Part 2—As pioneered by the younger Frank Bruni: Viewed as a system, our system of endless White House campaigns has its pros and its cons.
On the plus side, the system is good for hotel and restaurant interests in Iowa and New Hampshire. It lets partisan channels burn oodles of time snarking at the other party’s three hundred early contenders.
There’s also a down side to the endlessness of these campaigns. On the down side, our endless campaigns can lead to silly “campaign reporting” of the kind we found in Friday’s New York Times.
Candidate Christie was swearing too much! Candidate Clinton got fluffed! These utterly trivial news reports sat together on a page which featured an utterly trivial “campaign report” about the remarkably outgoing, candid, intimate and friendly Candidate Bush.
As part of a long tradition, Nick Corasaniti is the latest young reporter the Times has turned loose on the trail. His report was bannered across the top of the page which bore the other reports.
Hopeful-affirming headline included, this is the way it began:
CORASANITI (5/22/15): Jeb Bush Opens His Campaign Playbook by Opening HimselfCandidly, that’s just sad.
BEDFORD, N.H.—His S.U.V.’s motor was running and an open door beckoned. But Jeb Bush, quite possibly the most media-friendly hopeful in the Republican presidential field, was not done answering questions.
A journalist tossed him an intimate inquiry, the kind usually brushed off by politicians: Who in his family was ailing with Alzheimer’s?
Mr. Bush, his back to the reporter and an escape within reach, nevertheless whirled around. “My mother-in-law has dementia and she’s 94 years old,” he responded. “She’s a gift from God; she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.”
The candid, personal detail would have gone unknown and unreported had Mr. Bush not stopped to answer a question. But that has been his hallmark throughout his two-day swing through New Hampshire: He has been open, available and engaging, in contrast with the stage-managed, tightly controlled events held by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
By paragraph 4, the young reporter was pounding away at the hopeful who hasn’t been open, available and media-friendly. This is one of the same old stories you’ve read a million times as newspapers like the New York Times pretend to cover campaigns.
Candidate Bush has been most media-friendly! In contrast to Candidate Clinton! That said, please note the boon the public received as a result of that open and friendly behavior:
The public learned that Candidate Bush’s 94-year-old grandmother has dementia. Also, that she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever met!
“The candid, personal detail would have gone unknown and unreported had Mr. Bush not stopped to answer a question,” the young reporter said. He failed to note that this “candid detail” provides nothing useful to any voter. The excited young scribe was drowning the public in useless distraction again!
Alas! When our campaigns drag on for two years, this is the way they get covered. On the one hand, campaign reporters pound away at the candidates who aren’t sufficiently “media-friendly.” At the same time, when they put their news judgment on display, they help us see why certain candidates might be well advised to steer away from the filters they will provide.
Corasaniti seemed to be blown away by the openness of Candidate Bush. As he continued, he continued hailing the hopeful for his media-friendly behavior.
As we read this passage which follows, we were struck by the way it repeated a story the New York Times told the last time a Candidate Bush hit the trail in pursuit of the White House. To our well-trained ear, this had the unmistakable sound of a “same old story:”
CORASANITI (continuing directly): But the openness carries risks, too, as shown when he engaged in a debate last week with a college student in Nevada who told him before a pack of reporters that “your brother created ISIS.” It was an instant viral moment, one that put Mr. Bush on the defensive.Corasaniti sailed past the various problems this candidate had with his openness last week. He said a college student’s question “didn’t seem to deter him in New Hampshire,” then went back to marveling at the open, honest and “playful” way the candidate conducted himself on the trail in that state.
Still, that encounter did not seem to deter him in New Hampshire this week. At a press gathering in Portsmouth, he shouted over his shoulder while being shoved toward an S.U.V. when asked about the troop levels in Iraq. He stopped to speak in Spanish with a voter after an event in Concord. And he playfully grabbed at a boom microphone dangling over his car in Salem, before apologizing and saying he didn’t know they could break. (The microphone was fine.)
“I really like campaigning,” Mr. Bush said as he began his two-day swing in Portsmouth, before quickly adding, “I’m not a candidate.”
Mr. Bush has even alluded to the contrast with Mrs. Clinton, who finally answered questions from the news media this week after coming under increasing criticism for failing to engage reporters. Mr. Bush regularly mentions how many questions he has fielded, and at one point was counting the number of questions Mrs. Clinton had taken.
Reporting like this is highly subjective. It’s highly subject to being tilted, depending on a reporter’s point of view, or that of his superiors.
It also seems to be highly subject to repetition. This is precisely the way the New York Times portrayed the previous Candidate Bush when he was on the trail in New Hampshire in 1999.
We refer to the upbeat campaign reporting of Frank Bruni, who was then a young, inexperienced political reporter himself. Starting in September 1999, Bruni’s treatment of Candidate Bush was so fawning that it has even been mentioned by people other than us. In late November of that year, he delivered the same upbeat, subjective portrait Corasaniti delivered last Friday.
On November 4 of that year, Bruni had told the world that Candidate Bush “wrapped up a feverishly busy visit to New Hampshire that saw him log hundreds of road miles, lunge for every hand in his path and, above all, look less like a carefree front-runner than a scrappy contender who had indeed broken a sweat.”
