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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Private Bush

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; 8:15 AM

Doug Wead may have done George Bush a favor.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a fan of secretly recording conversations with a friend and then releasing them to the world, muttering about the importance of history, while using the tapes to hype your forthcoming book. The word betrayal is the mildest one I can think of. And trying to justify it, rather than admit the self-serving nature of your little scam, only makes it worse.

But the debate over the tapes story, which was broken by the New York Times, has mostly been about the motivation of Wead, a man most of us had never heard of before. What Bush said when he didn't know he was being recorded hasn't stirred a whole lot of controversy.

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That may be because the tapes make Bush look good, in the sense that there's very little separation between the Bush we hear in private, unaware that his pal has the recorder going, and the George W. Bush we have come to know in public.

Compare that to, say, Richard Nixon. The cursing, the paranoia, the anti-Semitism, the vitriol directed toward his supporters. No one, after hearing the Watergate tapes, could ever look at Nixon quite the same way.

Bush, by contrast, speaks of his religious faith and reading the Bible daily. He speaks of wanting to set a good example for the country. He takes a few swipes at his political rivals (McCain "will wear thin"), but nothing even eyebrow-raising. So he largely comes off as the real deal.

Yes, he admits having smoked pot, but who is surprised by that? He was alive in the sixties and has already plead guilty to an irresponsible adolescence. And since Clinton and Gore both acknowledged past dope use, it doesn't have much political salience.

Bush is sensitive to the views of evangelical Christians but says he won't "kick gays" to satisfy them and, of the Christian Coalition, notes that "this crowd uses gays as the enemy." Yes, he proposed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage as an election-year maneuver, but few politicians are prepared to support gay marriage.

From a media perspective, I'd like to know more about this part of the NYT report: "While he talked of certain reporters as 'pro-Bush' and commented favorably on some publications (U.S. News & World Report is 'halfway decent,' but Time magazine is 'awful'), he vented frequently to Mr. Wead about what he considered the liberal bias and invasiveness of the news media in general. 'It's unbelievable,' Mr. Bush said, reciting various rumors about his past that his aides had picked up from reporters. 'They just float sewer out there.'" But the president hasn't exactly hidden his low regard for the media since taking office.

Think about how embarrassing it might be if tapes of some of your private conversations surfaced. Bush, by contrast, didn't really shoot himself in the foot or anywhere else. Pundit reaction:

David Gregory: "I think it is largely the president saying in private what he would go on to say in public."

Aaron Brown: "From what we've heard in these tapes, there is little shocking in the talks."

Bill Kristol: "He doesn't want to bash homosexuals. He might have smoked a joint or two. No one will hold that against him. He comes out as a friendly and normal guy."

On the blogs, the issue is basically Wead, as we see from Progressive Commons:

"The Hatchet isn't always given out because some pundit, on a bad day, let loose with a zinger so poor and inane that even their fellow ideologues blush in embarrassment. Oh no. Sometimes, we have to reward the sort of hack jobs that are transparent attempts at self-promotion, the sort that scream, 'please be interested in me and buy my book, because I really, really want to be interviewed by Wolf Blitzer.' And so, while many pundits said and wrote many Hatchet-worthy things this past week, we have decided to single out Doug Wead. . . .

"Strange, you might say, that the tapes would surface now, when they have little to no bearing on any campaign or policy issue. But if you did say that, well, you're missing the bigger pic--hackjob - Doug has a book to sell. And so, armed with a guaranteed publicity stunt and prepped to shill his book, Doug has been circling around various media outlets, waiting for his chance at self-promotion. Hackery at its profit and ego-driven finest. So congratulations, Doug Wead! You have earned yourself a Hatchett."

InDC Journal: offers this take:

"For the record, I didn't find anything particularly surprising or embarrassing about President Bush's secretly-taped comments that were just released by historian Doug Wead. Panning rivals, discussing (and implying) former drug use and outlining political strategy with the Evangelical base all seem pretty much par for the course...

"I thought that Bush's private statements about not 'kick(ing) gays' in order to score political points with the religious right were somewhat admirable and sincere, though I'm also aware that many gays aren't buying his execution of the sentiment.

