Press helps McCain whitewash Bush

by Eric Boehlert, Media Matters announced last week that among McCain's top political priorities for the Republican convention was his "need to make it clear that his first term will not be Bush's third term."

In fact, it was probably the worst kept secret in St. Paul: McCain had to completely cut ties with the wildly unpopular Republican incumbent and his record of failure. Republicans in St. Paul sure did their best whitewashing Bush: For the entire convention, Bush's name was only mentioned six times from the podium, according to a running count kept by a Los Angeles Times blog.

But how to erase Bush completely? Sitting presidents traditionally enjoy high-profile send-offs at conventions. When Ronald Reagan bid farewell to the GOP faithful at the party's 1988 convention in New Orleans, he addressed party activists at length the day before the convention began, he was fêted with an 18-minute video tribute inside the Superdome the next night, and then delivered the evening's keynote address.

Republicans in St. Paul seemed to catch a political break when, thanks to the threat of Hurricane Gustav, they were able to ease Bush out of the spotlight when Bush announced he had to monitor the storm and could not attend the convention. But then Bush turned around and, according to one report, demanded some convention face time (via satellite, as it turned out), creating a potential PR mess for Republicans.

Fast forward to McCain's convention speech Thursday night and immediately upon its conclusion, MSNBC's Chris Matthews reiterated that if McCain had a chance at winning the White House, he had to separate himself from the unpopular GOP incumbent, and that with his Thursday night address, McCain had "effectively" done so.

"It is dramatic and may well be the one brilliant move that could win him the election," Matthews announced, toasting McCain as some sort of Harry Houdini.

But if McCain did pull off the great escape, it was only thanks to the press and the way eager journalists pitched in to erase Bush from the political picture.

And here's why: The press is just as anxious as McCain to have Bush go away. The press is just as anxious as McCain to forget about the failures of the last eight years. Why? Because the press, like McCain, is partly to blame for Bush's White House misadventure.

And that's why Bush was a non-story in St. Paul and remains a non-story in the unfolding campaign. Forget about the 15,000 journalists who were camped out at the Xcel Energy Center and supposedly desperate for even the hint of internal struggles and political squabbling in order to create news at the tightly scripted event. Forget about the press glomming on to the Bush-McCain story the way journalists did in Denver the week before when they displayed an insatiable appetite to speculate about and hype supposed conflicts over the speaker scheduling at the Democratic convention.

It's true that on the surface, two convention storylines appeared remarkably similar. "The Democrats had the awkwardness of the Clintons at their convention," the Associated Press noted. "Republicans now have their version of a precarious guest: President Bush."

But boy, the coverage sure wasn't the same. On the day Hillary Clinton addressed the convention in Denver, there were more than 1,200 mentions of "Clinton" on cable and network news, according to The following day, when Bill Clinton spoke, there were more than 1,500 mentions. By contrast, on the day that Bush addressed the GOP convention, TV news outlets made reference to him only 500 times.

In other words, TV chatters and reporters were nearly three times as likely to discuss the Clintons in Denver as they were Bush in St. Paul.

That, despite the fact that Bush was essentially disinvited from St. Paul. And let's face it, if the internal strife that gripped the GOP surrounding Bush's role at the convention had played out the same way in Denver (Hillary's going to speak via satellite???), it would have been the topic of breathless, non-stop newsroom chatter and cable buzz, as pundits and reporters spent endless hours hyping the drama and assigning the roles of heroes and villains.

Not so in St. Paul. Or did I simply miss all those breathless Politico accounts filled with anonymous sources detailing the drama and how mistrust and resentments "continued to boil" between the Bush and McCain camps. Did I miss the endless speculation about what it all meant to the party's future health?

I didn't miss it because it didn't exist. The press showed very little interest on dwelling on Bush's convention appearances or the uncomfortable questions it raised for Republicans. Instead, the press treated the convention squabble as a gentlemanly disagreement that was best sorted out privately by adults.

I mean, did the press even pretend to care why Vice President Dick Cheney couldn't postpone his overseas trip (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Italy) by a single day in order to address the party's faithful? Not a chance.

And recall that in Denver the excitable press corps thought it was a very big deal when former President Clinton did not attend the convention for all four days. (CNN talking head: "I think it's bad form. He needs to be passing the torch onto Obama as the nominee of the party.") But when Bush didn't even show up in person, not even for four minutes, the same pundits just shrugged. It seemed to make sense politically they agreed with calm nods.

Instead of journalism in St. Paul, we saw a lot of winking and nodding going on. The Republicans announced, with a wink and a nod, that neither Bush nor Cheney could possibly attend the GOP convention. Instead of a) pointing out the logistical absurdity of the claim or b) analyzing (ad nauseam) what the White House no-shows meant, the press mostly signed off on the phony script.