That was a down payment on what was to come. Three weeks later, Bruni delivered the same portrait we read in the Times last week.
Shakespearean headline included, this is the way he started, though the profile went on and on:
BRUNI (11/27/99): Levity the Soul Of Bush, a Puck Among the PolsOn and on the description went. We aren’t saying that Bruni’s description of Bush was “wrong.” We’re saying that, to a weird degree, it’s the same old story Corsaniti just told:
As George W. Bush loped through the headquarters of the Timberland Company here, he might have been any candidate in the hunt for votes, any pol on the path toward the presidency. He tirelessly shook hands, dutifully took questions and let a multitude of promises bloom.
But there was something different about Governor Bush's approach, something jazzier and jauntier. It came out in the way he praised a 20-year-old man for his "articulate" remarks, then appended the high-minded compliment with a surprising term of endearment.
"Dude," Mr. Bush called his new acquaintance.
It emerged again when Mr. Bush crossed paths with an elderly employee, and she told him that he had her support.
"I'll seal it with a kiss!" Mr. Bush proposed and, wearing a vaguely naughty expression, swooped down on the captive seamstress.
BRUNI: Mr. Bush's arm curled tight around the shoulders of other voters; he arched his eyebrows and threw coquettish grins and conspiratorial glances their way. It was campaigning as facial calisthenics, and Mr. Bush was its Jack LaLanne.“Interestingly, it is sometimes Mr. Bush's most mischievous moments that demonstrate how astute he can be,” Bruni wrote before he finished the day’s sponge bath. He went on and on and on this day, presenting the highly subjective portrait which we almost thought we were reading again, in shortened form, in last Friday’s Times.
He is frequently that way. When Mr. Bush is not reciting memorized lines in an official speech or rendering careful answers in a formal interview, he is physically expansive and verbally irreverent, folksy and feisty, a politician more playful than most of his peers.
This disarming demeanor goes a long way toward explaining the commitment and confidence of Mr. Bush's core Republican supporters. They clearly see in the two-term Texas governor a warmth and affability that provide a sharp, necessary contrast to the brooding of a Bob Dole or the belligerence of a Newt Gingrich.
Candidate Bush went on to lose New Hampshire by 19 points. Bruni’s sense that he was watching a political genius may have been somewhat inaccurate.
That said, he wasn’t the first Timesman to offer that portrait of Bush that year. In August, the dean of the Times political staff had painted the same picture in yet another over-the-top affirmative profile of the “loosy-goosey, laughter-punctuated” style of the talented hopeful.
Upbeat headline included, Johnny Apple started like this:
APPLE (8/21/99): A Gregarious Bush Warms to PolitickingLast Friday, Corasaniti waited until paragraph 4 before he named the candidate you’re supposed to dislike. Perhaps due to his seniority, Apple had unsheathed the knives by just his third paragraph.
Former President George Bush's biggest problem, an old friend of his once suggested, was that he liked policy a lot more than politics.
Nobody who has watched him would ever say that about Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who plunges into crowds—a crowd of 10 at an airport late at night, a crowd of hundreds at a fund-raiser, a crowd of thousands at a rally—with all the enthusiasm of Bill Clinton or Nelson A. Rockefeller or that formidable flesh-pressing Texan of yesteryear, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Nobody would ever mistake him for Vice President Al Gore.
Apple went on and on, for 1600 words, about Bush’s unparalleled greatness. He marveled at Bush’s joke-telling skill with 6-year-olds and at his skill with adults as well:
APPLE: Nothing seemed to faze Mr. Bush in the slightest as he moved slowly past market stalls stacked high with peaches, pole beans, Japanese eggplants and Silver Queen corn, the bounty of late summer in the Virginia Piedmont. After he had spent more than an hour shaking hands, posing for photographs, chatting about the military and the local museum and the weather, kissing a baby swathed in pink (and a grandmother or two as well), complimenting Gina Thomas on her "good-looking" family of four children and signing a lot of autographs, a man handed him a $100 bill and asked him to sign that.That Candidate Bush cited his mother, not his grandmother. For ourselves, we’d say that Apple gave Candidate Bush a “chummy punch on the arm” this day. When he did his profile of Candidate Gore, it was a poisonous mess.
"You must be doing pretty darn well," Mr. Bush said.
"Not as well as you and your father," the man replied, and the Governor, laughing, gave him a chummy punch on the upper arm.
Where did this come from, a campaign visitor asked, this knack for putting people at ease, this common touch? Well, Mr. Bush said pointedly, he grew up in Midland, Tex., and not in Greenwich, Conn., like his father. Then he thought a minute and added, "I must get it from my mother."
This is the kind of piddle we get when our pseudo-campaigns go on forever. Hotels in New Hampshire make a killing. The public gets stuck with this.
When we read Corasaniti’s report, we had a strong sense of déjà vu. A young reporter was gushing about the openness of a Candidate Bush! Just where had we read that story before?
We knew where we had read it, of course. We think Dems and liberals should be concerned by this style of “campaign reporting,” even if they prefer the politics of Bernie Sanders to that of the hopeful we’re being encouraged to dislike this time around.
Tomorrow: Bruni’s latest column inspires a same old story
This afternoon: Bruni expands that same old portrait in April 2000