairly points out that Vice President Al Gore goes for months and months at a time without taking questions from the press. "We had 40 press conferences during a time that Gore had one," says one Bush press aide. So why should they be any different? (Aside from a free press being essential to a democracy and all. And, of course, that Gore's strategy hasn't exactly endeared him to the media.)
What it means for campaign communications staffs is that they have to work that much harder to get their messages out, such as they are. Flacks have to be either super-aggressive or especially creative for reporters to care what they have to say. Not that there aren't stellar examples of how to do this.
On Thursday, for instance, Gore communications director Mark Fabiani wrote to Hughes about an incident that pissed off not just Democrats, but a lot of Bush's traveling reporters as well. It began Tuesday evening, while Bush chilled with big donors in Beverly Hills, and a Gore staffer delivered envelopes of campaign propaganda addressed to 18 members of the traveling Bush press corps to the concierge at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
The concierge called the Bush campaign's staff suite to tell them about the envelopes. Bush staffers requested that the delivery be given to them, and the envelopes were never seen again, certainly not by any members of the media. The Bush campaign pooh-poohed the matter, saying there was a communication problem -- though they didn't bother communicating with the media, and never asked any of the reporters if they wanted the packages that had been addressed to them.
Bushies point out that some reporters had complained to the Bush campaign when Gore materials were shoved under their doors one night in Pittsburgh. That their names and hotel room numbers were written on the envelopes seemed to freak some of the reporters out; the Gore campaign insists it had dropped the envelopes off at the hotel's front desk, and an overeager concierge must have taken it from there.
It's not like we're not all being blast-e-mailed a gaggle of messages from both campaigns each day anyway. Still, the Gore campaign didn't seem willing to let the issue of the "confiscated" packages go.
"Karen, now that you have been made aware of the situation, I am sure that you share my concern that members of the Bush/Cheney campaign would intercept and confiscate materials sent from the Gore campaign to national reporters," Fabiani wrote to Hughes. "Thank you for ensuring that materials intended for reporters are never again confiscated by your staff."
Hughes was nowhere to be found on the campaign's latest swing to Wisconsin and Michigan, replaced Thursday morning by Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, though Bush did mention Hughes during a Green Bay, Wis., Q&A with blue-collar Republicans, heralding her for home schooling her 13-year-old son, Robert, on the campaign trail.
The again, Gore spokeswoman Kym Spell had slammed Hughes for launching such harshly negative attacks against Gore with her son around, so I guess his presence can cut both ways.
Perhaps Hughes can have Fleischer substitute-teach a lesson or two on creativity. With Bush down slightly in key swing states like Michigan (-4), and Pennsylvania (-5) -- and neck-and-neck in Florida -- Fleischer came to the back of the plane to discuss the "Dukakis Five."
What is the "Dukakis Five," you ask? They are the five states that limply performing Gov. Michael Dukakis won in 1988 and are now competitive: Wisconsin, Washington, West Virginia, Iowa and Oregon. Polls in Iowa and Oregon have the candidates in a dead heat; in the other three states, Gore is up by 5 points or so.
"These are states no Republican has won since the '84 Reagan landslide," Fleischer said. "They should be in the bag for Al Gore, but instead they're on the line."
True enough. But the "Dukakis Five" add up to 41 electoral votes, while three swing states -- Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida -- add up to 66. So it all seemed like so much spin.
And to at least one reporter on the plane, it seemed obvious that Dukakis, with his Greek roots, would win some states with sizable white ethnic "Reagan Democrat" voters. Fleischer's quip did nothing but underscore how much better Bush might be doing had he chosen a white ethnic running mate, preferably a Catholic, like Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge or New York Gov. George Pataki, instead of just another white Methodist Texas oil man.
Still, the new slogan had some legs. Thursday evening, Richard Wolffe of the Financial Times was heard yelling "Free the Dukakis Five!"