Harold Ralphson's Mind: also gives the prez a pass:

"Some Bush family friend Doug Wead turned out to be, huh? Secretly taping private conversations he had with George W. when Bush was Governor of Texas from sometime in 1998 through part of 2000 and now releasing them to the New York Times - dreadfully rude. Many people already suspected Mr. Bush of using illegal drugs when he was younger, this is not new, but the tapes do provide proof that he was a user. I can't argue with him for not wanting to talk about it in front of the children."

The Chicago Tribune assesses the Bushian style in Europe:

"It's no surprise for President Bush, as he was reminded by a German reporter here Tuesday, that Europeans are still skeptical of him, with many viewing him as 'dictating or unilateral' while some dismiss his European tour as a 'major charm offensive.'

"'Well, thank you,' Bush replied. 'First time I've been called charming in a while.'

"The ease and casual humor with which Bush is navigating a marathon of back-to-back meetings with the chiefs of two dozen European nations and entertaining leaders once bitterly at odds with him belies how fractured American relations with European powers have become after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"The confidence that the president has exuded throughout his meetings with European leaders and the media is born partly of the political victory that handed him his second term. The president has staged a news conference a month in the U.S. since re-election and had two Tuesday in Brussels.

"During a news conference on NATO, the president was reminded that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently suggested it must have been 'the old Rumsfeld' who chastised European nations for refusing to support the war in Iraq. 'Same old Bush,' the president replied with a laugh, cutting off his questioner. Some Europeans worry that this really is the 'same old Bush.'"

Another Bush scores in Iraq, reports the Los Angeles Times:

"The Iraq war helped bring record earnings to St. Louis-based defense contractor Engineered Support Systems Inc., and new financial data show that the firm's war-related profits have trickled down to a familiar family name -- Bush. "William H.T. 'Bucky' Bush, uncle of the president and youngest brother of former President George H.W. Bush, cashed in ESSI stock options last month with a net value of nearly half a million dollars.

"'Uncle Bucky,' as he is known to the president, is on the board of the company, which supplies armor and other materials to U.S. troops."

One of the differences between the MSM and at least some bloggers is that we don't traffic in unsubstantiated rumors. But what if said rumors are spread by a member of Congress? Check out this post on Little Green Footballs

"Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) hosted a community forum in Ithaca, New York, on The Future Of Social Security.

"An LGF reader was present in the audience and happened to be recording as Rep. Hinchey launched into a barking moonbat conspiracy rant worthy of Democratic Underground, telling the audience he believed the fake CBS memos were planted by Karl Rove to discredit Dan Rather, and divert attention from President Bush's 'draft dodging.'

"When our reader asked Hinchey if he had evidence for these charges, he first said, 'Yes, I do,' but when asked a second time he admitted he did not.

"Our reader pressed the issue, 'Don't you think it's irresponsible to make charges like that?' Hinchey replied, 'No, I don't, I think it's very important to make charges like that . . . I think it's very important to combat this kind of activity in every way that you can, and I'm willing, as most people are not, to step forward in situations like this and take risks.'

"And the crowd burst into applause and cheering."

It's very important to make charges for which you have no evidence?

Remember Bill Burkett? The anti-Bush guy behind the extremely suspect National Guard documents? Eric Boehlert of Salon has been in touch:

"Earlier this month, Bill Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard and the man who provided CBS producers with the controversial documents at the heart of the '60 Minutes Wednesday' segment, fired off his response to the panel's investigation. In a 2,600-word letter, obtained by Salon, Burkett charged that the report, through inaccuracies and 'selective recall' among the key players, 'exacerbated the defamation of character that CBS obviously committed when they laid the blame for the collapse of this story at my feet.'

"The center of Burkett's claim is that in giving CBS the documents, he expected the network to authenticate them and, in fact, had made a "contingent" agreement with the network to do so. Burkett says he assumed the documents he gave CBS were real, but that he could not and would not vouch for their genuineness. At the same time, Burkett has told inconsistent stories about how the memos fell into his hands. But he insists CBS is ultimately to blame for failing to authenticate the documents."

By the way, he didn't tell inconsistent stories. He admitted he had lied to CBS.

