Aggressive reporters and politicians are never going to get along, so we might as well accept that and watch the game as it is truly being played, not as we’d like it to be played. George W. Bush really does think that New York Times reporter Adam Clymer is a jerk and didn’t take back the pithy comment he made in front of an open microphone. At least the governor isn’t a hypocrite.
And he has some reason to dislike Clymer. In the spring of 1999, the reporter filed an article describing how hard Bush was working to bone up on national issues. In that piece Clymer suggested that Bush needed the tutorial more than others did. Since Clymer wasn’t writing an op-ed piece, the Times had to apologize the next day in an “editor’s note.” Clymer says he was just fooling around and never meant the jab to get into print but damage done is damage done so Bush has a perfect right to loathe this guy.
But the name-calling incident has hurt Bush because much of the press is petty and will exact revenge if a politician sneers at them. Hello Richard Nixon. Sen. John McCain played the press like a trampoline and bounced gleefully as his coverage at times glowed. McCain understood that the egos of reporters and editors are massive and the more you massage them – the better they’ll like you. McCain was accessible to most political reporters and they loved him for it. Gov. Bush should check that out.
There is no question that The New York Times will support Al Gore, and George W. Bush knows it. The Times editorial page almost had a collective heart attack after the governor’s successful speech at the Republican convention. But the Times has to appear to be fair. So if Bush would just engage those left-leaning rascals a little, his overall coverage would improve. Calling one of their reporters a petty name just feeds the media hostility toward the governor and gives the late night comics material for weeks.
Al Gore is much more sophisticated about the media. Mr. Gore can’t stand me because I continually report on how the programs he is espousing have failed in the past and how the vice president is addicted to spending as opposed to thinking. But rather than broadside me directly, he has quietly issued orders to his staff to boycott my program “The O’Reilly Factor,” and his people suggest that other Democrats do the same.
Since I have never been disrespectful to the vice president or said anything about him that wasn’t factually correct, he has no real reason to launch a jihad against “The Factor.” His underlings told my staff they would not participate on the program because I “interrupt too much.” Translation: They want free spin time and know they won’t get it on “The Factor.”
But plenty of other places will give it to them, so the Gore campaign is feeling no pain. At least not yet. Americans, I believe, are convinced that both candidates are programmed zombies who cannot stand up to tough questioning.
That gives George W. Bush an opportunity. When I interviewed him last March, the governor took the tough questions directly and emerged looking authoritative and genuine. He should do more interviews where he lets it fly. He should give Adam Clymer an interview and dust it up with him. He should go on Letterman and Leno and other high-profile venues and convince Americans that his character and programs are better than Al Gore’s. So what if he makes a mistake or a grammatical error? The New York Times might hop on it but the real people in this country don’t care about that. They care about honesty and vision and determination. Al Gore is a Washington guy – a machine politician. He may have some good ideas, and he may be sincere. But he will never enter a tough interview venue and his policies and conduct certainly are questionable in many areas.
George W. Bush has to throw himself on the mercy of the court of public opinion. He has to stop being offended and wary of the press. He has to stop being the ghost of Bob Dole and get out there. The governor has a great personality, a decent record in Texas, and some good ideas about how the federal government should be run. That’s enough to win the election, if he campaigns as a real person because Al Gore has trouble doing that.
The media can hammer any candidate, but today candor and humor can overcome blatant bias. It is true that most of the elite media lean left, but that can be neutralized with straight talk and positive energy. With talk radio and cable news emerging as major influences, both George W. Bush and Al Gore have plenty of places to graze. Gore is picking his spots and winning the media game right now. Bush should study the campaign of Ronald Reagan and rise above the Adam Clymers of the world. Somehow I think the governor believes the media should be fair. That will never happen. But the American people, for the most part, are fair. And like it not, it takes the media to reach them.