Ballot Box

Puff Patrol

Three presidential candidates have been receiving kid-glove treatment from the press thus far. Two of them, John McCain and Bill Bradley, are conventional media-favorite candidates. They’re underdogs whom reporters like and respect. The third, George W. Bush, has been winning glowing notices for different reasons. Journalists, who expect W. to win the GOP nomination and maybe the presidency, are ingratiating themselves with his campaign for the sake of future access. They’re also genuinely curious about the phenomenon of Bush’s popularity and are trying to explain it–starting from the premise that it must be justified.

A fine example of how Bush gets the benefit of the doubt not available to, say, Al Gore, is Tucker Carlson’s profile in the first issue of Talk. This isn’t actually a bad article. Reading it, you get a better sense of Bush as a character than from the tens of thousands of words lavished upon him by Texas Monthly and the Washington Post. It is nonetheless a classic puffer, which sets out to depict Bush’s decency and compassion rather than question whether these qualities are, in fact, genuine. Carlson describes W. as the kind of guy who cries when talking about his father and loves telling rich contributors to quit being so damned selfish.

He is also, apparently, the kind of guy who thinks that a condemned woman begging for her life is knee-slappingly hilarious. Carlson recounts asking Bush about his handling of the Karla Faye Tucker episode last year. Tucker, you may recall, was the rehabilitated axe murderess whose faith-based request for clemency Bush chose not to grant despite pleas from Pat Robertson (which paradoxically made him more eager to execute her–the better to distance himself from the religious right). Here’s Carlson’s recounting of the way Bush mimicked Tucker’s eleventh-hour appearance on Larry King Live: “Please,” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “don’t kill me.”

Carlson uses this vignette to make the point that Bush has a long memory for slights, in this case the lethal injectee’s accusation that he was caving to election-year pressure by signing her death warrant. Absent W.’s halo effect, I think a different spin might have suggested itself: If this is compassionate conservatism, what on earth is the heartless kind like?