Dubya and the Press
In the Texas media, the Governor walks on water. But elsewhere, he’s beginning to get a little caught in the backwash.
It’s no secret that the Texas press corps loves George W. Bush. And his affection for the hometown media seems as sincere as ours for him. Few politicians are so completely engaging, so utterly disarming. At home in Austin, every press conference begins with a friendly exchange and ends with a joke or personal comment.
As Capitol beat reporters entered the room before a press conference during the past legislative session, almost everyone had something to say about Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater’s stunningly bad haircut. The banter stopped only when the Governor walked in – and he looked around the room and immediately said, “Wayne!” In an instant he was one of us, and the critical distance was gone.
It’s a seemingly insignificant vignette that helps explain the press love affair with the candidate. The relationship didn’t start when Bush began his presidential campaign. At the first big political convention that he attended as a candidate, Bush stayed in the hotel assigned to the Texas press. He was a novice and nobody knew him well. So he tirelessly worked the Sheraton lounge and coffee shop, establishing first-name relationships with everyone who mattered at major Texas dailies or television news bureaus. He was obviously running for something, although the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans belonged to his father and a then-obscure Senator named Dan Quayle. But working the press corps for his father’s campaign was an opportunity for Bush to begin a relationship with reporters. (Paul Alexander’s report in Rolling Stone, and a similar report in the Washington Post – that Bush intended to run for Governor in 1990 until his mother talked him out of it – explains why he was so up-close and personal with Texas media in 1988.)
By 1998, the relationship that began ten years earlier in New Orleans had developed into a love affair. It’s a relationship that illustrates one of the weaknesses of beat reporting, the common practice of assigning reporters to one subject. Unless that subject is Rudy Giuliani, reporters tend to develop close relationships with their subjects. Bush is said to be as volatile as Giuliani, yet Bush avoids confrontations with reporters, which are left to his press secretary, Karen Hughes.
It is, in part, this close relationship between Bush and the Texas press that makes it so difficult for readers in Texas to find stories that critically examine their Governor. There are other reasons that Texans have to subscribe to the Washington Post to learn what George Bush is about. In The Media Monopoly, one of the most insightful books ever published about the corporate media (the only media most Americans see), Berkeley journalism professor Ben Bagdikian writes that reporters learn to respond to the institutional biases of their editors, who in turn learn to respond to the institutional biases of their publishers. As all news outlets are owned by large corporate interests, the bias is overwhelmingly corporate. Reporters know that Bush has more corporate endorsements (and funding) than Michael Jordan, so they realize there is an institutional bias against publishing critical stories about Bush.
In Texas, this deadly mix of the media’s institutional bias and beat reporters’ inclination to fall in love with their subjects has made critical examinations of the Governor’s record hard to find. (It doesn’t help that readers here have fairly low expectations, which newspapers generally fulfill. Or that the big dailies in Texas are notoriously niggardly when it comes to investigative reporting.) Yet there is some excellent reporting. One example is the Houston Chronicle’s R.G Ratcliffe’s exhaustive report on a network of Bush business associates who have benefited from his term in office. Another is Robert Bryce’s dogged reporting on the Governor’s work on behalf of funeral industry giant Service Corporation International. In piecing the story together for the Austin Chronicle and Salon, Bryce established that the Governor lied in an affidavit when he said he had no conversations with the director of S.C.I., the funeral company whose work Bush is alleged to have been doing when he ordered that the director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission be fired.
For a critical examination of the Governor, with few exceptions readers have to look to New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. With that in mind, the Observer staff presents a recap of the past several months of national reporting on Bush. Consider it a greatest hits list: see Rolling Stone, The New Republic, and the Washington Post, to find out what’s not being reported at home.
When Bush Comes to Shove
As George W. Bush’s answers to drug questions came under scrutiny, journalists seemed to rediscover their capacity to question the substance of a candidate – and not just his probable substance abuse. Suddenly there’s a growing sense that the national press might get beyond drugs and begin a careful examination of George W. and “the character thing.”
The character issue was brought into focus in the first issue of Tina Brown’s new monthly magazine, Talk. A Bush profile in the September issue (which was on the stands several weeks earlier) avoids most hard political questions. But it somehow provides a critical look at the character of the man who would be president, and perhaps unwittingly, Tucker Carlson portrays a candidate who is both magnetic and disturbing.
