During a June 16 campaign flight from Boston to Columbus, Ohio, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush talked to Brill's Content senior writer Seth Mnookin about his relationship with the press: his likes and dislikes, and the importance of being earnest.
Seth Mnookin: You've had good relationships with the press corps covering you, for the most part.
George W. Bush: I think so.
SM: And they seem to like you, and respect you, and you seem to like them and respect them, and that's in contrast ... with some of the relationships that Gore has, where he doesn't seem to interact as much with them. Is that something that is going to affect either press coverage or an election, and should that be something that will affect press coverage or an election?
GWB: No, first of all, I don't think it will. I don't know what it's like on the Gore plane.
SM: You haven't flown with him?
GWB: I haven't covered him yet. You know, I, first of all, the press corps, I view the press corps as, I give everybody the benefit of the doubt. Secondly, these are folks have a job to do, and I've got a job to do, and it's a symbiotic relationship. They depend upon me to generate news and I depend upon them to disseminate the news I'm trying to make. Secondly, I'm always able to find good in people. I try not to take, you know, what they write about me too seriously. I don't let it affect, cloud my vision. Like anything else, if you put me in a room with 50 people, some -- I'll have a more natural affinity toward others on a personal basis but I try to treat them as professionals. That doesn't mean that you can't have humor in life. I'm a person who tries to -- I seek humor, I try to find humor. I try to -- I don't try to take myself so seriously that I miss the lighter side of life, so I do go back to the back, as you know, and make news sometimes. Sometimes I fool around with them and sometimes I'm concerned about their personal lives. But I don't think it's clouded their stories at all, as a matter of fact I think the only thing I ask for is an objective look about who I am and what I'm saying and the policy I laid out, and sometimes the folks are objective and sometimes opinion begins to creep in to what -- to their column, to their stories, to their news stories.
SM: Do you that think the press...
GWB: And I'm not so sure if my press, you know, you need to ask others who are objective to analyze how I've been treated. I think, fairly. But there are times when family members or supporters of mine feel like the press has not treated me fairly.
SM: Right. Like what times?
GWB: Oh I bet you during the primary there are times when people felt the coverage could have been a little bit better. But I never --
SM: You felt like it was being too favorable to McCain?
GWB: That, or some felt it. Some folk. But I never really felt that way. I didn't -- wasn't, you know I felt like the coverage has been balanced and fair. But I don't read every piece. I went back and shocked them the other day when I said, 'By the way I don't read everything you all write. I wasn't trying to be offensive or cute I was just being truthful. I got to deal with these people on a daily basis and if I begin to take what they write personally, it's going to be hard to stay focused on the ultimate objective, which is to convince people to be for me. And one of the writers said, "Well, how do you know if you don't read what we write? If you don't read what we write, how do you know what people's perception of you is?" And my answer is, maybe they draw perceptions of me in different ways, if you know what I mean?
SM: What do you think has been the biggest mistake that you've made in dealing with press? Or the smartest thing? Or both? In your presidential run, not in --
GWB: No, no, I understand. I think probably the best thing I've done is interface with the press. They get to see the human -- that I'm a human person, that I've got feelings, I care, I've got priorities. It gives them a better sense of who I am as a person. All people make up their mind of who they're going to vote for president. In many ways it's the same thing I'm trying to do on a much less intimate scale with the American people; trying to be exactly who I am. And I've got strengths, weaknesses, I can laugh, I can take things seriously. I think the more somebody gets to know a person the more likely it is they'll be able to write an objective story. I don't know about mistakes, I mean I don't feel we've made any great mistakes with the press corps. I hope we haven't.
SM: Is there something that you wish you had done differently, or might do differently in the future?
GWB: I don't think so. I think it might have been early on, the perception that I wasn't willing to interface with the press. I don't remember frankly what was going on. I don't remember. We had a very interesting issue going in. Most of the press corps, I shouldn't say that -- a lot of the press corps pre-judged me based upon something they had heard.
SM: A lot of the national press corps? People who hadn't covered you?
