In his latest column, George F. Will distorted his own newspaper's reporting by leaving out a key part of an exchange between President Bush and Sen.-elect James Webb in order to attack Webb's "calculated rudeness toward another human being."
As noted by blogger and media critic Greg Sargent, in his November 30 Washington Post column, George F. Will distorted his own newspaper's reporting by leaving out a key part of an exchange between President Bush and Sen.-elect James Webb (D-VA) in order to attack Webb's "calculated rudeness toward another human being" who "asked a civil and caring question." Will's dishonest attack on Webb, however, has since been echoed by The American Spectator and by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough.
In his Post column, Will wrote:
Wednesday's Post reported that at a White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, Webb "tried to avoid President Bush," refusing to pass through the reception line or have his picture taken with the president. When Bush asked Webb, whose son is a Marine in Iraq, "How's your boy?" Webb replied, "I'd like to get them [sic] out of Iraq." When the president again asked "How's your boy?" Webb replied, "That's between me and my boy."
Sargent noted in his November 30 TPM Election Central entry that Will omitted from his excerpt of the exchange a phrase uttered by Bush, which had been included in the November 29 Post article:
"How's your boy?" Bush asked, referring to Webb's son, a Marine serving in Iraq.
"I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," Webb responded, echoing a campaign theme.
"That's not what I asked you," Bush said. "How's your boy?"
"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb said coldly, ending the conversation on the State Floor of the East Wing of the White House.
As Sargent wrote:
Will cut out the line from the President where he said: "That's not what I asked you." In Will's recounting, that instead became a sign of Bush's parental solicitousness: "The president again asked 'How's your boy?' "
Will's change completely alters the tenor of the conversation from one in which Bush was rude first to Webb, which is what the Post's original account suggested, to one in which Webb was inexplicably rude to the President, which is how Will wanted to represent what happened.
Nevertheless, in a December 1 column, American Spectator movie critic James Bowman cited Will's column in writing that Webb "demonstrate[d] that he himself is no gentleman," and he gave a similarly misleading account of the exchange: "At a White House reception he publicly snubbed his host, President Bush, and took the occasion of the President's polite inquiry after his son, a Marine serving in Iraq, as an invitation to air his political differences with him."
Will's misleading column was also reprinted in several papers, including The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, The San Gabriel Valley Tribune (California), The Monterey County Herald (California), and The Deseret Morning News (Utah).
Similarly, on the November 30 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, Scarborough, who was guest-hosting, twice claimed that Bush merely asked Webb, "How's your son doing?" Republican strategist Karen Hanretty suggested that Webb wanted "to make the president look insensitive":
SCARBOROUGH: But why does Jim Webb want that to get out? I mean, obviously, they were the ones who leaked it. Why would Jim Webb want people to know that he got so angry when the president, just asking, being polite, "How's your son doing?"
HANRETTY: I'm not even -- maybe [Democratic strategist] Rich [Masters] -- maybe Rich knows Jim Webb better than me. It's almost this -- this "you're not going to show me anything" attitude, but I don't know what he gains from that personally, unless it's, you know, just to make the president look insensitive somehow or as if the president doesn't understand the very real consequences of, you know, fathers and mothers whose children are serving in Iraq, or perhaps to, you know, create the distinction that, you know, my child is serving and yours aren't.
But, again, it just -- I don't think that this really does anything for Jim Webb and I don't think it really does anything for the Democratic Party.
SCARBOROUGH: I was going to ask you, Rich, what's it like having a story like this come? And, again, no real big deal, but it's just one of those things, if we have nasty things said about the president, the Republicans, as we move forward. We have a guy that goes to the White House, is asked, "Hey, how's your son doing."
MASTERS: Yeah, listen --
SCARBOROUGH: He comes back with a political answer and then Webb is defiant and says that he wants to slug the president of the United States.
By contrast, former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal contributing editor Peggy Noonan wrote that it was Bush who had been rude to Webb. From Noonan's December 1 OpinionJournal.com column:
The latest example of a lack of grace in Washington is the exchange between Jim Webb and President Bush at a White House Christmas party. Mr. Webb did not want to pose with the president and so didn't join the picture line. Fair enough, everyone feels silly on a picture line. Mr. Bush approached him later and asked after his son, a Marine. Mr. Webb said he'd like his son back from Iraq. Mr. Bush then, according to the Washington Post, said: "That's not what I asked you. How's your son?" Mr. Webb replied that's between him and his son.
For this Mr. Webb has been roundly criticized. And on reading the exchange I thought it had the sound of the rattling little aggressions of our day, but not on Mr. Webb's side. Imagine Lincoln saying, in such circumstances, "That's not what I asked you." Or JFK. Or Gerald Ford!