Wash. Post uncritically cited Will's distortion of Post's reporting on Bush/Webb exchange
Research ››› ››› SIMON MALOY
The Washington Post, in citing Post columnist George F. Will in a news article claiming that an "icy exchange between President Bush and Virginia Sen.-elect James Webb" has "angered conservatives," failed to note that Will, in his column on the incident, left out a key part of an earlier Post account of the conversation between Bush and Webb in order to assert that Webb showed "calculated rudeness."
A December 2 Washington Post article cited Post columnist George F. Will's November 30 column in reporting that an "icy exchange between President Bush and [Democratic] Virginia Sen.-elect James Webb" has "angered conservatives and renewed questions about how well he [Webb] fits with other politicians in a sharply divided Congress." The Post did not note, however, that Will left out a key part of the Bush/Webb exchange, as reported in a November 29 Washington Post article, to assert that Webb showed "calculated rudeness toward another human being" who "asked a civil and caring question." Nor did the December 2 Post article note that conservatives are not unanimous in their "anger" at Webb -- former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal contributing editor Peggy Noonan wrote that Webb has been wrongly criticized for his comments to Bush and faulted Bush for being rude to Webb.
The Post reported November 29 on the conversation between Webb and Bush at a White House reception for incoming members of Congress the previous day:
"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.
Will, however, wrote in his November 30 column:
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."
As noted by blogger and media critic Greg Sargent, Will distorted the November 29 Post article in order to attack Webb:
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.
However, the December 2 Post article -- while it gave an accurate account of the exchange between Bush and Webb -- simply cited Will's column in reporting that conservatives are "angered" over the exchange:
An icy exchange between President Bush and Virginia Sen.-elect James Webb that was made public this week has turned Webb into something of a folk hero among critics of the president, who have longed for someone to challenge his bravado.
At the same time, Webb's refusal to play the gentlemanly political games so common in Washington has angered conservatives and renewed questions about how well he fits with other politicians in a sharply divided Congress, where compromise will be key.
"He already has become what Washington did not need another of, a subtraction from the city's civility and clear speaking," conservative columnist George Will wrote Thursday.
On the campaign trail, Webb rarely minced words about Bush, repeatedly calling the Iraq war "a blunder of historic proportions." At the White House reception last month, Webb said, he tried to avoid interacting with the president. But when Bush walked up to Webb to ask about his son, a Marine in Iraq, Webb hinted at the campaign criticism.
"I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," Webb said, according to a description of the conversation by several people familiar with the exchange. Webb confirmed the account this week.
"That's not what I asked you," Bush replied. "How's your boy?"
"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb responded.
Moreover, the December 2 article failed to note that Noonan, in her December 1 OpinionJournal.com column, wrote that it was Bush who had been rude to Webb:
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!
As Media Matters for America noted, Will's distortion was also echoed by The American Spectator and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke repeated the same distortion in discussion of the reported incident on the December 2 edition of Fox News' The Beltway Boys:
KONDRACKE: Well, you know, you hear complaints every once in awhile that we don't have any characters anymore in Congress. Well, we've got one now: James Webb. And it's not a pleasant kind of character. I mean, he prides himself on being Scots-Irish, a fighting man, you know? So here's what happened at this reception: The president walked up to him and said, "How's your boy? How's your son?" You know, who -- who's serving as a Marine in -- in Iraq. And -- and Webb, after a little conversation, said, "That's between me and my boy, you know?" And then -- then Webb put it out that the White House had -- had leaked this story to make him out to be a hothead.
FRED BARNES (co-host and Weekly Standard executive editor): Yeah.
KONDRACKE: And -- and -- but he also said that -- that he -- he respects the presidency with a "y," you know, not -- not the president. This guy is a hothead.