GWB: Right. Stuff they had heard about how poorly I reacted about some of the stories they wrote about my dad in '92. And I did. If somebody wrote something I didn't like, I told them. And most reporters probably don't like to be told that somebody didn't like their story. I mean, I guess that's just reality, but they didn't, and it was the same thing that happened in '94. When I first got going, the Richards people put out the word to the press corps, 'Oh, don't worry, he'll blow up.' Right, you know, 'He'll lose his cool.' So I think a lot of the press weren't sure how to gauge me. They were living on rumors and kind of fumes from the past, trying to remember. Like a year ago was when we first launched and I went back there and kind of, it was kind of a period of time where there was some uncertainty. I think they were a little uncertain about me and I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. I'd never been a candidate for president, but over time I got to know some of the reporters. I can't remember, I thought we were pretty accessible down the fall but I think we were kind of accused of not being accessible.
SM: Well you were set against McCain. It was a tough thing.
GWB: That's what it was, yes.
SM: It was a tough -- even if you were the second most accessible presidential candidate you were still the second most.
GWB: Right. And, I've always viewed the election -- this process is a very long process, and kind of by design, but really by instinct, as much as anything else, it's kind of, kind of a gradual defining of the relationship. I think a relationship with the press corps is something that just, it kind of grows in a way. I think you don't see instant rapport, and I think there are people back there in the press that, you know, look at me now different than they would've early -- somebody --
SM: Because you've had a chance to interact with them?
GWB: I think they've had a chance to get to know me as a person. I don't think it clouds their stories -- you would need to ask them, I would hope it wouldn't cloud their stories, I would hope they would say if they disagree, or made a statement that was provocative they would report it as such. You know, again, I tend to view each person -- I don't look at the pack as a pack. I've tried to get to know something about them. These people are human beings. We spend a lot of time together.
SM: Oh, I know, I know.
GWB: And you remember flying back and forth across the country?
SM: Six time zones in a day.
GWB: Yeah, and, well, I'm tired and they're tired. And it's an interesting relationship and I've got, and I've got, I just, I've got, it's almost shared experience that kind of binds me to them on a personal basis, I guess is a good way to put it. And it's interesting to see what happens is, is one of the interesting things to observe, and you need to observe this, is what happens is when they parachute somebody in. We were teasing the other day, I don't know if you were on the plane then, you know the process of New Hampshire, where, here's this kind of band of merry travelers, and --
SM: And then Brokaw comes in.
GWB: And all of a sudden somebody jumps in. And the observers, not the news -- but the people behind the scenes -- and I can remember walking into a rally in New Hampshire and it looks like they all kind of had taken a break from their dinners, all the heavy columnists that had been on TV all these years and I felt like I was being -- and somebody said, 'You know the members of the editorial board of a major newspaper will be in the audience today.' And I can remember standing up there, kind of going through the routine, and I can remember thinking, 'Here I am being observed.'
GWB: Well I'm sure the press corps that is travelling with me had that same sense in a way. Anyway the only reason I bring that up it's kind of interesting -- it's kind of a -- you observe from back there better than me, I mean, who am I to tell you what their attitudes are? But it just seems like to me it's natural that there'd be the folks that have been there day in and day out and day in and day out and all of a sudden in comes you know, XYZ star and they parachute the process, and I just kind of wonder what goes through their mind? I guess a way to characterize it, it tends to, I mean there's something to be say about the person running the marathon and the person running the 10K. You know what I'm saying? There's just a little different degree of training and discipline and focus.
SM: Regarding -- you talk about how the first view that some of the national press had was with your father? Do you think now --
GWB: It was a result (of) how I reacted with them. They don't judge me based upon him.
SM: No, I'm sorry, that's not what I meant. Your reaction to some of his coverage. Now, do you feel like they -- with the space of a couple of years -- do you think they were fair, do you feel like the national press was fair to your father regarding no new taxes, or regarding his syntax?
GWB: Well, I think they were fair on the no new taxes. He's the guy who said it.
SM: You think he screwed up.
