HOUSTON -- One sign on the floor of the Republican National Convention here, copied on T-shirts worn by delegates, told much about the mood of many of them. It said: "I Don't Believe the Liberal Press." Another was even more pointed: "Lynch the Liberal Media Elite."
Variations on the same sentiments were heard repeatedly from speakers and Republicans interviewed on television, including first lady Barbara Bush, who complained that the Republican Party, President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle all were getting a raw deal from the Fourth Estate.
Mrs. Bush criticized TV reporter Judy Woodruff of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" for asking probing questions about the negative comments of some party and campaign leaders. "Wait a minute," she said at one point, "were you at the Democratic convention? I didn't hear you asking those questions there, and we were bashed beyond belief."
Quayle, on the NBC "Today" show, charged that journalists had unfairly caricatured him and then "had a lot invested in making sure the caricature didn't change." His wife, Marilyn, echoed much the same sentiment in an interview on C-SPAN.
Republican National Chairman Rich Bond complained about the Washington Post dubbing the Democratic ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore "the heartthrobs of the heartland" in a story about their bus campaigning, accusing the paper of being soft on them. He backed off not at all when reminded how the Post and the rest of the news media had ridden Clinton so hard in earlier stories about his alleged womanizing and draft-dodging.
Bond also got so infuriated at a headline in the Houston Chronicle that he took a copy of the story and crumpled it up at a news briefing. And then there was Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, whose contempt for the press knows no bounds and whose bitter anti-press rantings are regularly reported by the news media, snarling that the American people are "fed up" with reporters distorting the Republican message.
Even Robert Teeter, the Bush-Quayle campaign chairman and a man known for mildness and his accessibility to and friendships with many members of the press, said at one point he thought the news media's coverage of the convention and his campaign was unfair, "particularly of the [economic] conditions of the country," which he said were better than was being reported.
A little harmless press-bashing takes place at all party conventions, Democratic and Republican. That is especially so when frustration among the conventioneers runs high, as it did here in the face of dismaying polls on Bush being printed and aired almost every day.
But the level probably hasn't been as high since the notorious 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco that nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater. No less than former President Dwight D. Eisenhower set off that convention with critical remarks against the press, inspiring delegates to turn to the press sections cursing and shaking their fists.
Running against the news media always has been a safe gambit, considering the public's hostility to reporters who seem always to be butting into somebody else's business and failing to show "proper respect" for public officials. The exception was the immediate post-Watergate era, when the news media's role -- principally the Washington Post's -- unmasked the excesses of Richard Nixon and his collaborators and was roundly applauded.
But this year, in the hands of the Bush campaign, press-bashing may be of limited use, because it will only accentuate the already growing impression that the president and his sidekick Dan Quayle are chronic whiners, blaming the Democratic Congress for all that hasn't been accomplished in the first Bush term.
It will not help the Republican cause, either, if the public impression of this convention is that it was Goldwater in 1964 revisited. With its very right-wing platform and speeches, plus the press-bashing, it could come off as the party returning to its circle-the-wagon days of 1964. That is hardly what the party needs if it is to reach out to Democrats and independents, as it must to win.
Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, one of the few surviving true moderate Republicans in Congress, argues it is critical that the GOP not be perceived by voters as having lost its moderate center.