George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev really are becoming a dream team. Asked a question by a Tass reporter during a press conference at the Helsinki Summit yesterday, they Alphonsed and Gastoned each other over who should respond.
"You go first," Bush appeared to be telling Gorby. "No, no, after you," Gorby gestured in reply. Earlier, they could be seen chuckling together over a caricature that showed the two of them killing off the Cold War.
For George Bush and Dan Rather, however, the feud apparently goes on. Rather reacted angrily Friday when told that Bush had criticized his coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis -- at least according to a Newsweek report that said Bush was irked when Rather referred to the Iraqi people as "brave souls."
"George Bush said that I called them 'brave souls'?" said Rather incredulously from Saudi Arabia before leaving for Helsinki. "I know of no time that I said that." The White House did not respond to an inquiry about the quote Friday.
A CBS News spokesman in New York was unable to find the phrase "brave souls" in a transcript from any edition of "The CBS Evening News," but did find an Aug. 20 broadcast in which Rather paraphrased what Americans living in Iraq had told him about the Iraqis.
"This is what they tell us: The Iraqis are some of the most industrious and progressive people in the Middle East -- tough, proud people, good people, friendly, when they are treated with respect," Rather said on the air.
Newsweek also reported that Bush had grumbles about the work ABC's Ted Koppel did from the Mideast. White House sources claimed American hostages in Baghdad were being moved from hotel to hotel to keep them away from network anchors. Koppel dismissed the comments as "nonsense."
Rather took the criticism a bit harder.
"I deeply resent any question or innuendo about my patriotism or my intentions to do a right journalistic job out here," Rather said. "I take it seriously, and I take offense. I had heard about private backroom grumbling at the White House about coverage, and frankly, I didn't want to believe it."
He'd prefer to think Bush did not make the remarks attributed to him, Rather said.
"I choose to believe the story is in error, and that the president did not really say it. If it is true, it is unworthy of him. We've been out here steadily for about six weeks, and while I have no doubt we probably have made some mistakes, in the main and on the whole, I'm at peace with myself that I've really tried hard to get on the cutting edge of the story and to do the story justice."
Rather anchored a couple of last week's broadcasts against dramatic backgrounds of U.S. military personnel and hardware arriving en masse in Saudi Arabia. He was asked if some of these gung-ho newscasts might not be stirring up war fever back in the States.
"That's a very real concern," he said. "If war fever is being stirred up, however, then it's being stirred up by the top leadership of the United States of America. No member of the press ordered the greatest expeditionary force of modern times out here. Let's have it clearly understood where this came from and who's responsible for it.
"For a long while, I wasn't sure people at home realized the size of the buildup, how enormous it was. One of the things we set out to do was report the reality of that," Rather said.
If the Bush-Rather rift -- begun at a legendary shouting match on the "Evening News" during the 1988 presidential campaign -- is far from over, Rather does seem to have patched up another tiff, one between him and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. In a People magazine interview, Rather blamed "NBC Nightly News" Executive Producer Steve Friedman, who he said "speaks for Tom Brokaw," for the following crack made about Rather's Mideast coverage:
"The only action Dan Rather has seen in Jordan is a fight between housekeeping and room service at the Inter-Continental Hotel."
The remark was made long before Rather landed the first American interview during the present crisis with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Friedman denied making the crack, and is in fact not the type to make derisive comments anonymously. Rather was asked about rumors that he and Brokaw had talked on the phone and patched things up. "It is true that Tom and I have spoken," Rather confirmed. "Tom and I over the years have gotten along very well, and I assume we will in the future."
In praising his own executive producer, Tom Bettag, however, Rather added, "He doesn't spend his time calling critics and journalists."
Perhaps as a gesture of brotherly anchorhood, Brokaw helmed his network's coverage of the Helsinki Summit wearing a sweater under his coat -- a well-known Rather trademark once the leaves turn brown. Brokaw even complained on the air that sweaters in Helsinki cost too much, from $500 to $1,000, though he didn't say how much his had set him back.
It didn't really look like sweater weather in Finland. Peter Jennings could be seen on ABC swatting at a fly, or maybe a bee, that buzzed around in front of him.
On the air, Rather called Helsinki "the world capital of photo opportunities and sound bites," at least temporarily. Bush and Gorbachev really had little if anything to announce. Gorbachev at one point referred mischievously to "a secret" but never quite said what it was. On CNN, Robert Novak told anchor Bernard Shaw that Gorby was just alluding to the pair's talks on the Mideast.
"That one went way over my head," said Shaw. His wasn't the only head.
All the networks sent their anchors to the summit -- Brokaw and Jennings have been virtual shut-ins compared with Rather during the gulf crisis -- because who knew that the two most powerful men in the world could meet and not produce a wee morsel of news?
It's still good to see them being chummy, clubby and buddy-buddy. But somebody ought to drag those funky Finns into the electronic age. The press conference was dogged with dead microphones and technical screw-ups. Gorbachev would speak, and no sound would be heard, or Bush would speak, and reporters would have to shout out that they could not hear.
Once Bush stopped in mid-sentence as he heard the shouts. "Not workin'?" he asked. He gave the microphone a couple of whacks. "Better?" he said, now clearly audible. It was an endearingly human moment.
To the other extreme, a woman reporter, who did not identify herself or her affiliation, used her time to lecture the two world leaders on the importance of the Palestinian question. "I personally feel that" the issue "deserves the attention of the superpowers more than ever," she announced.
As any nut can get a gun, any nut can get a press pass.
Rather wasn't sure Friday whether he would be returning to the States or go right back into the thick of things in the Mideast, or near the thick of things at any rate. "We have a couple things in the fire," he said, declining to elaborate. He has shown amazing stamina. But then, so have viewers who've kept their vigils as the long crisis lengthens.