The Press, Turning Up Its Nose at Lame Duck

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 5, 2007

Six months after his party lost both houses of Congress, Bill Clinton was reduced to declaring at a news conference that he was still relevant.

The next day, the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed. Clinton regained his footing and cruised to reelection the following year, his relevance never again in doubt -- even after his impeachment.

These days, many in the media seem to be writing off President Bush.

"The American people basically fired George Bush in the last election," writes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. "We're now just watching him clean out his desk."

"A lot of Americans consider this presidency over," says CNN's Bill Schneider.

"If America were a parliamentary democracy, we would have a no-confidence vote and a new prime minister by spring," writes New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin.

Are these and other pundits giving us the unvarnished truth, that we are witnessing the historic collapse of a presidency? Or is this the triumph of quick-draw, poll-driven journalism?

"It's a predictable bit of conventional wisdom," White House spokesman Tony Snow says in an interview. He insists that Bush can make progress on such issues as energy and immigration, "and he still has the bully pulpit. A lot of these narratives about 'the president is a lame duck' assume nothing is going to change politically, anywhere in the world, in the next two years."

But the gibes keep on coming. "If we had a straight dictatorship," writes the New Republic's Jonathan Chait, "Bush would long ago have been dragged out of the White House either by an angry mob or by disgruntled generals." (Not that he's in favor of either.)

Chait agrees in an interview that the president still has power, but notes: "Psychologically, it does feel that people are starting to move past Bush. No one has changed his mind about Bush in the last two years. It's kind of boring to write about him anymore because he's so unchanging."

Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard's executive editor, says Bush will concentrate on such areas as tightening control of regulatory policy to end-run a Democratic Congress. "The Republicans learned in the '90s -- and the press should have learned as well -- that presidents have great inherent powers," he says. But "Nancy Pelosi at the moment is a more interesting story than George Bush. She's new, she's attractive and she has an agenda."

The media, as always, are mesmerized by polls. When Bush was riding high in the "Mission Accomplished" days of 2003, some of the coverage was almost giddy. If Bush's current approval ratings were at 50 percent, his media portrayal would look very different. With the president having sunk as low as 28 percent in a CBS News survey, it is all too easy to dismiss him, even as he mounts an escalation of the war in Iraq.

That war, of course, is the reason why the mainstream media see no possibility of Bush bouncing back. Things are a mess in Iraq; the country has turned against the war; and few journalists think the "surge" is going to work. Therefore, the reasoning goes, Bush will continue to sink into the quagmire of the war he chose to wage.

There's little question that Bush has never been weaker politically. He got no traction from the State of the Union (as measured by the almighty polls). His domestic proposals seem to have sparked little interest, at least from the press. Here he is talking about income inequality, global warming and tougher auto mileage standards -- all typically Democratic themes -- and the journalistic reaction is a barely suppressed yawn. He's yesterday's news.

But with Bush constitutionally entitled to two more years in the White House, it is risky for journalists to declare him a marginal figure, even if they are far more absorbed in covering the race to succeed him.

Other unpopular war presidents have staggered to the ends of their terms -- Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson come to mind -- and Bush may do the same. But because Iraq is now widely viewed as having been an unnecessary personal crusade on Bush's part, there seems to be an extra element of derision in the political commentary, especially from the left.

Bush's father recently vented his frustrations with the coverage. "It's one thing to have an adversarial . . . relationship -- hard-hitting journalism. It's another when the journalists' rhetoric goes beyond skepticism and goes over the line into overt, unrelenting hostility and personal animosity," the former president said.

Actually, even some of the journalists who are especially aggressive in their coverage of Bush like him in private settings, where the president has a joshing manner and enjoys handing out nicknames. But professional resentment may still be behind some of the increasingly negative coverage. "In the press corps," Chait says, "there's a little bit of a realization that they had been played."

From Iraq, where the media fell down on the WMD debate, to Bush's 2000 campaign persona as a compassionate conservative, many journalists now believe they were led astray. That has given an extra edge to their stories and columns on Bush being out of touch and has fueled an effort to vindicate their darker picture of the war. In short, the mainstream media no longer give this president the benefit of the doubt.

Getting Even?

Jim Cramer, CNBC's manic "Mad Money" host, is accustomed to people taking potshots.

Former investment banker Henry Blodget used some heavy ammunition last week in Slate. Blodget said that although Cramer can be "brilliant, in an idiot-savant, freak-show sort of way," he gives "terrible investment advice," and that ordinary folks should invest in index funds rather than following stock picks from "a chair-throwing, self-aggrandizing clown."

Cramer, a former hedge fund manager, says this is nothing but "revenge." He harshly criticized Blodget for his conduct at Merrill Lynch, which led to a $4 million fine against the young analyst and a lifetime ban from the securities industry. Blodget kept touting high-flying Internet stocks that later crashed, while privately deriding them as "junk" and pieces of excrement.

"What he did was egregious," Cramer says. "He was paid millions of dollars to tell the truth. He should go opine on something else. He should not opine on stocks."

What's more, Cramer says it is "appalling" that CNBC recently interviewed Blodget about his new book. Blodget's retaliation, says Cramer, came after Cramer took the unusual step of criticizing his own network for doing the interview.

Blodget says he wrote the Slate column because Cramer is "so influential and omnipresent that just about everyone I know asks me what I think of him. . . . Jim can't possibly believe that trying to out-trade thousands of full-time professionals is an intelligent strategy for average investors."

Media Lesson

Last Monday, the George Washington University student paper broke a story about college coaches checking out Facebook to see whether their players had posted racy pictures of themselves.

Days later, WJLA-TV ran the same story -- without credit.

"Absolutely, the idea originated out of their article," says Channel 7 reporter Kris Van Cleave. "But I don't think anyone owns ideas. We went out and obtained the information ourselves. Honestly, it didn't feel like we needed to attribute the story. Otherwise, we would have."

David Ceasar, an editor at the GW Hatchet, says the station used similar phrases in its version. "I felt flattered that a network news affiliate would use material from a 19-year-old sophomore, but it rubbed me the wrong way that it didn't mention us at all."

Risky Move

John Edwards has hired Amanda Marcotte, of the liberal site Pandagon, to blog for his presidential campaign. But the trouble with bloggers is that they leave a sometimes inflammatory trail.

As noted by OpinionJournal's James Taranto, Marcotte wrote last month of the Duke rape case that she "had to listen to how the poor dear lacrosse players at Duke are being persecuted just because they held someone down and [sexually assaulted] her against her will -- not rape, of course, because the charges have been thrown out. Can't a few white boys sexually assault a black woman anymore without people getting all wound up about it? So unfair."

A misguided attempt at sarcasm? "No comment," Marcotte e-mailed Friday. "But thanks for asking!"

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