GWB: Well he's the person who said it. They didn't say he said it when he didn't say it. He's the man who said it at a convention. No I don't think that was unfair. I do think there was some --
SM: Or his speech, they would,
GWB: Of course, I don't like the needling. You know, kind of the --- I'll tell you a classic case of unfair: the wimp cover in Newsweek. Based upon a fake poll. The day he announced. Yeah that was really unfair in '88. Of course he overcame that but it kind of set the tone a little bit. So here's this World War II hero having to kind of confront a tone set by a slick magazine on the day he announced for president and newscasters holding it up: 'Bush will be dogged by the image.' And it obviously didn't matter in the long run. But I thought that was unfair. And told them so. And it's documented I told them so. And I didn't mind telling them so. I mean, you got to understand something about me. It's one thing to be the leader who has to set a tone and show the ability to take a punch or to handle defeat and victory, that's what a leader does. Well I wasn't a leader. I was a warrior on behalf of a leader, and we used to say the definition of loyalty around us was if a grenade was rolling close to the old man the question was who would dive on it first. I mean this is a guy we loved. And I was an unabashed, you know, Bush man. One of my jobs was to enforce loyalty. If I thought people were leaking or saying things ugly about my dad behind his back or jumping ship I'd be in their face, and as to the press corps, if I thought somebody was writing unfair stories I'd say you know your story's not fair. As opposed to worrying about whether or not how I'd be treated in future races. I mean some people kind of pull a punch for fear they may affect their next incarnation and I'm not -- I wasn't that way. So I think they might have taken a look at me, and said I -- you know, firecracker, you know, hot guy. I think they have a different attitude -- I assume they have a different attitude because they've seen me under fire.
SM: We're flying out of Boston where the reporter had his pop quiz for you last year.
SM: Is that the kind of thing that's fair for a reporter to do?
GWB: What was -- it was a lesson learned.
SM: What was the lesson learned?
GWB: I shouldn't have answered the questions. I mean, it was a game he was playing. I didn't realize it at the time, and I'm a more suited candidate. People can ask anything they want. And but the American people got to understand I'm going to answer them the way I want to, so the pop quiz question was, you know it was just -- I can't even remember how the script went, I think the first one he asked me I got right and then --
SM: There were increasing degrees of difficulty.
GWB: Well there was, and the problem was it was increasing degrees on my part. I should've said, 'I'm through.' I don't hold it against him.
SM: So it's fair for a reporters to ask the questions but politicians or whoever can say, look, I'm not going to answer that.
GB: Well I think there's a degree of civility. I think there's a degree of civility. I think some questions are totally inappropriate questions.
SM: What would be a totally inappropriate question?
GWB: 'How many times do you beat your wife?' But you can't -- I can't stop that from happening. I think the press corps -- you know, what's inappropriate is chasing rumors and gossip, unfounded. The game of politics is to float gossip on somebody and force the press corps to respond and I think the press corps's wised up to the game. But it's a game. It's a Washington DC game and I chose not to play it early 'cause I knew what would happen if I started chasing rumors and gossip.
SM: Now, speaking of rumors and gossip, the St. Martin's press, the book they put out. Should there be a legal, should there be some kind of redress, when publishers print that stuff, either in -- should there be responsibility in the courts?
GWB: Yeah, I would hope so at some point, but you know, it's, it's the public, it's the public...(sees a USA Today) what is that story? (reads) 'Death penalty issue looms over Bush campaign.'
SM: They keep running that same picture with Trent. I think they like that shot of Trent there.
GWB: (reading) 'Candidate's attitude, not his views, could hurt him?' What's my attitude? Attitude. Anyway. I think the book was outrageous. And, to the credit of my staff and Pete Slover from the morning news who blew the whistle on the fraudulent nature of the writer. There is no recourse.
SM: But should there be?
GWB: Well I don't know that, I don't know that question. You know, I would hope there would -- to save -- to protect the innocent, but the problem is I'm a public figure and the question is, where do you draw the line? I think there ought to be some -- I think the press core ought to self-police and I think there ought to be -- in order to enhance the integrity of the press corps, it seems like to me that when they catch, when they catch these fraudulent acts, these scurrilous attacks, they ought to rise up in indignation, and I don't know if that -- you know, I think that maybe might have occurred when they started condemning this guy for writing the story. There's a little -- you know there's kind of a deep -- in the consciousness of the press corps there's still this gotcha element. It seems like it's improving.
