A tale of two presidents

Time and Newsweek strike a new tone in their coverage of President Bush.

Published September 15, 2005 9:32PM (EDT)

Salon editorial fellow Aaron Kinney examines the context of Newsweek and Time's newfound skepticism about the president.

As we mentioned on Tuesday, media portrayals of George W. Bush's character in the wake of Katrina -- he may not be such a standup guy after all! -- are as disconcerting as they are unsurprising. Have magazines like Time and Newsweek known all along who the president really is, or is new information coming to light? If it's the former, why haven't reporters shared their insights before?

Time and Newsweek slammed the president this week in articles by Mike Allen ("Living Too Much in the Bubble?") and Evan Thomas ("How Bush Blew It"), respectively. Both accounts describe an incurious president who is cut off from reality.

But until recently, the nation's leading newsweeklies were painting a far different picture. Newsweek, in particular, has been especially deferential to George W. Bush. Witness its cover story by Richard Wolffe from Jan. 24, 2005, timed to coincide with the president's second inaugural, the subhead of which read: "He's hands-on, detail-oriented and hates 'yes' men. The George Bush you don't know has big dreams -- and is racing the clock to realize them."

Wolffe described the president as a man whose "leadership style belies his caricature as a disengaged president who is blindly loyal, dislikes dissent and covets his own downtime" -- a caricature that looks like a dead ringer after the vacationing president's reaction to Katrina.

Wolffe: Bush is "a restless man who masters details and reads avidly" and "digs deep into his briefing books." When he's not "poring over white papers," he also enjoys the occasional novel.

But compare Wolffe's analysis with Evan Thomas' description from this week's issue: "It is not clear what President Bush does read or watch, aside from the occasional biography or an hour or two of ESPN here and there."

Wolffe: "To hear his friends tell it, Bush hates toadies."

Thomas: "Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty" and "aides sometimes cringe before [his] displeasure."

Wolffe: Bush's "style in policy briefings is to narrow the debate with a series of questions, crystallizing the competing opinions and exploring the disagreements between his staff."

Thomas: "After five years in office, [Bush] is surrounded largely by people who agree with him."

Wolffe: Bush pursues his agenda "in a hands-on manner that runs counter to the notion that he's an aloof executive who can't be bothered to read the fine print."

Thomas: The atmosphere in the White House in the week after Katrina was "strangely surreal and almost detached," in the words of one administration aide.

Which of these two wildly diverging portraits should we believe? Is the Oval Office a regular School of Athens, or a "hermetic" "echo chamber" where few people are willing to bring the president bad news or tell him he's wrong, as Allen puts it in Time?

Both Newsweek accounts derive most of their information about the president from unnamed administration aides. But Wolffe's account, which reads like a love letter delivered as payment for access to Bush's 2004 presidential campaign, has three obvious strikes against it: It cites anonymous Bush "friends" in addition to aides; it relies on the good word of Karl Rove; and it's contrary to everything we've ever learned about George W. Bush.

Wolffe concluded his glowing article by hinting that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might be the next first-term Cabinet member to be fired. Wolffe wrote that Bush's friends told him not to be surprised if "Rumsfeld gets a call to make that long, uncomfortable journey to the Oval Office" after the Iraqi elections in January. (Seymour Hersh reported the same day that Wolffe's article ran that Rumsfeld was in the process of consolidating his power.) Last we checked, the defense secretary is still ensconced in the Pentagon.

It seems Wolffe was getting it wrong top to bottom. The latest portraits of the president from Time and Newsweek, though long overdue, appear to bring the truer picture into focus.

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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