Lapdogs to the end?

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

It's amazing that this deep into the Bush presidency, reporters and pundits still express genuine surprise and naïve disappointment when the White House slights them in purposeful ways. Just last week we saw fresh evidence of the Charlie Brown-Lucy-football routine, with wounded reporters complaining that the White House had, yet again, snubbed the press.

It's amazing that this deep into the Bush presidency, reporters and pundits still express genuine surprise and naïve disappointment when the White House slights them in purposeful ways. Just last week we saw fresh evidence of the Charlie Brown-Lucy-football routine, with wounded reporters complaining that the White House had, yet again, snubbed the press.

I say it's amazing because the administration's true feelings about the press have been blindingly obvious since January 2001, in part because almost nobody within the administration has tried to hide their feelings of contempt. That, and the fact the disdain has been advertised by a whole string of radical White House initiatives that have undercut the press' traditional White House function, and often done so in deceitful and embarrassing ways.

I'm thinking about the way Bush essentially walked away from press conferences during his first term (holding just 14 compared with Clinton's 44); the way former chief of staff Andy Card famously dismissed the press as just another D.C. special interest group seeking access; the way the White House for years waved into press briefings a former $200-an-hour male escort with no journalism background and no serious press affiliation; the way Bush/Cheney declared war on The New York Times, using the newspaper as a campaign issue in the 2004 campaign; the way the administration churned out misleading video news releases that crossed the legal line into "covert propaganda"; and the way the administration audaciously paid off pundits like Armstrong Williams to secretly hype White House initiatives.

"Republicans have a clear, agreed-upon plan how to diminish the mainstream press," is how Ron Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who was granted unique access inside the White House to report on the administration's communication strategy, once summed up the situation. "For them, essentially the way to handle the press is the same as how to handle the federal government; you starve the beast. When it's in a weakened and undernourished condition, then you're able to effect a variety of subtle partisan and political attacks."

Well then, Mission Accomplished. Because here we are in the waning days of Bush's second term -- a second term that will go down in presidential history as the least popular in modern times -- and members of the weakened and undernourished White House press corps are still being pushed around and still signaling fresh dismay at how the administration deliberately shortchanges reporters.

How is any of this surprising? There has been no camouflaging Bush's strong feeling of contempt for the press, so why do journalists act disappointed when his derision radiates? For instance, it was a small detail but did you notice in Robert Draper's new book, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (Free Press), that when a staffer apologized for interrupting a rare Oval Office print interview Bush was giving Draper, Bush was quick to respond, "It's okay. This is worthless, anyway."

There was the time Bush needled a White House reporter for wearing sunglasses while asking a question at a Rose Garden press conference. (The reporter is legally blind.) Then last summer, when the White House press room was closed in order to make some much-needed renovations, Bush made a rare appearance in the room where he "insult[ed] pretty much everyone in spitting distance," according to Dan Froomkin on Washingtonpost.com. Bush mocked reporters' make-up, he called one a "crackpot," and he derided ABC's veteran reporter Sam Donaldson as a has-been. The assembled press corps loved it, basking in the attention, as well as the insults.

And the contempt was practically dripping off Bush when the Andover and Yale-educated president of the United States interrupted a joint press conference with the head of state in another country in order to mock a reporter who he suggested was trying to act too smart. That's what Bush famously did during the summer of 2002 at a press conference in France alongside President Jacques Chirac at the ornate Palais de l'Elysee. The questioner was NBC's David Gregory, who asked Bush why protesters in Europe objected to his foreign policy (this was before the war). And then, suddenly switching to fluent French, Gregory deftly posed the same question to Chirac.

Bush pounced. Eying Gregory with that trademark frat boy smirk, Bush unfurled the put-down: "Very good. The guy memorizes four words, and he plays like he's intercontinental."

"I can go on," suggested Gregory, who had once studied in Paris.

"I'm impressed -- que bueno," Bush fired back, using the Spanish phrase for "how wonderful." He added sarcastically: "Now I'm literate in two languages."

According to one press account, "Roars of laughter filled both the press conference room and a press filing center elsewhere in the city, where many members of the White House press corps were watching the exchange on live television."

Years later, Gregory, appearing on NBC's Tonight Show, was still reveling in Bush's joke (and the accompanying attention it brought him) and used it as a punch line, complete with the newsman doing his best Bush imitation on late night television. Gregory assured viewers that Bush only makes fun of reporters in order to "defuse situations." (Like international, head-of-state press conferences?) Same thing for the commencement speech Gregory delivered to American University this past spring; the part where Bush interrupted a press conference with the president of France to ridicule the reporter was told again by the recipient of the putdown.

Why? Because it's funny when Bush insults the press. Journalists are supposed to be the subject of nasty taunts and public put-downs. Y'know, just like President Clinton used to mercilessly mock reporters from behind the presidential podium. Oh wait, Clinton never did that. But you get the idea.