Former Democratic political consultant Mark McKinnon slipped into the confessional mode when describing Bush’s political magnetism. “When I met him, I was like a married guy who sees an attractive woman at a party,” McKinnon says. “I didn’t want to like him. But I couldn’t help it.” The politically philandering McKinnon, who is working on Bush’s media team, formerly worked for Ann Richards. “He is also a former songwriter for Kris Kristofferson,” Carlson reports, leaving the reader to wonder how difficult it was to get that out of McKinnon. McKinnon said he had retired from politics and vowed to spend more time with his family. “Then he met Bush,” Tucker writes, and the rest, McKinnon evidently believes, will be history.
Serving to illuminate the brighter aspects of Bush’s character are McKinnon; a tattooed beer-drinking biker whom Bush steps out of the crowd to embrace at an Austin political rally; and crowds of Bush admirers. Bush himself reveals the dark side. Most disturbing is his callous mockery of Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas in more than 100 years. Bush, who refused to consider a thirty-day stay for Tucker and did not push his parole board to consider clemency, later denied that he made light of the execution of Tucker in the interview. But the offending passage is hard to refute. Bush said he refused to meet with TV interviewer Larry King, when King came to Texas to report on the Tucker execution. Then his comments get weird:
“I watched his interview with [Tucker] though,” Bush said. “He asked her real difficult questions, like ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?'”
“What was her answer,” I wonder.
“Please,” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “don’t kill me.”
Bush was also generous in his use of the expletive “fuck,” a sure turn-off for Christian-right voters. Conservative syndicated columnist George Will was so disturbed by the Talk profile that he actually did some reporting, reviewing a copy of the Larry King/Tucker interview and finding that Tucker had said nothing similar to what Bush told Carlson. Will wondered what Bush was thinking, or if he was thinking – and asked if Bush has the character to serve as president.
Gary Bauer, one of Bush’s rivals in the Republican primaries, called a news conference and handed out copies of the Talk profile, while describing Bush’s behavior as “inappropriate, disgusting, and profoundly disturbing.” Bauer, whose Family Research Council provides him the strongest Christian credentials in the primary pack, also asked why Bush doesn’t know the abortion rate in Texas (which he had also admitted in his interview with Carlson).
The Talk profile has fueled what could become more than a passing examination of Bush’s character, and might increase pressure on him to answer some hard questions about his private life and his political vision.
While Talk provided insight into Bush’s character, the August 16 issue of The New Republic took a hard look at Bush’s record and his cozy relationship with big businesses. John Judis spares the reader gushing accounts of Bush’s childhood and his boyish charm, pausing only to provide a look at what happens when charm isn’t enough. Fielding questions from poor kids in a Baltimore summer program called The Door, Bush stumbled when a little girl asked him if he would raise the minimum wage if he is elected president. At a loss to respond, he tells her it’s up to Congress, then adds that he worries about “pricing people out of work.” Judis writes, “Her question punctured the Pat-the-Bunny unreality of that hot summer afternoon. Bush’s answer was a reminder that, behind the mask of compassion he has donned for this campaign, he is a die-hard conservative on the issues that have historically been among the most important to American voters – those that pit the interests of business against those of ordinary workers and consumers.”
“The press,” according to Judis, “has also been misled by Bush’s lack of a strong theoretical or ideological foundation for his economic views, which they mistake for evidence of his moderate pragmatism. While it’s true that Bush’s economic views are reflexive rather than reflective, all his reflexes are conservative.”
Judis rips into Bush’s record on business-friendly tort reform, which has made it harder for people to sue companies and, not surprisingly, has produced a windfall for insurance companies – which continue to raise rates even as claims drop. Judis also lays out Bush’s dismal environmental record, especially his successful effort to protect the state’s worst polluters by preventing true closure of the grandfathered plant loophole of the Texas Clean Air Act. And he points out that “Bush has picked advisers who share his corporate, conservative inclinations.”
Ex Post Facto
In late July, the Washington Post weighed in with a seven-part 27,000 word series on Bush (almost as long but much kinder than No One Left to Lie To, Christopher Hitchens’ recent book on Bill Clinton). Much of the work of three reporters and three researchers was the same soft biographical material available in Texas Monthly’s special issue on Bush, so flattering that Bush Press Secretary Karen Hughes said so in a long letter to the editors, which the Monthly published. The Post series, however, asks some hard questions, and the answers make it unlikely that reporters there will get a thank you note from Hughes.
