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How Did President Bush (43) Handle The Press?

May 21, 2017

(A lot more effectively than Number 45.)

Bush’s view of the press is also personal, and was no doubt shaped by the experience of his father, who sometimes invited reporters to chat or to toss horseshoes, often over the objections of his wife. A former close aide remembers that Barbara Bush, who is similar in temperament to her son, would never speak off the record to reporters, because she believed they would betray her confidence. “She didn’t trust these people,” the former aide recalls.

When the senior Bush prepared to announce his candidacy, in 1987, he gave unusually close access to Margaret Warner, at the time a correspondent for Newsweek. Warner prepared a generally sympathetic profile, but the piece also took into account what she described as Bush’s “potentially crippling handicap”—a perception that he wasn’t tough enough for the job. This notion was captured on the cover by these words: “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.’ “

Warner, who is today an anchor on PBS’s “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” defends the profile, but she believes that Newsweek editors tarted it up by inserting the word “wimp” throughout. “I thought to put that word on the cover—and have it hit the stands the day he announced for President—was a cruel, gratuitous thing to do,” she says, sounding like any defensive reporter who blames an editor. Warner remembers that the Bush family was “hurt and irate”—and that they let her know it.

George W. Bush, like his mother, is known for holding grudges. “Being there and experiencing how something like that plays out and happens can only make you more guarded,” Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, says.

Bush has not totally dodged the press. He gave a one-hour interview, in September, to Brit Hume, of Fox News, and coöperated with NBC’s Tom Brokaw, CBS’s Scott Pelley, and ABC’s Diane Sawyer for lengthy interviews. He has talked to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal but has not given an in-depth interview to the New York Times since becoming President. Nor has he done so with the television anchors Peter Jennings, of ABC, or Dan Rather, of CBS. “I recently did a story on a senior figure in the Bush White House and was told in advance, ‘It better be good,’ “ Jennings recalls. “Which I thought was rather naked. It wasn’t a threat, but it didn’t sound like a joke. There is a feeling among some members of the press corps that you are either favored by the Administration or not, and that will have something to do with your access.” Jennings added that he has interviewed every President since Richard Nixon.

Every modern President has complained about “unfair” and “cynical” reporters and has tried to circumvent the press “filter,” just as White House correspondents routinely complain that their access is restricted, that the Administration is hostile or deceptive. Even President Kennedy, who liked journalists and was masterly in his manipulation of them, complained to the Times about David Halberstam’s early reporting of the Vietnam conflict, and, angry over coverage of his Administration, cancelled the White House subscription to the Herald Tribune.

What seems new with the Bush White House is the unusual skill that it has shown in keeping much of the press at a distance while controlling the news agenda. And for perhaps the first time the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders—pleaders for more access and better headlines—as if the press were simply another interest group, and, moreover, an interest group that’s not nearly as powerful as it once was.

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