And it's not just about St. Paul. The press remains allergic to the topic of what Bush's deep political stain could mean for the GOP on Election Day. The press has virtually erased Bush as a player in this campaign, which is striking because back in 2000, when Bill Clinton was the retiring two-term president, the press couldn't stop writing and gabbing about his role in the unfolding campaign. (It was mostly bad for Dems, the pundits agreed.) But Bush? Who's he?

It's fitting, really, that as the media's lapdog performance under Bush comes to its conclusion, the press would soft-peddle the president's role in his farewell convention fiasco. It's fitting because, let's face it, Bush's presidential failure is really the media's failure, and what journalist wants to dwell on that? Remember, this is the same political press corps that just had a gut feeling about Bush in 2000; just liked the guy. They vouched for him. Said he was a real, authentic politician who would restore bipartisanship to Washington.

For years, the press and Bush just seemed to be on the same page. As Eric Alterman recently noted, "The [mainstream media] was wrong about most things in just the fashion that the Bush administration was; and that's apparently the way they like it."

That's why the press still refers to Karl Rove as some kind of political genius ("the maestro of national politics") even though he's the architect of Bush's epic second-term failure. (i.e. Trying to privatize Social Security and initiating the Terri Schiavo fiasco.)

The media have, throughout Bush's gruesome political collapse, shown very little interest in taking part in the usual Beltway pastime of dissecting the miscues, assigning blame, and yes, doing a little bit of grave-dancing. When it comes to Bush's four-year decline, the press has remained oddly detached.

So when McCain and company wanted to erase Bush from the presidential picture, the press was only too willing to oblige. More importantly, that timidity helped McCain pull off his top priority; separating himself from Bush with a clean break. (McCain to the press: Thanks for the bounce!)

And let's not kid ourselves, there's a real, deep-seated dislike between McCain and Bush that the press could gnaw on for days and weeks. It's just that journalists don't.

For instance, according to one report by Sidney Blumenthal at the Huffington Post last week, Republicans were willing to cancel an entire evening of convention activities just to make sure Bush did not address the nation in prime convention time from St. Paul. According to Blumenthal's Republican sources, the feeling was that if Bush and Cheney bowed out of the convention (as they cited concerns about Hurricane Gustav), organizers would cancel all of Monday night's speakers, so as to not make Bush and Cheney look bad and to reinforce the notion that their absence was strictly hurricane-related.

But then a "furious" Bush refused to take the hint and demanded that he be able to address the convention in prime time the following night. "Once the hurricane passed, Bush asserted his primacy as president and forced his way back on the schedule to deliver a satellite speech to the convention," Blumenthal reported.

Bush's stubbornness then set off backroom negotiations as the McCain camp tried to come up with a way that the president of the United States would be allowed to speak at his own party's convention but not ruin the nominee's chances of winning in November.

Blumenthal's reporting buttressed what Peter Baker wrote in an August 31 cover story for The New York Times Magazine, which examined Bush's relationship with McCain; "a relationship fraught with bitter resentment, grudging respect and mutual dependence," as Bush "privately rails" against McCain and ridicules his campaign.

Actually, relationship is not the right word, since the two most important men in the Republican Party right now don't even speak to one another and haven't for months. Can you imagine back in 2000 if the press discovered that party nominee Al Gore and party incumbent Clinton went months without speaking? I mean, drama alert, right?!

Not in St. Paul. Even though the Times Magazine (a stand-alone entity from the Times' more insular Beltway reporting staff) laid out in detail the Bush-McCain rivalry, and even though Blumenthal reported on the festering, backstage convention resentment, most of the press in St. Paul had no interest in picking at that GOP scab. And they certainly had no interest in portraying Bush as a delusional, diva-like character who refused to get off the political stage and whose ego was in danger of destroying the Republican Party.

Instead, they mostly reacted passively to the eight-minute pre-recorded comments Bush made via satellite to the convention. Unusual? Sure. Newsworthy? Not really.

Truth is, Bush's here's-your-hat-what's-your-hurry treatment was unprecedented in the history of modern conventions. And traditionally, historical political events have been seen by the press as being, y'know, newsworthy. But not in St. Paul.

Bloggers though, seemed to have no problem detecting the significance of the events. As "fladem" wrote at Open Left:

There is only one message to draw [from] the Republican Convention tonight: the Republicans are ashamed of George Bush. He did not appear in prime time. He did not appear in person. The Vice-President isn't even in the country. In fact, Fred Thompson and Joe Lieberman are so ashamed of George Bush that they did not mention his name. It is an amazing night without precedent in modern convention history.

The press, however, didn't care and wasn't interested in drilling down into the issue and jarring loose the attached resentment and hard feelings that apparently racked parts of the Republican Party. The press didn't want to play the blame game or speculate endlessly about the players involved and what the political ramifications might be for the snub come Election Day.

That's because journalists, like McCain, just want Bush to fade away.

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey