Full Press Courtship

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Politicians aren't supposed to like journalists. We tend to be speed bumps in their otherwise smooth road to being thought of as flawless human beings. Most politicians, like Gore, deal with this by treating each article as a new transaction, a bloodless negotiation between professionals that leaves nothing personal behind. Bush, however, treats each story like a new credit or debit in his family ledger. It's all personal, especially since the 1988 presidential campaign, when Junior acted as the loyalty enforcer. The Bushes fed hot dogs and lemonade to the reporters at Kennebunkport, even took a special few out on the cigarette boat. But these gestures were always a quid pro quo. If you were not "loyal to all Bushes" after that, you fell off the list for interviews, horseshoes and movies in the family quarters. The next time you held out your hand, it might not be shaken. Junior, like his mom, blamed the media for his father's '92 loss.

What happened on Labor Day, when Bush was captured by an open mike calling the New York Times's Adam Clymer "a major league a__hole," was that George W. got caught doing publicly what he usually does privately. If you are the candidate of "raising the tone," it won't do to use epithets that can be printed only with dashes. If gravitas is the main quality you sought in a running mate, it doesn't do to have Dick Cheney, in an Ed McMahon moment, agreeing, "Oh, yeah, he is--big time." And if you need the press to confirm your image as a nice guy, it's bad to be seen singling out one of their membership for minor transgressions. Clymer wrote two pieces, quoting experts, critical of Bush's health-care record, but he's hardly one of the smart alecks cracking wise on TV about Bush's mangling of the English language. Bush's insistence that he only apologize for being heard, not for being vindictive, reminds people that he has a mean streak and that his discovery of God and self-discipline are rather recent.

Although trivial in the end, the outburst was a setback in Bush's wooing of the press. He routinely comes to the back of the plane to pinch cheeks and hand out nicknames. He asks about the budding romances of the reporters on board; his favorite scribes get their bald heads palmed. The care and feeding is four star. The last time I was on the plane, I had six meals--one featured lobster--over the course of three events, an excellent ratio. Sleep was plentiful, thanks to Bush's light schedule, which protects his naps, nights and weekends.

Such a genial host has the quiet effect of curbing pointed questions. Who wants to bring up politics, religion or money at a family dinner or when there are Dove Bars on demand? One day in Pittsburgh, after Bush and his press pack filled the plane with talk of jogging routes, pickup trucks and heifers, it was the reporters on the ground who pressed Bush to clarify his mushy position on abortion and whether he could prove, given the absence of official documents, that he had actually put in all his time in the National Guard. The charm vanished, the lips pinched, discussion ended. As he so often says when crossed, who are we to judge what's in his heart.

By contrast, Gore's way is not to be chummy but not to be petty either. He has never held it against Time magazine for breaking a story about his hiring of author Naomi Wolfe as a secret adviser or reporting his suggestion that he and Tipper were an inspiration for Love Story. Until the campaign-finance scandals seared him, he'd always been accessible. But he doesn't coddle. The regulars are treated like tourists on Aeroflot: on some days, the food is timely; on others you have to survive on fruit roll-ups and chicken-salad sandwiches past their sell-by date. The most reliable thing is courtesy Rolaids in the bathroom. Bedtime is just something you dream about until well past midnight. Air Gore was a grumpy place, and the alpha male in earth tones with his earnest town-hall meetings couldn't catch a break for much of the campaign.

But lately the coverage has shifted dramatically. Reporters inhale polls, Gore is schmoozing more, and Bush looks sour when he's running behind. The press that panned Gore's convention speech has discovered that the 97-lb. weakling is an Issues Superman, a hunk on the rope line and a good kisser. Stories even ran last week quoting Newt Gingrich to the effect that Gore was "instrumental in creating the Internet." What's next? Will we find out there really is "no controlling legal authority"? In contrast, Bush's verbal tics are suddenly evidence of an addled brain not up to debating. Before, he was a breath of fresh air; now he's trotting out old supply-side economics.

For Gore, good press relations are not crucial. Running on issues, he needs the press only to tell voters what he thinks. Bush, running on personality, needs the press to tell voters what he is like--and it better be a nice guy since that's at the core of his bid for the presidency.