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Reliable Sources

Adam Clymer Discusses Bush's Vulgarity Heard 'Round the World

Aired September 9, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The vulgarity heard round the world: What's the fallout from George Bush's off-mike crack about a "New York Times" reporter. We'll ask that reporter, Adam Clymer.

And the press uses the "P" word, panic, over the Bush campaign. Are journalists just piling on?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical eye on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

We begin with the presidential candidate caught with the microphone on.




KURTZ: George Bush said he regretted that his private conversation became public, but he didn't apologize for the remark. And the media quickly pounced.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Governor Bush may have stepped on his message of restoring honor and dignity to the White House today, when a microphone caught him making an undignified remark about a newspaper reporter.

JOHN ROBERTS, CBS ANCHOR: Bush forgot a rule of the road: Don't say anything near a microphone that you wouldn't want your mother to hear.

KURTZ: The pundits had a field day.

LISA CAPUTO, FORMER HILLARY CLINTON PRESS SECRETARY: I think what you saw happen to Governor Bush was, you know, the pressure of the campaign, you know, clearly getting to him.

LAURA INGRAHAM, AUTHOR, "THE HILLARY TRAP": But the fact is, Adam Clymer has been pretty tough on George Bush, dating back to a couple months ago. MARK SHIELDS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Dick Cheney says, big time, boss. You know, I mean, it was just kind of -- there was just that it was a giant sucking sound.

KURTZ: But not everyone thought it was a major flub.

TONY BLANKLEY, FORMER GINGRICH PRESS SECRETARY: I think this is sort of ludicrously overblown.

RON FAUCHEUX, "CAMPAIGNS & ELECTIONS": I think people will forget about this in a week or two anyway.

KURTZ: And the White House couldn't resist a jab at the candidate's expense.

JOHN PODESTA, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Is this mike on? You can never be too careful these days.

Welcome to the White House.


PODESTA: Especially the people in the back.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Adam Clymer, the "New York Times" Washington correspondent who was the subject of that remark by George W. Bush. Also with us, Kathy Kiely, Washington correspondent for "USA Today," and Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.


Adam Clymer, for a couple of days, as television replayed this thing over and over, everyone in the world was hearing the Republican nominee calling Adam Clymer a pretty nasty name. Suddenly you were the story. How did that make you feel?

ADAM CLYMER, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, as the man said after being ridden out of town on a rail, if it weren't for the honor of it, I would just as soon walked.

I mean, you know, it's uncomfortable, but, you know, it goes with the territory. This is just a, sort of, higher profile complaint from a politician who didn't like what I wrote than some others.

KURTZ: You didn't say much when asked. You talked a little bit about how you were disappointed in the governor's language. Were you restraining yourself from saying what you really thought about that kind of crack?

CLYMER: Well, I really didn't want to become part of the news. I didn't want to get into a fight with a presidential nominee. I didn't want to be the news. So I figured shutting up was the easiest way to do it.

KURTZ: Bernie?

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Adam, you achieved a higher profile. Let me ask you this, 1, 2, 3 in a row: Have you had any new job offers?


KALB: Have you asked "The Times" for a salary raise?


KALB: And what sort of guidance is "The Times" giving you about how to behave yourself journalistically in the future?

CLYMER: None of the above.

But let's talk later about the first two points.


KALB: Let me ask you a serious question: Is the media -- are the media making a kind of mountain of a semantic molehill?

CLYMER: I guess so. I mean, I think the story has been covered and covered and replayed on every cable network that I happen to pass by. I've had interview requests from Melbourne, Australia, and Vienna, to take the furthest ones...

KALB: And you did them?

CLYMER: No, I didn't do them.

This is the one I've done, Bernie, just you guys.

KALB: The Bush folks says, as you know, that they feel that in some instances you've been unfair to the campaign. And there's been some other critics who say, "Well, you wrote a biography of Ted Kennedy and perhaps you're not favorably disposed toward Republican presidential candidates." Unfair?

CLYMER: Well, I voted for the last one, Bob Dole.


CLYMER: Yes, I think it's unfair, but it's -- as I say, it comes with the territory. Democratic politicians have disliked things I've written; Republican politicians. You know, if they all love you, you might as well just be driving a Good Humor truck.

KURTZ: Has the Bush campaign, since the incident, talked to you at all? Any apology, any smoothing over of the hard feelings?


KURTZ: Has there been any private criticism? There was this unintended public criticism. Has there been any private criticism of the Bush campaign to you?

