New NYT Columnist’s Bush-Boosting History

Frank Bruni has been named the new Sunday op-ed columnist at the New York Times. Bruni has been writing restaurant reviews for the past few years, but came to a lot of people’s attention as the reporter covering the 2000 campaign of George W. Bush. Bruni went on to write a book about that experience, and one of the lessons in the book was that what Bruni actually thought about Bush’s campaign rhetoric and debate performances wasn’t really what he was reporting at the time.

I wrote something about this when the book came out, though I can’t recall whether or not it was ever used anywhere. Part of this was adapted for an episode of CounterSpin, that much I know for sure.

Covering Bush, or Covering Up for Him?

By Peter Hart

Though conservatives still pound away at the idea that the media won’t cut them a break, it’s hard to argue that Bush has been given anything but kid glove treatment from the mainstream press, all the way back to the early days of his candidacy.

A new book by New York Times correspondent Frank Bruni fills in some of the details in Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush. While it is a peek behind the curtains of one of the most guarded and careful administrations in recent memory, the book also tells another, perhaps more important story about a rather lazy and inconsistent press corps.

Though he doesn’t make much of it, Bruni offers some valuable evidence that he pulled his punches while covering Bush. Sometimes the evidence is clear. Bruni explains that at one point he “deliberately soft-pedaled” Bush’s difficulties explaining his tax cut and his apparent trouble communicating in his native tongue. In the home stretch of the campaign, Bruni writes that he gave only cursory attention to Bush’s late acknowledgment of an arrest for driving under the influence. Bruni’s story led not with the arrest details but with Bush’s “lashing out” at Al Gore over an unrelated matter. The curious news judgment earned Bruni a hearty endorsement from the Texas governor: “You’re a good man.”

In other areas, Bruni is not so forthcoming. In the book, Bush is “at best mediocre” in his first debate with Al Gore, and from where Bruni sat it looked like “Bush was in the process of losing the presidency.” Sadly, his newspaper reporting was almost a mirror image: Bruni led his October 4 debate report not with how bad Bush was, but how obnoxious Al Gore was. In fact, the first four paragraphs are all Gore, whose “self-satisfied grin” and “oratorical intimidation” just rubbed Bruni the wrong way. It’s nice to now Bruni’s now getting around to telling us how he really felt–long after it matters.

This revisionism continued once Bush took office. As Bruni explains in the book, on Bush’s first day in office he reinstated a ban on federal funding for groups overseas that provide abortion counseling, sometimes called the “gag rule.” Bush’s explanation was different, though; he said that he was acting to limit federal dollars from being used to promote abortion. A good catch, but one Bruni failed to make at the time, preferring instead to accept Bush’s “conviction” without a word to suggest Bush was not telling the whole truth. Other reporters managed to nail Bush for his deception.

Since Bruni provides little evidence to suggest that he was a cut above his peers on the campaign trail, one can assume that the image of a president that seems aloof, careless or even inattentive has nothing to do with media being too critical of him. In fact, it’s more likely that we only know the half of it. And who’s to blame for that? Bruni, for one, thinks that “modern politics wasn’t just superficial because the politicians made it so. It was superficial because the voters let it be.” If thatâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s the case, then those charged with exposing political chicanery–namely, folks like Bruni himself–have plenty of work to do. It’s too bad they seem so unlikely to step up to the plate.

Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler also documented the wide gap between what Bruni wrote in his book and what he wrote in the New York Times.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.