During the closing weeks of the 2000 presidential campaign, at a campaign rally, George W. Bush spotted a veteran political reporter and turned to Dick Cheney, standing next to him on the platform, to remark, "There's Adam Clymer, major league asshole from the New York Times." "Oh yeah, big time," replied Cheney. Unbeknownst to them, their locker-room exchange was caught by an open microphone. Four years later, nobody connected with the Bush-Cheney campaign appears even slightly concerned about being caught denigrating the Times; they're more than happy to do it on the record, as the White House has all but declared open warfare on the nation's leading newspaper.
The latest volley came over the weekend when Republican campaign officials accused the Times Sunday magazine of fabricating a provocative quote from Bush in which he bragged -- behind closed doors and speaking to wealthy supporters -- that he would announce plans for "privatizing of Social Security" early next year, after his reelection. When Democrats jumped on the remark, dubbing it the "January surprise," Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie dismissed the Times' work as "Kitty Kelley journalism," insisting Bush never uttered the phrase attributed to him. But the Times stands by the 8,300-word story by Ron Suskind, author of "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill," a revealing account of the former secretary of the treasury published earlier this year.
That confrontation and the Bush campaign's harsh accusation that respected journalist Suskind and the editors of the Times are liars come on the heels of a series of denigrations by the White House. The Times' reporter recently was banned from Cheney's campaign plane. And in his acceptance speech before the Republican Convention, Bush mocked the paper by distorting, out of context, one of its columnist's writings of almost 60 years ago. Early in his administration, Bush set the contentious tone when he broke with tradition by refusing to sit for an interview with the Times. He finally granted the paper a sit-down -- just 30 minutes long -- in August.
"Presidents like spin and secrets, journalists don't, so this is a relationship fraught with potential discomfort," says Times executive editor Bill Keller. He observes that the paper has dealt with difficult episodes with various White Houses in the past. "But I admit we're puzzled over what seems to be a more intense antipathy at this White House, especially since the campaign heated up."
Keller adds, "I can only speculate, but some of it may be that they think whacking a big newspaper with 'New York' in its name plays well with the [conservative] base. Perhaps they think if they beat up on us we'll go soft on them. Or maybe they've decided to blame the newsroom for our opinion pages, though they certainly know that the editorial writers and columnists operate completely independent of reporters and editors." (On Sunday, the Times published an endorsement of Sen. John Kerry in which it commented: "The Bush White House has always given us the worst aspects of the American right without any of the advantages. We get the radical goals but not the efficient management.")
The controversial quote from Suskind's story came near the end of the lengthy feature article, "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush," which examines the extraordinary degree to which Bush and his senior aides rely on their "faith" and their "gut" to make key policy decisions, and how those who raise questions based on facts or "reality" are cut out of the inner circle. According to Suskind, Bush recently told a closed meeting of major contributors, "I'm going to come out strong after my swearing in with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security." Suskind reported that the statements were relayed to him by sources present at the event.
On Sunday the RNC sent out e-mails -- one complete with Suskind's photo and voter registration information -- that attacked him professionally and said the passages in question were "third-hand, made-up quotes" designed to "scare seniors." But the editor of the Times magazine, Gerald Marzorati, told Salon in an e-mail: "Ron Suskind's reporting was carefully reported and vigorously fact-checked."
If Times readers didn't already know the paper's relationship with the White House was in serious disrepair, they found out on Sept. 18. That day Times reporter Rick Lyman wrote a Page 1 piece about how, despite having been assigned by the country's most influential newspaper to cover Cheney's reelection campaign, he was not welcome on Air Force Two, where 10 seats were reserved for the traveling press corps. None was available for him, or for the previous Times reporter assigned to the Cheney beat. Lyman's article, headlined "Chasing Dick Cheney," was written with a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone (as much irony as the still staid Times allows) but could not mask the strain between the paper and the White House -- the kind of rift usually kept from public view as administration and news officials exchange behind-the-scene phone calls to try to patch things up.
Cheney had already made clear this summer that he had no intentions of maintaining cordial relations with the Times when he blasted its coverage of the 9/11 commission as "outrageous" and "malicious."
And in August, during his convention acceptance speech, just 10 blocks from the Times newsroom, Bush derided the paper, suggesting it was a fount of wrongheaded pessimism: "In 1946, 18 months after the fall of Berlin to Allied forces, a journalist wrote in the New York Times, 'Germany is -- a land in an acute stage of economic, political and moral crisis. [European] capitals are frightened. In every [military] headquarters, one meets alarmed officials doing their utmost to deal with the consequences of the occupation policy that they admit has failed.' End quote. Maybe that same person is still around, writing editorials."
Bush was referring to Anne O'Hare McCormick, the pioneering, Pulitzer Prize-winning Times journalist. And he twisted her dispatch about Germany; in fact, she was criticizing the "moral crisis" in the British and French sectors, while reporting that Americans were doing a better job of reconstruction. She also urged the United States to commit more troops to the occupation. Times columnist Maureen Dowd, discussing the speech, wrote: "Bush swift-boated her."
"It takes a certain amount of gall to criticize the New York Times in the middle of Madison Square Garden, on the paper's home turf," says Susan Tifft, co-author with Alex Jones of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times."
On one level the Times seems an odd choice for the White House's wrath. During the 2000 campaign, despite Bush's "asshole" remark, the paper's coverage of the candidate was considered to be among the most generous of any of the major dailies, particularly the work of beat reporter Frank Bruni, who traveled extensively with the Bush campaign. In his book about that time, "Ambling Into History," published in 2002, Bruni wrote that while watching the first debate from the audience, he thought Bush had done so poorly that he was sure he had lost the election. Yet Bruni never mentioned his sinking feeling to readers during his generally upbeat coverage of the Bush campaign. The Times was also very reserved in its coverage of the exposure during the final weekend of the campaign of Bush's old drunken-driving arrest.
During the period leading to the Iraq war, the Times was instrumental in the administration's political choreography of its case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, in particular that he was producing nuclear weapons. But this year, the newspaper felt compelled to essentially apologize for what amounted to its participation in an elaborate disinformation campaign. "The Times didn't cover itself in glory during that period," says Michael Massing, author of "Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq." "The paper," he says, "was for too credulous towards the administration during the run-up to the war. The irony is the Times helped the administration's case before the war."
The Bush White House's open feud with the Times represents a clear break with the tradition of most Republican presidents, including the current president's father, of tolerating the major mainstream press outlets despite misgivings or unhappiness with their coverage. The days when Times Publisher Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger Sr. traveled to the White House during the height of the Reagan administration for a cordial lunch with the president, Vice President Bush and Secretary of State George Shultz are long gone. While President Nixon "had no love for the New York Times ... even he felt he had to deal with them. Bush officials don't feel like they have to deal with the gatekeepers," says Tifft. "They've taken advantage of cable channels and talk radio and Web sites that are sympathetic toward them. What they've basically done by words and deeds is to say to the New York Times, 'We don't need you. We can get our message out without you.'"
Bush and his campaign apparently see little political downside to a public us-vs.-them fight with the allegedly "liberal" press. That very point was made in Suskind's Times magazine article, which quoted Bush political consultant Mark McKinnon: "All of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us. Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!"