Two presidents made headlines last week: The current one, for delivering his final State of the Union Address, and the former one, for making miscues on the campaign trail.
Which was deemed more newsworthy? For the press, the choice was obvious: Bill Clinton garnered an extraordinary amount of press attention -- more so, in fact, than any of the Republican candidates running for president, according to one news survey.
That simply highlights the media's over-the-top obsession with Clinton. What really struck me was the difference in tone from the recent Bush and Clinton coverage. The sitting president was delivering his final State of the Union, capping off his failed presidency, which has provoked deep despair among most Americans about the future of the country. And for that, Bush has been tagged the most consistently unpopular president in modern history.
Yet the reaction from the press and pundits last week when marking the final chapter of the Bush decline was mostly to shrug their shoulders and look away. The media has, throughout Bush's gruesome political collapse, shown very little interest in taking part in the usual Beltway pastime of dissecting the miscues, assigning blame, and yes, doing a little bit of grave-dancing.
When it comes to Bush's two-year decline, the press has remained oddly detached. By contrast, the recent coverage of Clinton has been dripping with emotion; with disdain and contempt that bordered on vitriol.
Bush literally drives the country into a ditch while erecting new standards for secrecy and incompetence (Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Walter Reed Hospital, Hurricane Katrina, staggering national debt, etc.), and the press yawns. But Clinton makes ill-advised and insensitive unscripted comments on the campaign trail, and that's what really gets the Beltway press upset -- enrages them, really, as they scramble to find just the right adjective to describe Clinton's allegedly deceitful, abhorrent behavior.
Am I the only one struck by the disconnect here?
I'm not suggesting Clinton is immune from criticism or that he didn't screw up. His comments obviously upset many people who in the past supported him politically. But it sure would have been nice, over the previous eight years, if the same press corps that today has trouble controlling its roiling contempt for Clinton would just once or twice flash the same passion and anger towards Bush for what he's done in the White House and what he's done to this country.
Not only won't the press get angry about Bush, the press won't even dwell on the topic. The recent State of the Union would have been the perfect opportunity for journalists to put Bush's sad legacy in context, to document the extraordinary political and public opinion failure that his presidency has become, and the deep, lasting damage he has done to the Republican Party, which is viewed dismally by the public and now faces an epidemic of congressional retirements. The traditional press, however, has little interest in focusing on the unpleasantness.
In a sense, we're witnessing the logical conclusion to the media's lapdog approach to covering Bush. When the president was flying high during the glory years of 2002-2005, the press eagerly played the role of star-maker, while walking away from its traditional oversight duties. But when the Bush presidency collapsed and the American people abandoned the administration, the press quietly turned away, not wanting to dwell on the unpleasantness.
One of the likely reasons for that is that the press understands its own, almost monumental failure in covering this presidency, especially during the defining moment -- the run-up to the war in Iraq. And remember, this is the same political press corps that had a gut feeling about Bush in 2000; just liked the guy. They vouched for him. Said he was a real, authentic politician who would restore bipartisanship to Washington again.
So, today, journalists aren't interested in dissecting what went wrong with Bush because then journalists would have to dissect what they did wrong, and that's not where they want the spotlight to be. I think there's a collective embarrassment -- a collective shame -- within the industry for being de facto sponsors of the Bush fiasco in the first place. After all, the Beltway press prides itself on being able to spot a winner.
And that's why the press tried for so long to buck Bush up during his slide. Last year, right about the time that Gallup announced Bush's approval ratings had dropped to a new low of just 29 percent, which ranked "in the bottom 3% of more than 1,300 Gallup presidential approval ratings since 1938" (ouch!), The Washington Post published a long, Page One mash note about how, despite his travails, Bush remained steadfast in his beliefs:
At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. One at a time or in small groups, he summons leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to join him in the search.
Over sodas and sparkling water, he asks his questions: What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I'm facing? How will history judge what we've done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?
These are the questions of a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation. Not generally known for intellectual curiosity, Bush is seeking out those who are, engaging in a philosophical exploration of the currents of history that have swept up his administration. For all the setbacks, he remains unflinching, rarely expressing doubt in his direction, yet trying to understand how he got off course.
For most of the last year, round after round of dismal poll ratings for Bush have been met with a sort of quiet resign among the press corps. Context has been sorely lacking.
For instance, in the last half-century, the only other second-term collapse that compares to Bush's belongs to Richard Nixon, whose fall was fueled by the revelation that a criminal enterprise had been operating from inside the Oval Office. Yet Bush's second-term performance is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Nixon's. And there's virtually no mention of the fact that Bush is currently running between 20 and 30 points behind where his predecessor was during his final year in office.
