How to seduce the press

The way George W. Bush turned the New York Times' Frank Bruni into his love puppet on the campaign trail could serve as a how-to manual for all future candidates.

Published March 5, 2002 2:20AM (EST)

God, the Bush spin machine is good. For over a month we've heard that the White House is quaking over "Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush," New York Times reporter Frank Bruni's inside account of the Bush campaign and early presidency. Washington Post gossip columnist Lloyd Grove reported in January that Bush aides were anxiously grilling Bruni's friends about what embarrassing secrets he might spill, and he revealed that a set of the book's galleys "mysteriously vanished" from a Washington TV correspondent's apartment during a party. The story ended there; no Brunigate ensued, no White House plumbers were arrested for theft. But you get the picture: A big-time New York Times reporter clearly got the goods on Bush, in a book so hot that somebody resorted to crime to get a peek! An embargo on "Ambling into History" and its contents until March 5 only increased the expectation that it would break shocking news about the president.

Certainly someone should have worried about what Bruni's book would reveal, but it turns out to be the New York Times, not the White House. Finally Bruni's scoop can be shared with a breathless American public: George W. Bush is "a nice guy" who is "likable," "sensitive," "fetchingly down to earth." Sure, he has his flaws: He's "irreverent to a fault" and "miserable at spontaneity." But Bush is also "lavishly self-deprecating, defiantly proud of his own failings and foibles." And after Sept. 11, he became "one of the most interesting presidents in decades."

"Ambling into History" is such a nice book, and Bruni is so clearly a nice guy, that it's hard to be negative about it. But the book deserves a good flogging. Bruni was the No. 1 Bush campaign reporter for the nation's No. 1 newspaper, and "Ambling" reveals the extent to which the campaign beat has more become like celebrity movie junketeering or sportswriting than political journalism -- focused entirely on artifice and spin, a win-loss, thumbs up-thumbs down approach to political debate; a world where access is guaranteed by friendly coverage, and vice versa, and everyone on both sides -- politicians and the media -- have a lot to be ashamed of.

What's most disappointing about Bruni's book is that he seems to know better. He's aware, in places, that he's being seduced; he himself bashes the "stunning superficiality of American politics," though he doesn't quite 'fess up to how much responsibility he shares for it. Campaign managers should give this book to their candidates and their staffs as a manual on the care and feeding (or over-feeding; Bruni talks ad nauseam about campaign-trail food) of the media.

First, the candidate should give important journalists a nickname (Bush gave Bruni four: Frankie Boy, Pancho, Panchito and Brunai) and treat them like buddies, not antagonists. He or she should ask lots of questions about reporters' families, and give them access to spouses, parents and close friends. (Bruni gets a special trip to Kennebunkport to visit George and Barbara Bush, and he repays the kindness by letting the former first couple fawn over their first-born for page after page.) Especially crucial correspondents should get lots of casual, off-the-record access, reinforcing the feeling of coziness (just make sure they can't use anything you say if you inadvertently make news in that relaxed setting). And remember to play good cop-bad cop, with campaign staff pit bulls exacting revenge for those rare cases of unflattering coverage, while the candidate stays friendly.

None of this is new, of course, but "Ambling into History" shows the amazing extent to which it worked on Bruni. With almost endearing honesty, Bruni describes how Bush courted him, with all those "Frankie Boys" and "Panchitos," introducing him to his wife Laura in 1999 "as if we were these two fabulous people in his life who simply had to get to know each other." When Bruni wrote a rare critical story -- questioning whether Bush had campaigned hard enough in New Hampshire, after he lost the primary to Arizona Sen. John McCain in February 2000 -- aides briefly stopped returning his calls, and sharp-fanged press secretary Karen Hughes trashed Bruni to fellow reporters. But Bush made her apologize -- "Do I have to grovel?" she asked her boss -- and he himself hugged Bruni, assuring him, "You know we love you!"

