Ballot Box

Minutes of the Media Conspiracy

The central committee of the Media Conspiracy met today in a press tent at the perimeter of the Bush ranch in Crawford. It’s been a chilly winter here in Texas, so we had portable heaters set up inside the makeshift filing center where many of us have been more or less living for the past couple of weeks. It’s a bit primitive, but at least the food is good. Today’s lunch was courtesy of Johnny Apple, who stood outside in a Carhartt apron tending a mesquite fire. Personally, I would never have thought to put foie gras in chili, but Johnny’s five-alarm version really is delicious.

The revered “Dean” of the Washington Press Corps, David Broder, called the meeting to order. He was just back from Sacramento, where he’d been reporting on the early career of Ann Veneman, Bush’s nominee for agriculture secretary. I don’t think I’m breaching a confidence by repeating Broder’s comment to me before the meeting that Veneman is “eminently qualified.” Apparently, she did some amazing work with the California Legislature’s Ag Committee on citrus canker in the mid-1980s.

The Dean began by noting that we haven’t met in a good long while, unless you count those on-the-fly sessions in Tallahassee. (For minutes of previous meetings, click here, here, here, and here.) Broder said he didn’t want to revisit the issue in detail, but that we all had some soul-searching to do about our role in the Florida debacle. For one thing, he pointed out that the 35-day post-election ordeal resulted in several of us having to cancel vacations and forfeit nonrefundable airline tickets. For another, it led to a complete suspension of Godfrey Sperling breakfasts for more than a month. There were murmurs of agreement when Broder said that next time we should try to produce a close race without assigning ourselves so much extra work.

On the agenda for today’s meeting was the Bush honeymoon with the press and whether there’s even going to be one. Not many of us were happy about canceling Bill Clinton’s honeymoon in 1992. On the other hand, we had little choice. Those bumpkins from Arkansas couldn’t seem to understand that they didn’t get to call the shots in Washington the way they did back home. Now, Broder said, there were alarming signals that the Austin crew wanted to set its own rules as well.

Helen Thomas of (I think) UPI was the first to interject. Thomas is a legendary figure in journalism because she has retired many times while her news organization has repeatedly gone bankrupt. No one knows whether she still receives a paycheck. Yet she shows up for work every day of the year, including Christmas and New Year’s. Thomas said that Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, whom she referred to as “the young whippersnapper,” was as arrogant as George Stephanopoulos, whom she’d had to put in his place eight years ago. Already, Fleischer was dropping hints that reporters weren’t going to be allowed to wander freely in the family quarters of the White House when the first family was in town. 

Howard Fineman of Newsweek said that arrogance wasn’t the only problem. The Bush people were such greenhorns in Washington that they weren’t even leaking insider accounts of meetings. It reminded him of the Carter administration. Howard said the Bushies didn’t seem understand the special role of the weekly newsmagazines in reporting on what senior White House officials eat and drink in key meetings. How hard was it for them to comprehend that we needed menus and that we needed them on deep background. If they told us what everyone ate on the record, who would care?

Dan Rather spoke next. There was a light drizzle outside, and he was ready for it in North Face expedition gear and a fur-collared hood that looked like something from Adm. Byrd’s expedition to the North Pole. He wasn’t happy that he’d had to leave the Four Seasons in Austin. “It’s as cold in here as a dead Eskimo in the Juneau morgue,” he said, using one of the trademark expressions of whatever region it is he comes from. “As cold as a witch’s teat in Halloween in Newfoundland.” Once through with these preliminaries, Rather suggested we should lay down a marker by sabotaging one of the Bush Cabinet nominees. “Kick ‘em where the fireflies don’t glow,” was the phrase I believe he used.

Tom Johnson of CNN endorsed this suggestion. “We have three choices,” he said. “John Ashcroft, Gale Norton, or Linda Chavez. The Dean has already said all the others are bold choices and highly qualified individuals.”

Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe responded on the behalf of the liberal interest groups. He said People for the American Way, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood would be horrified if we took down Ashcroft, who promised the biggest fund-raising bonanza since Clarence Thomas. And the Sierra Club would be upset if anything went wrong with the Norton nomination. They had already printed up a killer direct mail piece based on the concept of James Watt in a dress. 

Steve and Cokie Roberts rose next. As usual, they spoke in unison. They said the Hispanic groups wouldn’t mind us ganging up on Chavez since she wasn’t really one of them. Moreover, they had a moral objection to indentured servitude. Yes, it was hard to find good help in Washington. But even if you had to hire an illegal cook, housekeeper, nanny, driver, and butler, you should still pay them the minimum wage.

A consensus seemed to be forming around this point when who should saunter into the tent but Karl Rove himself. He’d been driving by in his Lexus pickup when he caught a whiff of R.W.’s home cookin’ and slammed on the brakes. Rove was on his way back from the closest bookstore, in Dallas, where he’d gone gathering some reading matter for the president-elect. He had some devotional material on tape, a Garfield calendar, and I’m not sure what else. Anyhow, we gave it to Rove straight up:

“Karl,” said Mike Duffy from Time, “Come in and have some chili. We need to talk. We’re getting bupkus from you guys–no interviews, no background briefings, no texture, nothing. We need some menus, dammit!” 

Tim Russert played bad cop. “If this keeps up, Karl, we’re going to have to start writing that the president seems detached and unfocused,” he warned. “We might even have to start describing the incoming White House team as chaotic.”

Karl winced, but everyone else in the room chuckled. I’m new enough to the group to miss some of these inside references, but Al Hunt always fills me in. He whispered to me that “chaotic,” is a term of art among reporters. It means “the White House chief of staff doesn’t return my phone calls.”

Rove was defensive at first. Did we expect Bush to hold an extemporaneous press conference? Surely we didn’t hate him so much that we would wish a thing like that on him. Karl said he’d tried his best to keep us supplied with anecdotes and insider detail. Didn’t we appreciate the leak that Ernie, one of the Bush cats, might not be moving to Washington because of his claws? They’d intentionally waited three days to confirm the report, just to create some drama for us. Hadn’t the press secretary told us that the president-elect was busy clearing brush at the ranch?

Actually, Russert said, the American people might be interested to know what clearing brush really meant. Karl grimaced again.

Howie Kurtz of the Washington Post joined what was turning into an all-out vent session. His book on radio coverage of the Bush transition was due on Thursday, and he had no color in it at all. How would Rove like it if op-ed columnists started calling for a Washington wise man to help show the Bushies the ropes? Elizabeth Drew had a column ready to go. Sally Quinn would write if necessary. From the back of the tent, David Gergen emitted a frightening grunt. 

“OK, OK,” said Karl, retreating from the tent. “I read you. I’ll get y’all some menus.”

With that, the Dean wrapped things up. It seemed that our demand for inside stuff was finally getting through to the Bush team. But we’ll make an example out of Chavez, just in case.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.