The same old story continued: But seriously though, folks! Do you even understand the theory behind this type of campaign reporting?
CORASANITI (5/22/15): 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.That’s the way the New York Times opened a recent “campaign report” about the wonderfully accessible Candidate Bush, who stands in wonderful contrast to that other person.
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.
Do you have the slightest idea what the logic of that report might be? More specifically, why in the world would some campaign reporter toss that “intimate inquiry” to a White House contender?
“Who in his family was ailing with Alzheimer’s?” How on earth would a campaign reporter come up with a question like that?
We don’t have the slightest idea how such “journalism” works. Nor do we know why voters should care about Bush’s intimate answer, which “would have gone unknown and unreported” had he failed to respond.
Just a guess! This young reporter for the Times seems to think that campaign reporting involves an effort to learn who the candidates “really are” deep inside. When young reporters start thinking that way, we advise you to check your wallets.
(Older reporters have worked that way for several decades now. Way back when, Katherine Boo called it Creeping Dowdism.)
Young Corasaniti lavished praise on Candidate Bush for his open, available, engaging ways. As he continued, his language reminded us of the language Frank Bruni had used to praise a previous Candidate Bush, way back in 1999.
In the fall of that year, Bruni was spilling with praise for Bush’s effusive glad-handing on the campaign trail. By the spring of 2000, the “media-friendly” part of the package was there for all to see in Bruni’s fawning work.
By now, Saint John McCain had left the race for the White House. Starting in December 1999, his sudden rise in the New Hampshire polls made him the stand-alone darling of the national press corps.
(About that, all agree.)
Even Bruni’s ardor for Candidate Bush seemed to cool during this period. Now, with McCain’s campaign a thing of the past, it was safe for reporters to fawn about Candidate Bush again.
It was also safe for Candidate Bush to interact with reporters again. For several months, that had stopped as their fawning focused solely on McCain—as Bush’s occasional bungled statements were suddenly treated as news.
Now, McCain was out of the race. Bush began chumming around with reporters again. Bruni described it like this:
BRUNI (4/14/00): It did seem to take the Straight Talk Express, a perpetual group interview on wheels, to nudge Mr. Bush onto the same airplane as reporters. (Mr. Bush never opened up his bus in a similar fashion.)“During flights last week, he talked baseball with one network producer,” Bruni reported this day. “He listened sympathetically to another network producer's romantic travails. He confessed that he never saw the movie ‘Titanic’ but loved ‘Austin Powers’ and its sequel, phrases and gestures from which sometimes inform his banter.”
But now that Mr. Bush is among his shadows, he gives every appearance of enjoying being there.
He not only slaps reporters' backs but also rubs the tops of their heads and, in a few instances, pinches their cheeks. It is the tactile equivalent of the nicknames he doles out to many of them and belongs to a teasing style of interpersonal relations that undoubtedly harks back to his fraternity days.
Last week, he turned to a reporter who grew up in the arid expanse of Australia's most famous rural region with a mock suggestion.
"Outback woman!" he said. "One of the things I'd like to do sometime is have dinner with you at the Outback steakhouse. That way, we'd have the Outback woman at the Outback steakhouse."
We’re not saying that Bruni’s report was inaccurate. In truth, it’s an important record of the unprofessional way our campaign reporters were going about their business.
Candidate Bush had been a target for several months while McCain was ascendant. Now, Bush was the children’s favorite again. Candidate Gore was now their only target.
For that reason, Candidate Gore still had to watch every syllable out of his mouth. Candidate Bush returned to his practice of rubbing journalists’ heads, pinching their cheeks and pretending he cared about their romantic endeavors.
He was also dishing those nicknames. In the Times, “Panchito” was praising Candidate Bush for being so media-friendly. And of course, he was snarking at that other person, Candidate Gore:
BRUNI: [Bush] articulated his hopes for the cows and bulls on his Texas ranch.The pattern which Bruni described and enacted in this piece dates at least to Kennedy/Nixon. The basic rules were already clear in Theodore White’s iconic book, The Making of the President 1960:
"You know about my abstinence program?" he asked, referring to his efforts in Texas to encourage sexual restraint among teenagers. "We have not extended that to the agricultural world."
And he talked, and talked, and talked, about the serious and frivolous, everything and nothing, for an hour during one flight and nearly 90 minutes during another, underlining a striking evolution of his methods and a new element in his identity.
With Senator John McCain out of the running and the Straight Talk Express at least temporarily out of gas, Mr. Bush has reached boldly for the mantle of Chattiest Candidate. And he has pretty well grabbed hold of it.
That gesture is self-serving and not necessarily permanent, obviously designed to build rapport with reporters in a more relaxed phase of the campaign, erase any impressions that he is lost without a script and highlight the approachable demeanor that his aides consider one of his political strengths.
It is also a clear effort to put his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, to shame. Not only does Mr. Gore keep mostly to himself on his airplane; he has not held a news conference since Feb. 19. (Mr. Bush typically holds several a week.)
The targeted candidate must hold himself apart from the traveling press corps. The preferred candidate would be well advised to clown around with the kids on the bus.
He should pretend to enjoy their company. He should pretend to seek their advice, as White described Candidate Kennedy doing.
Flattered by the rubbing of heads, they’ll write good things about this media-friendly fellow. They’ll aim jibes at the other candidate—at the one who won’t discuss his plans for the cows and bulls on his ranch.
Will some such pattern obtain in the reporting of our latest endless White House campaign? Unless you think it doesn’t matter who goes to the White House two years from now, we think you should already be concerned by this possibility.
For quotes from White’s iconic book, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/14/03. It seems it was ever thus!