"Rather than being apologetic for any role he played in the debacle, Burkett seems itching for a fight with CBS: 'I was miserably squashed throughout this horrible nightmare. CBS wanted everything that I had and then made every effort to discredit and later blame me for their own errors and failings,' Burkett wrote in his letter. Addressing Thornburgh, attorney general for Ronald Reagan and the elder Bush, and Boccardi, the former Associated Press head, Burkett continued: 'Gentlemen, it is nothing but fair and right for you as chairmen of this panel to make things correct and right and forward the corrections to the worldwide press. It would further be nothing but right that Viacom/CBS immediately recognize and repair the damages that have been incurred by my wife and I at the hand of the entire Viacom/CBS team and now this panel. This will certainly be no small task.'"

We don't often find critics calling Peter Jennings a wacko, but that's the implication of

The New Republic's Lee Siegel:

"A major network is producing a two-hour special--airing this Thursday--arguing that, as Peter Jennings, the show's host, gravely repeats over and over again, 'we are not alone,' that we get 'visited' by aliens on a regular basis. Or at least since 1947, when someone obviously bored out of his mind and scared witless both by the specter of nuclear war with Russia and the infinite silence of rural America at night, looked up from his cornfield or something, saw a giant dinner plate soaring through the nocturnal sky, and called his local police department to report an imminent invasion from outer space.

"You thought all we had to worry about was Al Qaeda lurking behind every iPod? Think again. If you only knew the cosmic dangers that lurk above us, the green, spindly, big-headed beings that nurture dreams somewhere in their caves, spread out over billions of galaxies, of traipsing suddenly into our living rooms and, well, saying hello. And this is the least of it, only the beginning of a nightmare. What if they are not green? What if they are beige? What if they are (unreconstructed) liberals? What if they speak French? What if--please move your children away from the screen--they are sane?

"Watching ABC present convincing dramatized accounts of UFOs flying over the country, listening to Jennings calmly make the case for a government perniciously indifferent to the threat from outer space, you have to wonder whether we are all as nuts as what we watch on TV. Or are the people who make television the true crazies?"

On the never-ending debate over blogs, Jonah Goldberg feels compelled to remind us:

"I hope I'm not stepping in it too badly here, but I think it's time to remind some people that bloggers aren't a race or a religion. For some it may be a way of life or a creed or some such. But that may be part of the problem. I think it started with the Pajama thing. Maybe I took offense for that remark for different reasons than others did. I thought it was bad because it was a way of arrogantly deflecting the problems at CBS by attacking the accusers who had the facts on their side.

"But it increasingly seems that bloggers, as a group, don't like criticism period. This is a gross generalization about a sentiment more than absolute declaration of fact. But I get more and more email from bloggers -- or devout blog readers -- in which the correspondents make it sounds as if criticizing the medium is entirely illegitimate and almost immoral."

You mean it's not?

Finally, Slate's Jack Shafer blows the whistle on a curious omission in this New York magazine article:

"Journalist-publisher James Atlas describes getting sacked at age 50 in a New York magazine excerpt of his forthcoming book, My Life in the Middle Ages. The piece boils over with specificity about Atlas' life . . .

But he never names the magazine editor who sacked him or the magazine itself, an odd oversight seeing as the episode takes up 1,200 words of his 3,900-word piece.

"That's not to say the episode is blind: We learn that the editor, 10 years younger than Atlas, is handsome, 'tall, vigorous, with tousled black hair.' The editor's predecessor burned money on parties, consultants, and writers' contracts like it was kindling. Noises from 42nd Street bubble up to the office where Atlas is getting fired. This description contains so many dots that they connect themselves: The editor is David Remnick of The New Yorker.

"So why not come out and name names? I put the question to Atlas, who responded in a brief e-mail: 'Because it's irrelevant. The piece is about a universal subject, and I didn't want to distract the reader with gossip.'

"Oh, tommyrot! Far from universalizing the story, blotting out Remnick's name and that of The New Yorker only increase the gossip factor."

I've read the piece. Leaving out Remnick and the New Yorker (and references to his predecessor, Tina Brown) is just plain weird for a work of nonfiction.


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