The onanism of political reporters who have no real political news to cover continues unabated at the New York Times. Yesterday, Chatterbox marveled at the pointlessness of a March 16 Times lead story by Richard L. Berke and Frank Bruni that used an exclusive interview with George W. Bush to pummel him for not rushing to embrace John McCain. In the interview, Bush did not appear to be rude or contemptuous of McCain, but he did resist his interviewers' promptings to endorse McCain's campaign-finance plan, with which he disagrees. "He didn't change my views," Bush said. To the Times, this was a shocking display of arrogance.
One day later, Bruni (this time with Alison Mitchell) is back with the inevitable "react" story. On the campaign trail, Bush
went out of his way today to demonstrate respect for Senator John McCain, pointing to areas of agreement between him and his vanquished rival for the Republican nomination and saying, "I'm confident we can work together." [Whew!]
Mr. Bush made his comments in two speeches today and at a news conference this afternoon, as aides and supporters of Mr. McCain criticized Mr. Bush for remarks in an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday. They said the Texas governor had made it more difficult to work out a reconciliation between the two men. [Uh oh!]
On the record, Sen. Chuck Hagel, a prominent McCain supporter, accuses Bush of giving "a pretty arrogant interview," and Al Gore (who the Times points out is trying to scoop up McCain voters) says that Bush "should have been taking notes from John McCain" about Bush's "risky tax scheme." But Bush is quoted saying at a press conference that the Times story "doesn't characterize how I feel," and instead directs reporters to read a Page One interview he gave the Dallas Morning News. (Like the Times interview piece, the Morning News story reported that Bush continued to oppose McCain's campaign-finance plan, but it was headlined, "Bush Says He Wants To Work With McCain.") Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, meanwhile, tells the Times that its earlier story "was not a full and fair reflection of what the governor has said about Senator McCain." In a separate, "political memo" story, the Times's Adam Clymer questions
whether Mr. Bush will be able to profit from the opportunity to prove he is ready for the fall campaign. Some governors before him, including Jimmy Carter and Michael S. Dukakis, overcame both real difficulties and Washington mockery, and then behaved as though that proved they knew everything they needed to know about politics. Mr. Bush's intermittently dismissive tone toward Senator John McCain in an interview on Wednesday suggested he has at least a mild dose of that nomination hubris.
Such a lot of spin and punditry flowing out of such a phony campaign crisis!
Was Bush quoted out of context in the original Times piece? Let's go to the complete interview transcript, which the Times has been kind enough to post on its Web page. Reading through the exchanges about McCain, Chatterbox doesn't think Bush sounds arrogant at all. Programmed--yes; a little dim--well, sure. But arrogant? Decide for yourself:
Times: Has John McCain elevated your consciousness about reform? Has he changed your views?
Bush: No, he didn't change my views. He made me a better candidate. Competition made me better. It forced me to play to my strengths better. I didn't do that good a job early on. I needed to make it more clear that I not only believe in reform, I've got the record as a chief executive of getting reform done. There's nothing like the humbling experience of getting whipped pretty bad in New Hampshire to cause a man to re-evaluate. And I re-evaluated my message and I re-evaluated how I was conducting myself as a candidate. I wasn't doing as good a job as I could have explaining where my strength is. And my strength is as somebody when, giving the chance to reform, like education, I brought both Republicans and Democrats together. That's what this country needs, when it comes to Social Security, for example.
When it's all said and done, I think America's going to turn to me. I've got a record of doing it. The Vice President is extremely partisan. He's extremely partisan.
Times: Is there anything McCain brought to light for you or changed your opinion on in any way?
Bush: No, not really. We agreed more than we disagreed. That's the great irony. You know, primaries are struggles; I used to say primaries are arguments over shades of gray. And that's what makes primaries difficult. In my case, I've known John a long time. And battling with John wasn't all that pleasant, because I like him. You know the competition got tough, and there were things said during the course of the campaign.
Times: Do you see the possibility of healing?
Bush: Yes, I do.
Times: What do you need to do to make sure that happens?
Bush: Just remind him there's a lot of agreement. We agree on a lot of things, starting with neither of us wants Al Gore to be the president.
Times: You won the primaries and you don't have to make concessions to McCain, but there are people out there urging it and calling for it ...
Bush: Who's saying that?
Times: His people are saying it, talking about intermediaries and all that.
Bush: Well I've talked with Fred Thompson and John Kyl, for example, and they said whatever I can do to help you become the president, I want to help you.
Times: Is there anything you need to do to win him over? Any concessions you need to offer?
Bush: No. I think what I need to do is explain to John that we agree a lot more than we disagree. There's a lot of room for reform in Washington, D.C. I look forward to working with him to achieve the reforms. Just to remind him that we can work together to get a lot of reform done.
Times: Any change in your positions, though?
Bush: No, I campaign on what I believe.
Times: How critical to your future to patch things up?
Bush: Well, I think it's important for there to be some time. I think it's important for all of us to get some rest. I think it's important for us to realize that there's far more we agree on than disagree on, and I'm confident we can work things out, confident that we will be on the same team.
Times: You said initially you were going to stay positive in the campaign. Any regrets about the way the primary went?
Bush: No, I don't.
Times: Do you regret the negative turn of the campaign?
Bush: I regret being called an anti-Catholic bigot.
Times: How do you forgive your opponent for that?
Bush: Because I'm a forgiving person. People know it's not true. I believe, eventually, that inured to my benefit, primarily because people listened to the call, listened to the accusation and filtered it out, based on who I am.
Times: What do you think John McCain's role should be in the party?
Bush: I think that John McCain has earned the respect of a lot of people, and it's going to be up to him to determine what course he wants to take.
Times: How important is it to win his enthusiastic support?
Bush: I'm confident we'll be able to find common ground and work together.
Times: How important?
Bush: It's important, and I'm confident we can work together.
Times: But weren't they coming out for John McCain?
Bush: Well then, how come he didn't win? Let me say this: I remember the wisdom, you remember the wisdom in South Carolina, if the turnout is bigger than 300,000 ...