Here is a secret about presidential politics that nobody is willing to admit but everyone knows: It never hurts to call a reporter from the New York Times an a**hole.
At a Labor Day rally in Naperville, Illinois, George W. Bush spotted Adam Clymer, a veteran political reporter for the Times. Gov. Bush believes that Clymer’s coverage has been decidedly negative, especially about Bush’s record in Texas. Bush turned to his running mate, Dick Cheney, and said, “There’s Adam Clymer — a major league [expletive].” To which Cheney replied, “Oh, yeah, big time.”
The cheering crowd couldn’t catch this whispered ad hoc media criticism, but the television microphones certainly could. Cable news channels ran the clip throughout Monday and Tuesday, and all three morning news shows hammered it home. Alas, family newspapers had to be a bit more delicate in their reporting. The New York Daily News ran a headline “THAT GUY’S AN @$#&*!” on its cover. The New York Post ran with “BUSH’S X-RATED BARB.” The Washington Times wins for creativity, but their alternative might actually be more icky than the word itself. They reported that Bush employed “a vulgar euphemism for a rectal aperture.”
Despite numerous opportunities to apologize, Bush has instead said, “I regret the comment I made to [Mr. Cheney] made it to the airwaves.” Translation: “Eat my shorts, Mr. Clymer.”
Now, I am agnostic on the issue of whether the venerable reporter and fawning Ted Kennedy biographer is in fact deserving of such an evocative adjective (though Washington chatterers are dissecting the question with monastic dedication). But let’s just say I have every confidence that the @$#&*! community isn’t under-represented at the New York Times.
Indeed, I don’t think I’m the only person who feels that way. Which gets us back to what I hope will one day be known as “Goldberg’s Axiom”: It never hurts to call a New York Times reporter an a**hole. In all likelihood, Gov. Bush did not intend for the world to hear his remark. Using that word doesn’t help him in his effort to restore dignity and honor to the White House. If it had been planned, he’d have said something more folksy like, “There’s Adam Clymer — he’s lower than a snake’s belly.” Or maybe something more Dennis Miller-esque like, “There’s Adam Clymer. If he took Viagra he’d only get taller.”
But even the vulgarity won’t hurt Bush. In fact, picking on journalists has been a staple of presidential politics, especially Republican politics, for decades. While the particular journalist being attacked often benefits greatly from the prominence — this will be very good for Clymer’s career — the politician always gains more from beating up the fourth estate. Gov. Bush’s father, then-Vice President Bush, owes his presidency to press bashing. While this year Al Gore proved he’s not a robot by kissing his wife, in 1988 George Bush dispelled his “wimp factor” by attacking Dan Rather in a live interview on the CBS evening news. When it was over the press was referring to the “new Bush.”
Richard Nixon, who received the second-largest presidential-landslide victory ever, exploited national disdain for the press constantly. His “silent majority” was an implicit shot at those who didn’t have access to the pages of the New York Times. Spiro Agnew, his vice-presidential hatchet man, helped the campaign mightily by denouncing the “nattering nabobs of negativism” in and out of the media.
Of course, sticking it to the press is a bipartisan tradition. When a Washington Post music critic gave Harry Truman’s daughter a bad review, President Truman wrote him a letter suggesting he’d punch him out. “Some day I hope to meet you,” Truman wrote to the critic. “When that happens you’ll need a new nose.” The letter was hardly kept private, and Truman’s popularity skyrocketed. In 1996, President Clinton fancied himself a Truman reincarnation. When William Safire, of the New York Times, wrote a column calling Mrs. Clinton a “congenital liar,” Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, issued a statement: “The president, if he were not the president, would have delivered a more forceful response to that on the bridge of Mr. Safire’s nose.” Clinton didn’t get as much credit for issuing threats through a mouthpiece, but it still helped him with normal Americans.
Journalists hate to admit it, but beating up the press is a populist gambit. The media ranks at the bottom of almost every survey when it comes to public trust and confidence. More than a third of America actually thinks our press hurts democracy, according to one major survey. For all of their — often sincere — convictions that journalists are looking out for the little guy, most people see the press as an arrogant and unaccountable priesthood of kingmakers or, in the common vernacular, @$#&*!s.