Last week, after George W. Bush and Al Gore locked up the presidential nominations, political reporters–a notoriously whiny lot–started grousing that they wouldn’t have anything to write about for the next eight months. (God forbid they should turn their attention to anything the government actually does, like today’s scheduled House vote to federalize local zoning decisions. Everybody knows that elections are much more important than the boring stuff the winners do once they assume office.) Chatterbox figured that if political reporters lacked anything real to write about, they’d gin up make-believe controversies. And he was right. An excellent example leads today’s New York Times under the headline, “Bush Rebuffs Bid To Embrace Views Pushed By McCain.” A more honest headline would be: “New York Times Gets Exclusive Interview With Candidate But Can’t Think What To Ask Him.”
The thrust of the story is that George W. Bush is a jerk for not rushing to embrace John McCain–even though McCain, who lost the nomination to Bush, has made no moves to endorse Bush and has hinted that he wants to make trouble for Bush at this summer’s Philadelphia convention. We learn that in the interview Bush “passed up several opportunities to embrace Mr. McCain’s remedy for overhauling the campaign finance system,” with which Bush is in apparently sincere disagreement. We learn that Bush is “sparing in his praise of McCain” (imagine that!) and says that McCain “didn’t change my views.” When Bush is “reminded that Mr. McCain helped propel record turnouts in the primaries,” Bush has the nerve to reply “curtly, ‘Well, then, how come he didn’t win?’ ” Actually, Dubya makes a good point.
In the Times’ view, though, it’s wrong for Bush to take any encouragement from the fact that he beat McCain:
Mr. Bush’s comments were notable [“notable” is a newspaper euphemism for “objectionable”] because they suggested that despite the bruising, bitter and sometimes humbling nature of his primary campaign against Mr. McCain, the governor emerged without any regrets about his campaign’s conduct, any second thoughts about his strategy or any new resolves for the way he positions himself for the general election. His confidence, if anything, seemed fortified.
Chatterbox can understand why the Times would be disappointed that McCain didn’t get the nomination. Chatterbox agrees with the Times that McCain is more appealing than Bush, would be a more formidable opponent to Gore, and, if elected, probably would make a better president than Bush ever would. But none of these things can fairly be said to be Bush’s fault. The failure to recognize and reward McCain’s superiority as a candidate should more properly be blamed on Republican primary voters. But the conventions of daily journalism don’t allow the Times to lead with an argumentative piece that says Republican primary voters Just Don’t Get It. Hey, those clueless voters are The People, and they happen to buy a lot of newspapers! So instead, the Times has published an argumentative (and specious) piece saying that Bush Just Doesn’t Get It.
Rather than cuff Bush for failing to be properly humble in victory, the Times could have asked Bush why the bomb-throwing Republican House has lately taken more moderate stances on taxes than he has. On Tuesday, the House leadership rejected Bush’s call to repeal the “Clinton-Gore” gas tax of 1993. On Wednesday, the House budget committee voted for a tax cut that was much smaller ($150 billion to $250 billion) than the one favored by Bush ($483 billion)–and defeated the Bush proposal when a vote on it was forced by mischievous Democrats. (You can read all about the latter in a separate, much better Page One article in today’s Times.) The apparent split between House Republicans and their putative presidential nominee is a much more important and interesting story than whatever bad feelings may linger between Bush and McCain. But in the absurdly balkanized world of newspaper beats, it’s a “Congress” story rather than a “presidential campaign” story, and therefore less important.
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