That's not all -- at the very next campaign event, answering a question about the media, Bush stopped, mugged at Bruni and yelled out, "I love you, man!" Months later he delayed a press conference when he noticed Bruni couldn't get his tape recorder to work. "My man Bruni is experiencing technical difficulties," he explained. Did the Timesman brush off the gesture like a hardened reporter is supposed to? Not really. In the book, Bruni gets gooey: "Bush could be that way -- a kind and gracious sport under nail-biting circumstances."

Yuck. All this mugging and hugging doesn't seem to embarrass Bruni at all. He reports it as though he's too wise to be taken in by Bush's charm offensive, but the fact is, his Times coverage was softer on Bush, more fawning, than many other reporters'. His mutual admiration society with the candidate was well known on the campaign trail, and the Times got razzed about it. But far from yanking Bruni off the campaign sometime in, say, June 2000, his editors let him go the distance on the trail, even allowing Bush's road buddy to follow the new president into the White House the next January. (Bruni now writes for the Times' Sunday magazine.) Apparently even the nation's newspaper of record gets tired of having its reporters called "major league assholes," the way Bush famously referred to tough Times veteran Adam Clymer, in a campaign-trail gaffe Bruni doesn't even mention.

Unwittingly, perhaps, "Ambling into History" is a case study in how masterfully the Bush team framed his candidacy, and now his presidency, for the media, so that the most important questions became "Is Bush a nice guy?" and "Is he smarter than he seems?" instead of "Is he competent to be president?" Bruni takes 278 pages (in galleys at least) to answer a resounding "Yes" to both questions.

The book doesn't probe anything Bush thinks, believes or stands for, and Bruni lets himself off the hook for that omission by telling us, early on, that he's not going to. His book "is dedicated primarily to what Bush looked and acted like on the edges of what was usually considered news, to the personality behind the policies and the often offbeat character that flickered through the frippery and pomp." He pays almost no attention to Bush's politics because "the nature of his conservatism, nuances of his proposals and contours of his biography have been fairly well established." This is silly. Writing a book about the president's "personality" without any attention to what he stands for is itself frippery.

But even on its own merits -- proving that Bush is a nice guy who's smarter than he's given credit for -- the book falls short. This is a man who, even under Bruni's loving gaze, comes across as a goofball. Our future president is seen making faces at a news conference about a heat wave that killed Texans; mugging and cutting up at a memorial for victims of a church shooting; mocking the way convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker begged him for her life before she was executed. (Bruni leaves out Bush's unbelievably dumb "joke" about the World Trade Center attacks: He told a Florida audience in December that his first thought was: "There's one terrible pilot.")

I would be fascinated if Bruni brought insight to the question of how Bush can be so inappropriately callous at some times and so softhearted at others. We see him get teary-eyed when asked his reaction to Sept. 11, blurting out "I'm a loving guy" as though there's a debate about that. Just what are those easy tears all about? There are other mysteries: What did candidate Bush do with the rage that made many people doubt he had the self-discipline to run for president? How did he conquer his drinking problem? A book that looked exclusively at Bush's personality might be forgiven if it did so with depth and insight. But Bruni never threatens to scratch the surface of his subject.

All we really get is the same cartoonish version of Bush we see for ourselves every day on television, with Bruni's seal of approval, Panchito's promise that the president he knows better than we do is nicer, smarter and deeper than many of us think. Ignore the malapropisms and strange smirks, the befuddled expressions when compelled to go beyond his talking points, Bruni tells us. Bush has risen to the challenge of the job, especially since Sept. 11, he wants us to believe -- but he offers almost no proof.

It would be wrong to single out Bruni as though he's alone in this superficial rendering of Bush; since the terror war began, virtually the entire press corps has striven mightily to see a masterful leader instead of a bumbling figurehead. This book reminds us, though, that the soft-focus approach to covering Bush began way before wartime, even at the nation's best newspaper. "Ambling into History" should worry a lot of people, but they're sleeping just fine at the White House.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------