Bush's baiting of the press could have hurt somebody

ROGER SIMON

November 06, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

After one of George Bush's last campaign speeches, Torie Clarke, his spokeswoman, climbed onto the press bus to answer a few questions.

As we pulled away, Clarke gazed out the window onto a familiar sight: Crowds of people shaking their fists at the media.

"I hate it when I ride with you guys," she said with a sigh. "I'm always afraid someone will throw a Molotov Cocktail."

She was kidding. A little.

At nearly every stop in the last weeks of his campaign, George Bush would bash the media.

The crowds would cheer him and boo us. And Bush would look over to the press pen and laugh that little "heh-heh" laugh of his just to show us that it wasn't serious. It was just the kind of thing you have to do when you campaign for president.

Attacking the media was good politics. (Just like Willie Horton had been good politics.) A scapegoat had to be found to explain the lousy poll numbers. And the media were convenient.

It was an issue that resonated. In Grand Rapids, Mich., a local entrepreneur printed up red baseball caps with Bush's favorite phrase -- "Annoy the media, re-elect George Bush" -- and sold 300 of them in a half-hour for five bucks a piece.

He would have sold more, but he ran out of hats.

"This has been a very ugly year," Bush would say. "I've never seen it quite like this. Those talking heads in the media. Those mournful pundits."

When the crowds began physically assaulting the press, I doubt that Bush saw any relationship between his words and their actions.

I talked to a newspaper photographer, who had been standing by a cyclone fence taking pictures of Bush, when a man reached over the fence, grabbed the photographer's hair and slammed the photographer's head into the fence.

"He kept yelling, 'Get an honest job, get an honest job!' " the photographer said. "I thought it was bad when they just spat on us. But this was worse."

Finally, some photographers went to Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, and told him that maybe the president didn't realize what he was doing.

And Fitzwater went to Bush and Bush began inserting a new line in his speech every now and then.

"The cameramen, the photographers, they're the good guys," Bush would say. "Leave them alone."

But some days he wouldn't insert that line. Some days he would say, "The press has been the worst ever!"

And the crowds would cheer.

Was Bush treated unfairly by the press? Was Bush treated worse than Bill Clinton and Ross Perot?

Clinton and Perot don't think so. Clinton will show you the stories about Gennifer Flowers and the draft, and Perot will show you the stories speculating on whether he is crazy or not.

And I doubt that Bush ever really believed the press was costing him the election. It was smart politics.

What I don't think Bush fully appreciated, however, is that many people do not look upon the president as just another politician.

And they take what he says very seriously.

It was pitch black in Chippewa Falls, Wis., when we got off Bush's campaign train.

We had to walk about a half mile down the rail bed to get to the event. The bed was steep and unpaved and we stumbled on the crushed rock and the cracked wooden rails.

The day had begun very early and now it was late and we were almost dopey with fatigue.

We finally got to where the large crowd waited. It was ablaze under huge floodlights. Two yellow ropes created a gauntlet for us to walk through.

I grew up in the Midwest and have visited dozens of small towns in Wisconsin and, while I hate to stereotype, people are friendly there.

A gray-haired gentleman leaned over the rope line and waved his small American flag in my face.

"Scum!" he yelled at me. "You scum!"

Bush walked out onto the platform of his caboose and went through his stock speech.

"Annoy the media!" he shouted. "Re-elect George Bush!"

Today, I am not annoyed. And George Bush is not re-elected.

And I'm sure he believes that everything he said was all just politics; it was nothing that mattered.

The good that George Bush did as president will endure after he has left that office.

I'm just worried about the harm.

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