New bad poll numbers dog Bush as Cheney returns to work.

Published July 3, 2001 9:12PM (EDT)

Daily line

"The president is cognizant of them, but the president thinks the test of a leader is what you do in office. And the president is also comforted to know that he has the solid support of the American people."
-- White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, explaining the president's attitude toward his slipping poll numbers

Bush buzz

The steady drumbeat of bad poll numbers is following Bush into the Fourth of July holiday, with a newly released survey echoing last week's opinion numbers that show Bush losing altitude with the American public.

The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey shows that 52 percent of Americans approve of the way Bush is doing his job, his lowest marks to date in that poll. CNN notes that there is no sudden fall in the public's estimation of Bush, with just a three-point drop since mid-June; rather, the numbers show "a slow, steady slide spread out over several months." Bush's approval rating has slipped 10 points since he celebrated his first 100 days in office in late April.

The poll had more upbeat news for the vice president, with 64 percent of Americans saying they are not concerned that his latest heart troubles will interfere with his job performance. On Monday, Cheney followed through on his pledge to put in a full day of work at the office after undergoing minor surgery on Saturday to implant a pacemaker. He began work before 8 a.m. as usual, and told reporters that he felt "very good."

As White House aides scramble to blame one another for the president's problems, some outside the administration are blaming Bush himself, observing that the president -- through his defiantly low-key style and persistent self-deprecation -- has begun to convince the American people that he is a lightweight.

And though the White House insists that the president doesn't let polls dictate policy, his weak numbers do seem to be limiting his agenda and his strength on Capitol Hill. Bush has scrapped a restructuring plan for the federal bureaucracy, reportedly because he doesn't want to pick a fight with the newly Democratic Senate. Democrats in the House brag that they're raising record amounts of money from donors worried about the Bush agenda. Meanwhile, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are merrily ignoring Bush's dictates to limit spending, and continue to pad their states' coffers with federal pork projects.

In other policy news, Bush announced Monday a scaled-back plan to drill for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico, moving the exploration area 100 miles off the Florida coast after state officials complained that the original lease area would have endangered the local environment. The policy switch may please the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was briefly mentioned as a possible Senate witness on the issue. But critics still consider the plan a sweetheart deal for the oil and gas industries.

Jeb Bush and the president may have ended their fight over drilling, but a nasty battle is brewing within the Republican family over federally funded fetal stem cell research. While several conservatives in the Senate have encouraged the president to back the research for the sake of seriously ill patients who might benefit from it, antiabortion Republicans in the House have decried the research as supporting "an industry of death."

And don't miss Bush surprising tourists with an impromptu visit to the Jefferson Memorial on Monday. "Wanted to come over," Bush said. "We're looking right out our window every day at the Jefferson. It's a beautiful day."

Tuesday schedule: The president has no public events scheduled Tuesday.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

July 3, 1995: A healthcare industry trade journal, National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, ran a brief item recapping Texas Gov. George W. Bush's veto of the Patient Protection Act passed by the Texas Legislature. Bush claimed that the bill as passed "tilted the playing field" among HMOs. "This bill attempted the difficult task of balancing the often conflicting interests of the parties in the health care delivery system while attempting to preserve consumer affordability," he said. "Had that focus remained sharp, good law would have resulted." In 1997, when the Legislature gave him a similar bill backed by a veto-proof majority of lawmakers, Bush let it pass without his signature.

Rant: Fox trot

Why do inside-the-beltway conservatives have such a soft spot for foreign media moguls? Back in the early '80s Ronald Reagan's administration consciously shuffled the media deck when it let it be known its No. 1 read in the morning was the Washington Times. The public proclamation plucked the quirky, factually challenged daily from obscurity, and no doubt pleased its owner, the Korean-born Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who claims to be the son of God and who operates the right-of-right Washington Times at a monumental loss.

