George W. Bush’s ascent to the presidency is messing with Chatterbox’s head. Judging from what he’s been reading in the newspapers lately, it’s messing with a lot of other Washington journalists’ heads, too. A glib conservative explanation would be that few Washington reporters voted for Bush. In fact, personal preference plays no role here at all. No similar disorientation occurred when George Bush Sr. assumed the presidency in 1989, or even when Ronald Reagan moved in in 1981. And there were probably more liberals in the Washington press corps then than there are now. Rather, this fugue state arises from the fact that we never really expected Bush would make it to the White House. The Gore campaign had its ups and downs, but Gore seemed the smart bet all along. As vice president, he had the advantage of quasi-incumbency. The economy was humming, and people were generally satisfied with the direction the country was going. Seemingly foolproof mathematical formulae demonstrated that the party in power always keeps the White House under such circumstances. To top it off, Gore was obviously more knowledgeable, and almost certainly more intelligent, than Bush.
Does this show that Washington reporters are pathetically out of touch? Chatterbox would argue not. Remember, Gore did win in the sense that he got 539,947 more votes nationwide than Bush. It wasn’t even all that close! In the Feb. 22 issue of the New York Review of Books, Mark Danner observes, “The 2000 election was not even the closest in my lifetime.” (Danner is in his early 40s.) In 1968, Nixon beat Humphrey by 510,314, and in 1960, Kennedy beat Nixon by a mere 118,574. There’s also the much discussed likelihood that Gore was the rightful winner in the Electoral College, though for the moment, we don’t really know. Of course, it’s too late to do anything about that now.
One specimen of Washington journalists’ brain fever is the Feb. 12 Washington Post, which declares Bush a secret right-winger on Page One and a secret moderate on Page Three. Despite its multiple many-part candidate bios of Bush, neither the Post nor anyone else has a very clear first impression of the 43rd president. On balance, that may be a good thing since clear first impressions of presidents are always wrong. The Feb. 9 Wall Street Journal had an article by Bob Davis arguing this point with hilariously off-the-mark examples. Richard Nixon, for instance, was glibly pronounced “undramatic” and “smaller than reality” by the Post in April 1969. Tell it to Bob Woodward! And Nixon, unlike Dubya, assumed office with a long and familiar public record. Washington journalism’s current mental dysfunction also explains its continuing fixation on Bill Clinton. Even granting that Clinton brought unfavorable attention on himself with his appalling Marc Rich pardon, it’s nothing short of remarkable that the hottest political story in Washington concerns an unemployed guy in New York. Press weathervane Arlen “Not Proved” Specter has even gone so far as to suggest that Clinton be impeached, out of office, all over again. What can possibly explain so perverse a suggestion? The horrible alternative of having to focus on, and feign understanding of, George W. Bush.