Shortly after noon on Tuesday, President Bush joined reporters in the back of Air Force One to rap a little. And an odd dynamic emerged as reporters tried to get Bush to engage in a little good ol' fashioned Clinton-bashing. The 43rd president not only refrained from taking the bait, but he even defended the president against some shoddy journalism.
"Are you distracted at all by the furor over the Marc Rich pardon and the former president?" Bush was asked.
"Not at all," he said.
"Not a distraction?"
"Not at all," Bush repeated. "I will tell you one thing, just in terms of the former president. All the allegations that they took stuff off of Air Force One is simply not true, for example."
Bush raised the issue because the chief steward had told him that the stories alleging that Air Force One had been pilfered by those rascally white-trash Clintons were simply not true.
Andrea Mitchell, NBC, Jan. 25: "The Air Force will replace Air Force One glasses and four hand towels, apparently pilfered by passengers traveling with the Clintons on their last plane ride home."
Brit Hume, Fox News Channel, Jan. 25, "The raid that was conducted aboard that Air Force plane, the presidential plane, although it's not called Air Force One because the president was no longer -- Mr. Clinton, Mr. Clinton was no longer president -- on the last flight to New York when the blankets, pillowcases, silverware ..."
Kate O'Beirne, CNN, Jan. 27, "During Bill Clinton's final flight, the plane was stripped bare and not by sentimental staffers seeking mementos. Air Force One souvenirs were quickly posted for auction online. Why not make a final buck off the White House? Outrageous, but not surprising."
But the Air Force One story, as with the allegations of widespread White House vandalism, proved not to be true. And Bush was there to say so. "There might have been a prank or two, maybe somebody put a cartoon on the wall, but that's OK," Bush said about the White House "vandalism" on Jan. 26. "It's time now to move forward."
But if Bush says these stories aren't true, where did they come from? Senior-level Bush White House staffers were indeed talking reporters out of covering some of the more insane allegations made about White House vandalism, trying to convince journalists that some of the charges were false.
But Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, gave the story credibility a day earlier when he told reporters, "What we are doing is cataloging that which took place. And that's the status."
Watch carefully as Fleischer does this "Change the Tone" dance.
"I choose not to describe what acts were done that we found upon arrival, because I think that's part of changing the tone in Washington," Fleischer said. "I think it would be easy for us to reflect and to discuss these things, and to be critical. President Bush chooses to set a different tone ... The president understands that transitions can be times of difficulty and strong emotion. And he's going to approach it in that vein."
Where was all the damage done? Fleischer was asked.
"You know, I really stopped paying attention to all the different places," he said.
Asked if the phone line that was reportedly cut could have been damaged in the process of renovation, Fleischer said, "Well, I don't think that the people who were professionals who make their business to go in and prepare a White House for new arrivals would cut wires."
It was only after Jan. 25, after the story of the White House vandalism erupted, that Fleischer clarified that the team effort at "cataloging that which took place" was actually just "one person in our administrative offices who is really just keeping track in his head about things that may have taken place."
Kind of a different thing, no?
It's nice that President Bush is classy and responsible enough to tell the press that the story that so many of them reported as fact simply wasn't so. But while former President Clinton awaits Brit Hume's on-air recantation and apology, his successor might want to devote a little time to figuring out how and why that falsehood was reported in the first place. Because sooner or later, stories that are dogs bite every politician.