Journalists express quiet dismay ... again

The latest round of toothless media gosh-darn-its came last week when members of the White House press corps complained that many of them had been left out of the loop when Bush made his unannounced visit to Iraq. Instead of covering his touch-down at Al Asad Airbase in Anbar province, the scribes were touching down in Hawaii on their way to Australia, as they readied to cover Bush on his official visit there, before he left for his hush-hush side trip to Iraq. In fact, reporters en route to Sydney found out about the Iraq trip after the White House made it official with an announcement in Washington, D.C. That, in the news trade, is considered an insult.

The pattern of White House reporters missing the action has been a common one this year. "It was another example of the press traveling to one location and the news being made somewhere else," complained Steve Scully, past president of the White House Correspondents Association and a senior producer at C-SPAN. "This administration loves to pull surprises and that is from the get-go," he told Editor & Publisher magazine.

According to reporters, the summertime pattern began on August 9, when part of the White House press corps was assembled inside a charter plane en route to Maine to be with Bush for a visit there that day, when the White House suddenly announced that Bush would hold a press conference before leaving for vacation.

Then, on August 13, journalists were flying to Waco, Texas, to be with Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch when Karl Rove, in Washington, D.C., announced his resignation. And on August 27, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced he was quitting, the press charter plane had just landed in Seattle.

Reporters were upset that in each instance the White House knew a big West Wing announcement was imminent but let the press corps fly away to another part of the country.

Oddly enough, reporters left out what was perhaps the White House's most egregious example of that pattern, which came on July 2. With most of the White House press corps heavy hitters up in Kennebunkport, Maine, to cover Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit there, Bush that afternoon left the assembled press and flew back to the White House, where he quickly announced he was commuting the sentence of his former aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who had been convicted of perjury and obstructing justice in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.

Not only was the news a political blockbuster, and not only did it leave the White House press corps "scrambling" to cover the story from Maine, as ABC's Martha Raddatz put it that evening, but the announcement involved a high-profile legal case that had ensnared scores of journalists, some of whom were forced to testify in court. Meaning, the press was part of the Libby story. And yet Bush, in a classic F-U gesture, purposefully ditched White House reporters and made the Libby announcement without them present.

Was the press upset? Did journalists raise a ruckus after being snubbed? Hardly. According to one Wall Street Journal reporter, the White House's chronic pattern of travel deception has "become a running joke among reporters." And read this cozy Kennebunkport dispatch from later in the summer:

Administration staffers also clearly enjoy this break, and there is a friendly détente between them and the White House press corps. Perhaps that's because everyone brought their families along. Perhaps it's just easier to be civil to one another when you're all wearing T-shirts and hiking boots instead of power ties and suits.

Message: All is forgiven. (P.S. Vacation is fun.)

Nonetheless, it's curious that the latest round of media grumbling revolves around the issue of travel, because last summer The Washington Post reported that, in a break with tradition, Bush had begun flying around the country without any press plane in tow, often while attending fundraisers, which themselves were closed to the press.

As the Post's Peter Baker wrote, "The idea that Bush could travel across the country without a full contingent of reporters, especially in the middle of a war, highlights a major cultural shift in the presidency and the news media."

The new policies failed to generate many cries of protest, though. "I marvel at their ability to get away with it," Lanny Davis told the Post. Davis had served as White House special counsel during the Clinton years and spent his waking hours fending off nonstop press inquiries from frenzied reporters banging down his door demanding answers. Now Bush flies around the country without a press plane, and reporters don't say boo. "I have to grudgingly admit to some envy. I admire their [White House] chutzpah."

But to paraphrase Dizzy Dean, the old-time baseball great who once quipped, "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up," when it comes to this White House dealing with the timorous press corps, it ain't chutzpah if you know you can get away with it. Because the White House knew full well that not taking the press plane along whenever the president traveled was unprecedented, it knew journalists would interpret the move as insulting, and it knew the ramifications -- the organized pushback -- would be virtually nonexistent. And of course, the White House was right. (Just as the organized pushback has been nonexistent this summer.)

Here was the timid response last summer from then-WHCA president Scully, when asked about the lack of a press plane: "As we move into the fall campaign, if this happens more often, we're going to put pressure on [White House press secretary Tony Snow] and others to open these events."

I doubt Snow was trembling with worry about the "pressure" that was going to be brought to bear. After all, this was the same WHCA that did almost nothing in 2005 after it was discovered that the Bush administration had waved a former male escort, Jeff Gannon, into more than a 100 press briefings despite the fact Gannon was using an alias, had no journalism background, had no ties with a legitimate news organization, and was not asked to sit for an FBI background check the way most White House reporters have.

And yes, this is the same journalism association that instructed comedian Rich Little last spring not to crack any Bush jokes while he hosted the association's annual black tie dinner. "I won't even mention the word 'Iraq,' " Little promised in advance.

And journalists wonder why they've been tagged as Bush's lapdogs?

Network/Outlet
Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times
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