Why, for example, was Bush sworn in as an airman on the same day he applied for the Texas National Guard, when he had scored only a 25 on a “pilot aptitude” test – the lowest acceptable grade? The reporting dismisses Bush’s argument that he got no special favors. There were four pilot slots left in the unit he served in, and the applicant with the minimum score got the last one, which the Post reporters imply ishard to believe, as is the argument that this was just a regular National Guard unit. John Connally and Lloyd Bentsen’s sons were members, as were at least seven of the Dallas Cowboys football team. And, of course, George W., whose father was a member of Congress at the time.
One retired Air Force officer comes close to admitting that Bush’s family connections got him into the National Guard, but only because social Darwinism kept the children of privilege out of Vietnam. “The well-to-do kids had enough sense to get on the waiting list,” retired Colonel Rufus Martin told the Post – in a back-handed admission that the Vietnam War was a working-class war. The Post inquiry into Bush’s domestic military history also makes it clear that something unusual was going on and that it involved then-House Speaker Ben Barnes, the late General James Rose, and Barnes aide Nick Kralj, who also served as aide to the director of the Texas Air National Guard.
The Post’s take on Bush’s days in the oilfields of West Texas also vindicates Ann Richard’s argument that her opponent in 1994 was a failed businessman. As in Richards’ campaign, Bush’s career is depicted as a series of failures punctuated by bailouts by white knights either politically or financially connected to Bush’s father. It’s also evident that there would have been no businesses to bail out, were it not for the largesse of that same network. California venture capitalist William H. Draper III provided $93,000 in startup funds, as did Celanese C.E.O. John D. Macomber. Those investments probably had nothing to do with Draper becoming president of the Export-Import Bank under President Ronald Reagan and Macomber being named to the same position by President George Bush.
One $25,000 investor, a Bush classmate from Harvard Business School, admits that “we wrote the money off the minute it was invested.” And Russell E. Reynolds, a Yale classmate of Uncle Jonathan Bush, who inducted him into the Whiffenpoofs, got back about twenty cents on the dollar of the $24,000 he invested. Tax write-offs, Reynolds tells the Post, “mitigated the pain.”
Readers of the Post story are left to wonder what a second President Bush would owe Phillip Uzielli, who paid $1 million for ten percent of Bush’s Arbusto Exploration in 1982 – two years before Arbusto was collapsing again, and changing its name to Bush Oil Exploration. Uzielli is the C.E.O. of a Panamanian company called Executive Resources and does not give interviews to the press.
The Post also explores Bush’s 1990 sale of Harken Oil stock. Harken had bailed Bush out of his final failed oilfield venture in West Texas, by absorbing his company and providing Bush and his partners with one share of Harken stock per five shares of Bush Oil Exploration.
Bush sat on Harken’s board and – without the requisite filing that would have informed the Securities and Exchange Commission of a big insider trade – quietly unloaded his stock at the end of a quarter that had produced huge losses. Bush sold at $4 a share in June of 1990. By early August the stock had fallen to $3 a share. On August 20, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, it hit $2.37.
During the 1994 campaign, Ann Richards described the SEC investigation of Bush’s failure to file his disclosure until eight months after the legal deadline as “at best, incomplete, at worst, a coverup.” The Post’s investigation – which pressed Harken for details and examined the SEC findings – suggests that Richards was right.
Much of this material has appeared, in fragments, in the Texas press. But what is lacking is the sort of thorough investigation and context provided by large dailies and magazines writing for national readerships.
Behind the Bush Myth
Perhaps the most revealing study of the man behind the myth was written for the August 5 issue of Rolling Stone by Paul Alexander, who interviewed over one hundred Bush acquaintances. Texas Monthly beat Rolling Stone to the punch, sending its entire staff out in search of the real Bush for its June issue. But aside from an occasional insight into the early years in Midland, the Monthly’s spread is a celebrity profile, with the usual angle: How do the great ones become great?