Twenty years later Bush's administration is paying homage to another new kid in town, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel. "Most of the television sets in the Bush White House are tuned to Fox News; it's the network of preference in this administration," according to a recent company profile in the New York Times Magazine. Indeed, during his first press conference, Bush made a point of taking his first question, after the traditional wire service question, from FNC's Jim Angle.

Yet a couple of striking differences mark those two back-scratching relationships. First, whereas the Washington Times wore its conservative stripes with pride, as an eager participant in the Reagan revolution, FNC refuses to this day to own up to its conservative slant. In fact, it seemed that half of the New York Times' 8,000-word article was spent trying to get Fox chief Roger Ailes, a longtime Republican political activist, to cop to the channel's obvious political bias. As he has for years, Ailes adamantly refused, clinging to FNC's Orwellian slogan of "fair and balanced."

Second, the Washington Times was able to turn its White House access into a respectable stream of healthy, if often minor, news scoops. Since Inauguration Day though, FNC has essentially come up empty on the exclusive front.

In the Times piece, FNC anchor Brit Hume seemed to take pride in the news channel's ineptitude. "We're getting a fair shake in the Bush administration," he said. "Not gettin' any goodies, but a fair shake."

But that's precisely FNC's problem. Because if you're going to kiss as much Republican ass as FNC does, you ought to get some goodies in return. Or does FNC consider being able to book Spencer Abraham on four hours' notice to be a goodie?

Maybe FNC is just starstruck by the new administration, a willing participant in an unbalanced courtship. It's clear that FNC is doing all the heavy lifting, broadcasting a virtual P.R. operation for the Bush White House whether it's ridiculing environmentalists, bad-mouthing energy price caps or questioning the motives of Sen. John McCain. What does FNC get in exchange? Access to senior-level White House aides who tell Murdoch's reporters virtually nothing of substance. Granted, TV reports in general, and TV's political reports in particular, simply crib from major newspapers and rarely break news themselves. But if the conventional wisdom is true -- that Bush and his staffers live and breathe FNC, that its signal is omnipresent in every West Wing office -- shouldn't FNC cash in with some scoops?

No doubt Ailes and company would use their empty, rattling bin of exclusives as further proof that FNC is not really a conservative operation. But Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which examines the media from the left, released a report Monday that finally puts that FNC charade to rest once and for all. It details, for example, how among the guests booked on FNC's signature "Special Report With Brit Hume" between January and May 2001, 71 percent were avowed conservatives, compared with 33 percent of the guests booked during the same time frame on "Wolf Blitzer Reports."

Despite the news channel's assertions of being "fair and balanced" FAIR notes that its panel discussion on "The Real Reagan" featured only those who were his friends and political aides. Among the other tidbits in the report are details of how journalists up for jobs at FNC have been quizzed about their political affiliations. For instance, according to a New York magazine article, National Public Radio's Mara Liasson (FNC's supposed in-house liberal) assured Ailes before being hired that she was a Republican. And FNC anchor Tony Snow, a former speechwriter for George Bush Sr., "at the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia -- ostensibly present as a journalist covering a news event -- jump[ed] onstage to give a speech to the Republican Youth Caucus after organizers asked him to fill in for a speaker who couldn't make it."

Despite the game of pussyfoot among mainstream media observers who shrink from calling a spade a spade -- last year the New York Times quickly ran a correction after one of its headlines identified FNC as a "conservative cable channel" -- any high school graduate who watches FNC for one day could grasp exactly where the news channel is coming from. The only real puzzle is why FNC executives so strenuously deny their political heritage. What's up with the self-hating handwringing? ("We are not conservatives!") And why is FNC so afraid to come out of the conservative closet and live a free and open markets lifestyle?