In fact, some are still passing along the tired White House spin that Bush's public approval rebound is just around the corner. (All the way up to 45 percent!) From U.S. News & World Report, January 10:
George W. Bush and some congressional backers see happy days for the prez this year. His fans have dubbed it his "legacy year," when they hope to lock in his achievements on the domestic front.
Good luck with that.
Compare that to the eager newsroom crowds who used to gather around fresh polling data back in 1998 and 1999 as journalists parsed the latest results in search of the slightest dip in public support for Clinton that would finally confirm the media's long-held belief that the public would eventually turn on Clinton, especially during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
And think back to the 2000 presidential campaign. Did a single day pass when a reporter or pundit did not ask out loud what effect Clinton's legacy would have on the Democratic candidate for president? The laundry list of unknowns was endless: Was Clinton hogging the spotlight? Was he doing enough for Vice President Al Gore's campaign? Was Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign siphoning off Gore's campaign donations? Would voters punish Gore for impeachment?
By contrast, in 2008, Bush does not exist as a political story. Instead, he's been politely assigned the role of a non-entity for the upcoming White House race. But why?
Despite an avalanche of campaign coverage produced, so far I have not seen any media speculation about how the GOP is going to handle the opening night of its nominating convention this summer when the party will almost certainly have to feature Bush and allow him to give a prime-time speech to the nation. Politically, that is going to be a disaster for Republicans as they try desperately, in front of a national television audience, to turn the page on Bush's tenure of failure. For the somnambulant press though, none of that is of any interest.
Two recently published Beltway essays perfectly captured the media's schizophrenic and patently dishonest approach to covering Bush and Clinton.
The first was by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, who wrote a January 28 op-ed for The New York Times. Weisberg looked back at Bush's first State of the Union address and its "compassionate conservative" theme and noted how Bush "intended to marry the liberal desire for more federal money to the conservative demand for higher standards."
Weisberg assured readers that "Mr. Bush seemed genuinely to want to be the kind of president indicated by that first address."
Of course, none of that came to be. The "compassionate conservative" routine turned out to be mostly empty rhetoric. Why? According to Weisberg's friendly interpretation, it was because Bush "was too distracted by war and foreign policy, and too bored by the processes of government to know if the people working for him were following through on his proposals."
See, Bush is not duplicitous or immoral. And nothing he has done in office would cause a CW scout like Weisberg to get angry or level charges about Bush's character. The president simply became misguided and lost interest. What's the big fuss, people? That's what presidents sometimes do -- they fail miserably and cause all sorts of pain and discomfort for millions of citizens. That's no reason to get excited.
But go out on the campaign trail these days as a Democratic ex-president and be charged with taking an opponent's comments out of context? Now that's reason for reporters to raise holy hell. That's why the pundits could barely keep their laptops steady -- their rage at Clinton was building so rapidly inside them. Clinton was guilty of "lying and cheating," of being "glaringly dishonest," and promoting an "idiotic, lowest-common-denominator political discourse." And that was just from one recent washingtonpost.com column.
According to Newsweek, Clinton's campaign attacks "insult[ed] voters' intelligence." Struck by that harsh rhetoric, I did a search of Nexis to see if during Bush's entire tenure Newsweek had ever claimed that any of the misinformation that routinely flowed from the Bush White House (WMD's, for instance) had "insulted the intelligence" of Americans. I could not find a single Newsweek example.
The other recent essay that (inadvertently) highlighted the media's Bush/Clinton double standard came from John Harris at the Politico, who wrote about how the "liberal establishment" was abandoning the Clintons. (The only actual "liberal" referenced in the long piece was Sen. Ted Kennedy, but who's counting?) Harris was struck by the contemptuous, inside-the-Beltway vibe he was picking up about Bill Clinton:
From Washington's perspective, to judge by the most common criticism heard over the years and again in recent days, the problem is not that Bill Clinton is Bubba but that he is Eddie Haskell -- smug, smarmy, self-absorbed.
Bush has been on the national political scene for nearly a decade, and I doubt I have ever read a mainstream reporter so flippantly pass along anonymous insults about Bush's character the way Harris did regarding Clinton. Of course, Harris did it with ease -- and nobody flinched -- because that's how the press has treated Clinton for years, even when he was in office; no insult or personal dig was considered off limits by the press. (Blogger Atrios once dubbed it the "Clinton Rules of Journalism," i.e. anything goes.)
For the media, it's simple: The suggestion that Bill Clinton has an oversized ego is far more upsetting and newsworthy than George Bush's proven track record of incompetence.