The Corner

The Supermarket Scanner Story Cont’d

A range of complaints from readers — many hostile — over my defense of Bush 41 on the supermarket scanner story. I stand my ground. What the Times did then was outrageous. I looked at this very closely when I was the house goy conservative media critic at Brill’s Content. I don’t have all my stuff on this computer or with me here in Oregon (“Honey, did you remember to pack those ten year old files on the 1992 campaign and media bias?”). But here is the AP story from the time, for those of you who don’t trust Brit Hume:

It turns out the supermarket scanner that drew President Bush’s attention at a grocers’ convention last week really did have some unusual features.

It can read labels – the so-called universal product codes – that are ripped up and jumbled.

That is apparently what prompted Bush to tell the National Grocers Association in Orlando Feb. 4 he was “amazed” by the technology.

It was widely reported that Bush was surprised to see an ordinary supermarket scanner.

Pundits, columnists and cartoonists seized upon the report as evidence that Bush was out of touch with everyday life after 11 years ensconced in government mansions.

“The whole thing is ludicrous,” Bob Graham, an NCR Corp. systems analyst who showed Bush the scanner, said in a telephone interview from Pleasanton, Calif. “What he was amazed about was the ability of the scanner to take that torn label and reassemble it.”

The White House also belatedly cried foul.

Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Monday that Bush has “seen those (scanners) many times. This is a story that is totally media-manufactured and maintained.”

Bush had stopped by prearrangement at the NCR exhibit before addressing the grocers. He viewed some other high tech equipment, then walked over to the model checkout stand.

A videotape shot by a White House press pool shows Bush saying, “This is the scanner, the newest scanner?”

“Of course, this looks like a typical scanner you’d see in a grocery store,” Graham replied.

“Yeah,” said Bush.

“There’s one big difference,” said Graham, lifting off the scanner’s top plate to reveal a scale underneath. He weighed and rang up a red apple.

The exhibitor had Bush put the machine through its paces before he showed off what he called the machine’s “really quite amazing” new feature.

He had Bush scan a card with a universal product code ripped and jumbled into five pieces. The machine read it and rang up the correct sale.

“Isn’t that something,” the president said.

Later, Bush told the grocers he was “amazed by some of the technology.”

The New York Times ran a front page account under the headline, “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed.”

Cartoonists, broadcasters and columnists lampooned the president as a political Rip Van Winkle.

Charles Osgood, the CBS radio correspondent, offered a mea culpa in his daily broadcast Tuesday.

“Fair is fair, and especially since I joined the herd last week and took the occasion to pontificate about how unfortunate it is that we isolate our presidents so much,” said Osgood. The scanner Bush saw “is amazing, and what it does is really something.”

And here is an item from Howard Kurtz at the time:

The story of George Bush and the incredible supermarket scanner has become the media yarn that wouldn’t die.

First the New York Times gave front-page prominence to Bush’s alleged amazement at seeing a quart of milk, a light bulb and a bag of candy rung up at an ordinary checkout stand, spawning a tidal wave of satiric columns and late-night comedy routines about an out-of-touch president.

Then came a round of debunking stories, disclosing that Times reporter Andrew Rosenthal never saw the incident but wrote the story from two paragraphs in a pool report. The author of the pool report, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle, didn’t even mention the incident in his own story.

The Times returned fire Thursday, saying it had reviewed a network videotape of the Great Scanner Scandal and that Bush “was clearly impressed” by the garden-variety gadget.

Not so, says Newsweek, which screened the tape and declared that “Bush acts curious and polite, but hardly amazed.”

It was a fresh demonstration of how a single, hazy anecdote — Jimmy Carter’s “killer rabbit” comes to mind — can suddenly become larger than life when it seems to match the public perception of a prominent figure.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the story “totally media-manufactured,” saying Bush had actually been impressed by more advanced scanner technology. “In hindsight, I probably should’ve done a better job of saying how new some of this stuff was,” McDonald says.

Time magazine’s Michael Duffy, another pool member, called the incident “completely insignificant as a news event. It was prosaic, polite talk, and Bush is expert at that. If anything, he was bored.”

Philip Taubman, the Times’ deputy Washington editor, says that “we stand by the original story, as the piece last week makes clear.” He calls Rosenthal’s reliance on the pool report “routine” for White House coverage.

The incident has spurred talk that the White House may be trying to keep pool reporters out of earshot during campaign events. In New Hampshire last week, Rosenthal says, a Bush advance man told him: “You can explain to your colleagues why they’re going to be kept 50 yards away from the president from now on.”

Bush campaign spokeswoman Victoria Clarke dismisses the remark as “a joke,” saying, “We think the president is good at mixing with people and we’d like the reporters as up close and personal as possible.”

Me: Now, the basic issue is this: Do you believe the New York Times — which was viciously and abjectly anti-Bush back then, unlike now when they’re so even handed — or do you believe all the other members of the press pool, including the author of the report himself?

And let’s not forget commonsense. To wit: So what if it wasn’t new technology? Poppa Bush was a famously polite politician. He was at a routine trade show/political event, where his hosts were proud of something or other. Bush acted impressed, as any good politician would. The logic of the Times seems to be that he should have yawned to prove he was in touch with the common man.

Anyway, The New York Times — which had no reporter at the scene — took it upon itself to offer a politically devastating misinterpretation unsupported by any participants or witnesses and nearly two decades later Democrats are still dishonestly using this story to prove, well, whatever they want.

Update: Even Snopes says the story was false.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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