Again and again, FNC's Ailes has insisted the operation isn't conservative, it just looks that way because mainstream outlets are so liberal. But just look at last Thursday's lineup on General Electric's CNBC, which welcomed back the Bill and Hillary Clinton-hating writers from the Wall Street Journal's editorial page for some uninterrupted conservative spin dubbed "The Editorial Board." Chatting in round-table form, the assembled guests spent an hour questioning Sen. Jim Jeffords' integrity, belittling energy price caps as "a stupid act" and dismissing the proposed patients' bill of rights as nothing more than an attempt to "allow people to extract money from the health care industry."

Or look at Friday night's special from ABC News, that supposed liberal bastion. It handed over an entire hour to in-house conservative activist John Stossel for the latest in his flimsy series of "investigative" programs about the dangers of a liberal lifestyle. This time, in "Tampering With Nature," environmentalists and teachers who preach the dangers of global warming to kids were in Stossel's sights.

Only problem was that Stossel, who last year was forced by his ABC bosses to apologize on the air for essentially making up evidence to prove his pet theory that organic foods aren't safe, didn't simply interview the children. According to their angry parents, he asked and re-asked and re-asked again leading questions until he got just the right sound clip for the program.

Once again ABC News, with more Stossel egg on its face, had to run interference, and it forced him to cut the heavy-handed classroom segment.

Of course, whenever confronted with the charge of conservative bias, FNC executives reflexively point to the Bush DUI story the channel broke just days before the election last year. The revelations that Bush had been ticketed in Maine when he was 30 years old for drunken driving stalled his campaign momentum as more undecided voters, particularly women, went instead for Vice President Al Gore on Nov. 7.

If FNC was in the bag for Bush, it never would have unearthed the story, right? Well, yes, except it was a local FNC reporter at the Portland, Me., affiliate who broke the story. It's interesting to ponder what would have happened if honchos at FNC headquarters had stumbled across that Bush land mine -- because it's not at all clear they would have gone with the story. So closely aligned was FNC with the Bush campaign, it's almost inconceivable the network would have done anything to damage Bush's White House chances. With Bush's cousin John Ellis working as an FNC analyst and calling the election for Bush in the wee hours of Nov. 8, FNC actually did everything in its power to make sure he won.

Just look at how FNC's big feet reacted to the potentially crippling DUI news dug up by a scrappy local reporter who didn't realize FNC journalists answered to a higher, GOP calling. On the night of Nov. 2, FNC quickly rounded up a panel of pundits to access the DUI damage.

Morton Kondracke of Roll Call: "A footnote."

John Fund of the Wall Street Journal: "A blip."

Mara Liasson of NPR: "Yes, I agree with that. I think it's a blip."

Amazingly, most of that night's "Fox Special Report With Brit Hume" wasn't even devoted to breaking the DUI scandal but, rather, to analyzing one more time how Ralph Nader was going to create political havoc for Gore.

The next day, a Friday, FNC was playing up the Bush camp's angle that Gore's campaign leaked the DUI information as a dirty trick. That's why FNC's Snow, citing "rumors" that the Clinton administration may even have been involved, suggested the episode might create a sympathy surge for Bush and "backfire" on Gore. (There has never been any evidence that the Gore campaign or the Clinton White House was in any way connected with releasing the DUI information.)

FNC's Paula Zahn wondered out loud how long Maine Democrats had "sat on the story" in order to create the most havoc near Election Day. It turns out that the only ones who sat on the story were editors at a local Maine newspaper who knew about Bush's arrest record for months but chose not to report it.

It was a weekend of damage control, plain and simple. FNC's idea of covering the story was to contain it. That's a far cry from its muckraking days during the Clinton years -- when former FNC correspondent Jeb Duvall, according to his account in the New York magazine article, was once met by a news producer who "came up to me, and, rubbing her hands like Uriah Heep, said, 'Let's have something on Whitewater today.'"

Suddenly, with a Republican in the White House, FNC has lost its collective investigative itch.

-- Eric Boehlert

Burning Bush

Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

Send scoops to bushed@salon.com.

Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Karen Croft, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

By Salon Staff

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