SM: Should the press corps, should the national and international press corps, be patriotic in the sense that, let's say CNN finds out that a rogue state is going to bomb the US. Is that something that they should that they should tell the American public?
GWB: You mean, if they --? Well...
SM: And then the flip side of that.
GWB: I don't think they ought to be broadcasting a report that would necessarily panic the American public. Oh, you mean tell the American public on the air? God I would hope that if a producer found out that his country was about to be bombed that he would notify the Defense Department or somebody in authority so we can protect ourselves. I mean that's got to be a fairly extreme example.
SM: Right, absolutely. And then now what if the...
GWB: In terms of the press, I mean I would hope there would be proper notification. What you'd hate to do if you were running a press organization is unleash a story that brings a wave of panic. Orson Wells --
SM: War of the Worlds. Now if CNN found out that the US was going to bomb, somehow was going to bomb --
GWB: Depends on the circumstances. I think if it were, I mean that's a very interesting question. First of all, if CNN found out that the United States was about to undertake a military operation, there'd be a serious flaw in the ability of the administration to conduct its business the way you would hope it. There would -- you don't want, obviously in a military operation you put people's lives at risk. It's one that is much more effective if there's secrecy. If all of a sudden, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're breaking a story today. Corporal John Jones will be headed overseas here shortly --"
SM: But if it did happen do they have a different obligation, they bill themselves as an international news organization...
GWB: Well that's an interesting question. It's one they're going to have to wrestle with. I don't know the answer to that. I do know that if I were the commander in chief and I was preparing to commit U.S. service peoples -- commit them to a situation where they'd put their lives at risk, I would be awfully disturbed if the mission were compromised. And it would be the fault -- but not initially of CNN -- the fault would obviously be of somebody who had wanted to compromise the mission. You know. It's hypothetical, but if this were a mission that was very sensitive and very important to the security of the United States and if the CNN president called me and said, 'I'm going to give you warning. I'm going to break a story,' and, again it's so hypothetical, I think, I would be disturbed. I would not want to compromise the mission or the people who wear the uniform.
SM: Last question: who's the vice president going to be?
GWB: Yeah, exactly. (laughs) I'm not surprised at that question. It doesn't irritate me in the least. This is a world, where, you know, there's only, I think we have done a very good job in this campaign of driving the -- I will tell you something that disappointed me yesterday. And it's interesting, it's kind of an interesting microsecond of the campaign. I laid out some pretty good initiatives -- not pretty good, very good initiatives -- for integrating people with disabilities in the workplace. And there was, there was members of the, you know, community -- people with disabilities community were pleased with the initiatives. And you know, assistive universal technology programs, and it was a very hopeful message. And it didn't make the newspapers. Even though we had planned the day to try and encourage it to be in the newspapers, and that was on a policy day, I don't hold press availability. I decided to -- though in Boston, only because there was some pent up demand, I hadn't been talking to the press. If you talk to the press --
SM: Alexandra (Pelosi, NBC producer) was giving you a hard time.
GWB: No, but if you talk to the press on a regular basis like I do, and don't talk to the press on an irregular basis for a period of time, it does create a certain sense of anxiety. It's either/or. So today, I was a little perplexed as to why this policy statement that I had laid out didn't make any coverage. Instead there were -- and it was probably because I hadn't spent time with the press corps since Sunday, which meant there was a three-day hiatus, except I did make some news by speaking at the mayors' -- anyway, I just thought it was interesting, it was an interesting moment. But how can I complain because between the primary and today, my policy initiatives have been covered well. I mean I felt the -- were you at the press coverage in Washington on the missile?
SM: No, no. I wasn't there.