Alexander’s point of departure is different: given the disconnect between Bush’s rhetoric – intended to distinguish him from the incumbent and sullied President – and the way he lived his life until quite recently, as a hard partier, what are we to make of the man? Examining Bush’s evolution from frat boy, to failed businessman, to elected official, Alexander moves across ground often ignored and turns up some new details. The fresh reporting is folded into a convincing psychological profile – thoug
not a very flattering one – of a man who excelled at “working the inside game”: that is, recognizing power and accommodating himself to it.
Readers of the Rolling Stone profile will see George W. as an uncommonly gifted opportunist, who has always demonstrated “an almost magical ability to position himself in the channels where the money flows.” Bush was in the money long before he began setting fund-raising records, although many of the investments he attracted to his business ventures came from the same sources now writing checks for his campaign.
In business, as in politics, Bush is a magnet for money. It wasn’t the oil bust that made W.’s early West Texas ventures a failure; his fledgling company, Arbusto, was drilling dry wells and losing money when times were good in the oil patch. And in the face of that failure, it wasn’t perseverance or smart business decisions that saved him. Bush kept his businesses solvent the old fashioned way: shaking down his father’s network of wealthy supporters, who always seemed to arrive with an infusion of cash just as a company was about to go under. Alexander also reports on Phillip Uzielli, who in 1982 bought a 10 percent share of Arbusto, a company with a dismal track record and a negative net worth, for a whopping $1 million. Alexander also found that James Bath, who is linked to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International funny money story, had bought a 10 percent share of the same company for $50,000 -which seems odd considering what Uzielli had to pay for the same holdings. As Alexander observes, without the political nexus there is no logic in the decisions of Bush’s investors. Alexander even finds a weird contradiction in the investments of Uzielli, who paid $1 million for 400 shares in 1982 and $150,000 for 400 shares in 1984.
Alexander explores the Harken Oil and Gas acquisition of Spectrum 7, another failing Bush venture, and follows the money trail of several of the investors to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (B.C.C.I.), which by 1991 had earned a reputation as the “world’s most corrupt financial empire.” Bush has claimed he had no knowledge of B.C.C.I. at the time, but he was present along with other Harken officials at a 1987 meeting in Arkansas, where the sale of five percent of his company to Union Bank of Switzerland was discussed. At the time, B.C.C.I. was in a partnership with a Union Bank operation in Geneva. It was later revealed that the Geneva bank helped B.C.C.I. move large sums of money out of Panama in private jets.
For Texas readers who pay attention to politics, there’s not much news in Alexander’s reporting on Bush’s legislative strategy – which the writer sees as accommodation of the real powers in state government: House Speaker Pete Laney and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. In a savvy strategy attributed to Karl Rove, Bush had beaten Ann Richards in 1994 by sticking to his “four little issues”: reform of the state’s education, welfare, tort, and juvenile justice systems. As Rove knew, the Democratic leadership already had legislation drafted in each of those areas. After beating Richards, Bush had only to hop on board with Laney and Bullock and his first session was a success. When he went against the leadership, in his unsuccessful attempt at major tax reform in 1997, he failed. But he remained on good terms with both Democrats, and when he ran for reelection against Garry Mauro, he did so with Bullock’s endorsement and Laney’s tacit approval.
Through it all, Alexander argues, Bush was driven by a need to measure up to the family name. “The whole key to understanding George W.,” according to his cousin John Ellis, “is his relationship with his father.” In the spring of 1977, after a mediocre career at Yale and Harvard, and what Bush describes as “nomadic years” in Houston, the first son made his way back to Midland, where he had lived as a child. He was thirty years old, without a career, a wife, or a home, and a reputation as the worst-dressed rich kid in town. What followed, in Alexander’s view, was an attempt to prove his worth to his father. Within six months, W. landed a wife, a new company, a home, and a congressional campaign. But the campaign failed, the businesses went bad, and his reputation as a loud-mouth who drank too much never seemed to fade. At forty, after working on his father’s 1988 campaign, he stopped drinking and tried to make a go of it in a different business. This time it took. The Rangers deal finally brought him success and the defeat of Ann Richards brought honor to the family name.
Will a critical mass of critical reporting change the public perception of Bush? In The New Republic, Judis argues that journalism can only do so much, and what’s needed is that the Democratic nominee do his part. “[Bush] could find himself in trouble in the election.” Judis writes. “But for that to happen, his Democratic opponent will have to be at least as successful as the little girl at The Door in exposing the real nature of the Texan’s views.”