George W. Bush and the Media: Final Words and Last Laughs

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

What will be President Bush's chicken-head moment?

During yesterday's funeral services at the Washington National Cathedral for Gerald Ford, retired anchorman Tom Brokaw recalled how the press corps' affection for the late president could be seen in the acquisition, by New York Times reporter Jim Naughton, of a mock chicken head that had caught Ford's attention at a campaign rally. "Giddy from 20-hour days and an endless repetition of the same campaign speech, Naughton decided to wear that chicken head to a Ford news conference in Oregon, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the president and his chief of staff, Dick Cheney," Brokaw recalled.

"When the president called me last year and asked me if I would participate in these services," Brokaw continued, "I think he wanted to be sure that the White House press corps was represented: the writers, correspondents and producers, the cameramen, photographers, the technicians -- and the chicken."

For Bush, it must have been a jarring moment. The current president would probably have Hugo Chavez deliver his eulogy before he would bestow the honor on a member of the White House press corps.

Even if Bush were inclined to allow a journalist to orate, which contentious moment with the press would be recounted? Would it be when Bush, in Paris, called NBC's David Gregory "intercontinental" for asking the French president a question in French? Or when Bush attempted to leave a quarrelsome press conference in China but discovered the door was locked?

Equally tricky: Which reporter would be Bush's Brokaw? To help Bush choose, several current and former White House correspondents, though in no way encouraging the president to shuffle off this mortal coil, yesterday offered sample eulogies they would be willing to give many years from now.

Richard Wolffe of Newsweek invoked the days after Bush called Adam Clymer of the New York Times a "major league a------" and Cheney replied, "Big time" -- all captured on the microphone at a campaign rally. "Halloween of 2000," Wolffe remembered. "Several of us obtained Bush masks and printed up a series of baseball shirts for a fictional team called the Major League A's. We lined up at the foot of his plane stairs like an honor guard and he posed for photos with us. Chuckled with his shoulders the whole way through."

A major league entry. But here's one from Clymer himself, who provided a touching footnote: "He made a cheerful video tribute for the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner in 2001, with Cheney echoing his every sentence with 'big time.' A couple of months later, he sent me a very gracious sympathy letter on the death of my mother."

One candidate unlikely to become a finalist for eulogy honors is Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle, who recalled the president falling off his scooter in Kennebunkport. "Toward the end of his presidency, Bush fretted openly about how history would judge him. He needn't have worried. Patting his wife's bottom in church and dropping Barney on the tarmac were not the defining moments of his presidency. Falling off the Segway was."

Nor should Bob Kemper wait by the phone. The former Chicago Tribune reporter, now with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recalled Bush's visit to the British Embassy to see his sister-in-law perform in a play. "Obviously worried that a theater critic had infiltrated the travel pool, the White House banned the pool from the embassy and drove us instead to Cactus Cantina," Kemper eulogized. "The pool ate as it often does -- under armed supervision of the Secret Service, which, to ensure that no one snuck off and tried to see 'The Spider's Web,' required the entire pool to go to the Little Reporter's Room together under armed guard."

A likelier candidate, but still a dark horse, is Olivier Knox of Agence France-Presse. He offered a moving tribute about the time "a foreign journalist asked the president after a roundtable interview to autograph a copy of 'A Charge to Keep.' The president called out to the U.S. reporters sitting behind him, 'Why don't you folks ever ask me to do this?' One of them shot back: 'Maybe when it's in paperback, sir.' "

Judging from yesterday's entries, Bush's self-deprecation will play a role in any eventual funeral. James Rosen of Fox News remembered a White House Christmas party when the CIA leak scandal was at its height. Rosen introduced Bush to his father, a personal-injury trial lawyer of the variety Bush disparaged on every campaign stop. "I could probably use a good lawyer," Bush allowed.

Not bad. But probably the most promising chicken-head story was provided by Dick Keil, the former Bloomberg News reporter Bush called "Stretch." The 6-foot-5 Stretch recalled a 2001 news conference on the Bush ranch in Texas, when an unusually talkative Bush exhausted all questions and was finally asked what he had done that day. Recalled Keil: "He noted that he had begun his morning by spending some 'quality time with the first lady.' Following a dramatic pause for effect, he got that wry grin, and said, 'Usually, I go running.' "

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