GWB: It was amazing coverage. There were 160 members of the press corps. It was a big deal. And it got -- I was pleased, it got proper coverage and proper analysis, it was an important speech and it got -- I was pleased. And my social security initiative. But I'll tell you what's interesting about this -- that we've noticed, or that I've noticed. I'll give you an anecdote and then I'll run you out of here. You know I was talking about campaign funding? I remember when I announced how much money I had raised in Los Angeles and after the audible gasp the (unintelligible) asked me a question about campaign funding reform, and I laid out what I was for campaign funding reform in a huge press conference because it was, here, how much money I had raised and it was about banning soft money, corporate soft money, and labor union soft money you know with pay staff reduction disclosure laws etc. etc etc. So we're campaigning in South Carolina and Ari [Fleischer] and Karen [Hughes] or whoever's manning the message desk there says, 'You've got to give a speech on campaign funding.' I said, 'What the heck are you talking about? What are you talking about? How many speeches do I need to give? I've been talking about it in debates.' And they said, 'No, you've got to give a formal speech.' And it turns out the definition of a speech is not answers at press conferences or answers at debates. It is a speech coupled with a white paper, seriously, and I'm not being facetious, I'm just telling you what reality is. And then I gave it, and then it became a speech. So on social security -- as you remember, we had a talking about social security; we had debates and Gore said it wasn't enough and so and so said it was too little this, that and the other -- so we give a speech after the primaries are over, and it wasn't a speech on social security interestingly enough. It was a speech on the elderly. It was two speeches on the elderly: one that focused on social security and Medicare, and the next one that focused on assisted living and preparation for the insurance, you know, long-term care proposals, volunteerism. And so the speech -- one of the things that's interesting about the way we give a speech -- if you've noticed, they're not 'topic specific,' they're 'person specific' -- so we spoke to some of the elderly on the tax -- on the health insurance program for working uninsured. It was a speech about how people nearing poverty, just coming out of poverty, can access -- the middle class tax cut was included. Uninsured was included. Home ownership was included. It was a broad initiative kind of built around a group of folks, and yet, the issue became engaged on social security after that speech. I just thought it was interesting. Again I'm making no comment either way except what I'm telling you is the realities of policy -- how policy is viewed by the press corps and how we have learned to fashion it so that people end up reading about it. And I might say, I can't complain in the least about the overall treatment because this campaign -- we've driven the policy debate to the point where my opponent chases me. He does, and does so in a way frankly that I think is to my benefit. Instead of debating he shouts down with words like 'risky' and 'finger pointing' and divisive language, and it's -- I don't know if that's relevant to your story, I just thought it's interesting from the candidate's perspective and the campaign's perspective. It's a lesson for what future campaigns got to be aware of; that an issue only becomes a formal issue at a particular moment in time. And the other thing that's important for the press corps with the campaign, is for the campaign to develop a strategy and not let the press drive the strategy, which I think we have done successfully.
SM: How do you do that?
GWB: Just be patient. There is a certain anxiety level that begins to creep into a campaign as the press starts pounding away on, 'When will he be specific?' or 'When will he do this?' or "When's he going to say that?' And I think if you look back at this campaign there's a series of hurdles that we've crossed, and were able to do so relatively successfully, starting with, 'He doesn't believe anything,' or ' will stumble,' or 'doesn't believe anything.' It speaks -- it's a couple of things. One, this is a performance-based world. And secondly, a campaign, you know, has got to be respectful to the press corps but cannot let the press corps drive the strategy. You can't let a press corps -- the drum beat dictate how you're going to have to handle the drumbeat. Don't get me wrong, but when it comes to the overall story, the long-term view of the campaign, it's so important for the campaign to set the long-term view. So we were patient on issues and starting laying out our issues, as you remember, after a period of time. And that was that, kind of, 'No, he doesn't believe anything,' 'not specific.' And some of that, by the way, ginned up by my opponent some of it ginned up legitimately by editors saying, 'Wait a minute, when's he going to say something?' And then so when I started to say something. I kind of -- it kind of satiated the appetite for a press corps, but it was on our terms and our time. We never accelerated a speech. We had a series of speeches we had planned out up until the primary, on a limited number of subjects, and then knew that after the primaries, you know -- health care was important in the primaries but it took on an added importance in the general, because we knew this was a place that Gore would want to engage, and I was looking forward to engaging with the compassionate conservative philosophy. And these are big decisions. And so this is part of a process for the American people, and all aspects of the political process, to find out what it takes to be the president. And that's why I welcome the process. I believe I do that.
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