New York Times reporter Adam Clymer buried the lede in his Sunday “Week in Review” essay addressing the issue of what it was like to be called a “major league asshole” by Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. For most of the piece, Clymer adopts a humble “I’m-just-a-reporter” pose, blinking shyly in the glare of the spotlight. “I tried to fade into the background,” he notes, “which is how newspaper reporters try to work.” He’s surprised when “the lenses were on me, not [GOP candidate Dick Cheney].”
Being attacked by the powerful, Clymer contends, is just part of his job. Here he’s not so humble, boasting that he was once beaten by a Communist mob in Moscow and clocked by one of Sheriff Jim Clark’s deputies in Selma, Ala. He notes that he “never made the Nixon enemies list,” a bit of modesty so false he immediately suggests he should have made the list.
Clymer’s intended, on-the-surface message: I’ve been assaulted by better thugs than you, George W! If Bush took umbrage at his article about health care in Texas, “Hey, it’s a free country. After all, if newspaper reporters wanted to be loved …” This seemingly thick-skinned swagger doesn’t stop Clymer from zinging Bush for not apologizing, however (“I had not heard from him, or his aides.”). The unintended message, of course, is that–as Slate’s Timothy Noah guessed–Clymer was clearly delighted, not “disappointed,” in Bush’s attack, just as he would have liked to have made the Nixon enemies list.
But wait. In the second to last paragraph, Clymer confesses to something. “About 18 months ago,” he says, he was editing an article on Bush’s efforts to study up on the issues. “With feeble gallows humor, I suggested that perhaps he needed the tutorials more than others.” Then, “a spectacular typesetting blunder got my wisecrack printed.” In a subsequent editor’s note, the “Times apologized, sort of.”
Clymer doesn’t say exactly what his “wisecrack” was–to find out, you have to dig out the original article, which was published on March 15, 1999, under the bylines of Richard L. Berke and Rick Lyman. Regarding Bush’s policy studies, the article says, “Politicians in both parties said they had never seen such a comprehensive and elaborate undertaking, particularly this early in a campaign.” Then, it adds:
“There may never have been a ‘serious’ candidate who needed it more.”
Gallows humor or sneering putdown? You be the judge!
Clymer’s buried confession–when supplemented by the actual sentence he inserted–accomplishes two things. First, it more or less shows he really is hostile to Bush. Now we know what he thinks; he thinks Bush is unqualified. That’s fine–it’s a free country! But then Clymer shouldn’t pose as a humble, open-minded reporter who will “sometimes vote” Republican and is therefore shocked and “disappointed” by Bush’s criticism.
Second, it shows, contrary to expectations, that Bush’s personal criticism was fully justified. Imagine that you were running for president, and somebody stuck a snide remark like that in the news section of the most influential paper in America. You’d call the person who did it an “asshole”! Of course Clymer isn’t really an asshole–and he may be right about Bush–but it’s a bit much to expect Bush to take that into account. He had been provoked. And to think, everyone assumed that Bush was reacting only to Clymer’s health-care reporting and his snotty little box about the GOP prescription drug ad!
Clymer’s confession also raises the question: What else are the Times editors writing in that secret font that isn’t supposed to be printed? Wouldn’t it be useful for readers if this exegesis were published along with the official, sanitized text? Certainly it would be more honest, and more informative, than the phony “just a reporter” pose of traditional Timesmen like Clymer.
[How would Bush have known it was Clymer who stuck in the offending sentence?–Ed. Bush would logically have complained to Berke, or someone else at the Times, and they might have defended themselves by fingering Clymer. Or someone could have leaked the Bushies a printout of the Times file complete with the internal annotations. When I was at Newsweek during the 1988 election, the Bush camp spent a surprising amount of energy trying to figure out which of the magazine’s editors was behind a cover line that used the word “Wimp.” You’d think it would be beneath a presidential candidate to care, but it’s not.]
P.S.: Clymer also dismisses the Weekly Standard, which apparently once criticized him, as “from the ideological fringes.” More proof, if you needed it, that in Clymer’s head traditional reporting, Times style, means not “objective” disinterestedness but rather reporting from the established, responsible center–and that what Clymer regards as the responsible center is a bit to the left of what others may regard as the responsible center. (I don’t agree with much of what’s in the Standard, but I don’t think Kristol & Company are ideological nutcases who can simply be disregarded.)