CLYMER: The Bush campaign had two complaints about a story I did about health care in Texas, which said it had been bad for decades and Bush hadn't done much to improve it. The first complaint was an error. I said that he had never given a speech on health care, but the reference was attributed to one of the press secretaries in the governor's office to whom I had been sent to get the speeches and he said he never gave one. So we corrected that error.

The other complaint they made, Howie, Ari Fleischer, one of their most frequently quoted spokesmen, called me and complained and said, "You didn't tell us the piece was going to be tough." Well, I didn't think that was my responsibility.

KURTZ: Adam, having been thrust rather uncomfortably into this spotlight, however briefly, will it be harder for you now to write about the Bush campaign? Any temptation, you know, to overcompensate?

CLYMER: I don't think so. And, you know, covering -- I mean, I'm not basically full-time covering either campaign. I'll cover a variety of things, and I tend to like House elections better anyway, but I expect to write about the Bush campaign and I don't expect to be handicapped in it.

KALB: Adam, has any poll been taken as to whether the criticism of you by the governor will hurt or help the governor in public opinion, given the estimate of the press by so many Americans?

CLYMER: I don't -- I'm not aware of one, and I don't, you know, I very much...

KALB: You're not aware of it. Put the poll aside, do you have a sense whether it will hurt or help?

CLYMER: If I could cover this story, which obviously I can't, I think probably using bad language while promising to restore dignity to the White House is a contradiction that he -- you know, that will hurt him in a tiny, modest way. And I don't think -- I mean, you know, picking on reporters is either going to help him or hurt him.

KURTZ: Kathy Kiely, jump in here. Has the press been overplaying this? One of its own being attacked by God, the use of a word -- the "a" word?

KATHY KIELY, "USA TODAY": Well, probably, if truth be told, we're all incredibly jealous, you know.


Adam is absolutely right. I mean, it's part of the job description.

I remember, when I first started in a newsroom in Pittsburgh, one of my editors telling me that if you want to be a good journalist, sometimes you have to be -- and he used the word that the governor used to describe Adam. In other words, you sometimes have to ask impertinent questions and behave in ways that, you know, Miss Manners wouldn't approve of.

I mean, we don't try to make a career of that; we don't do it all the time, but there are certain occasions in which you have to challenge authority. And then there are occasions when people are just going to get their feelings hurt by a tough story. And tough stories are what we're supposed to do.

KURTZ: Roger?

ROGER SIMON, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": The problem for Bush is not that he used the word, but that the event that it created became the story and the story for several days. There are not many days left in this campaign. He's either even or behind in the polls. And he has to get his message out there every single day at every single event.

And from Labor Day until now, the story has been what he called, Adam, not that he wants to be the education president and give a big tax cut to everybody.

KIELY: I must say, I don't think the fact that he said this about a journalist made it a story. I mean, it was a blooper. And if he had said this about anybody, I think it would have been a story.

And I think Roger's point is well taken. I mean, he's in a tight race. He makes a blooper like this. It's going to be mentioned.

KALB: It obliterates everything else he wants to say.

I want to play a couple of clips, because the week wore on, we also had another story in "The New York Times," not by Adam Clymer, a front-page piece talking about Republican nervousness about the state of the Bush campaign. In fact, the piece called it "defensive, bumbling, weary, detached or peevish, at least in the estimation of some GOP observers."

And let's see how that played on television.


MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, NBC "TODAY": There is growing concern in Republican circles about a loss of momentum in the Bush campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Fellow Republicans are expressing anxiety about his performance on the stump and in the polls.

DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: Republican George Bush brushed off talk today, some of it from top Republicans, that what he's doing is not working. And he doesn't change, if he doesn't turn the thing around, he could lose.


KALB: Pack journalism?

SIMON: Yes, but with good reason. This is the worse sign a campaign can have. This is reminiscent of the Dole campaign of '96. When your own advisers begin using the media, usually "The New York Times" -- or classically "The New York Times," to get a message to the candidate, it's never good.

And for the first time, I saw in a story by Rick Berke that an unnamed Bush adviser said, if I had a bet right now, I'd bet that Al Gore is going to win.

This was the campaign that was supposed to be so unified...

KALB: Right.

SIMON: ... and now people are going through the back door.

KALB: Kathy, you used a word "blooper." And I have a little problem with the word "blooper," because I think we got to be very semantically careful. A blooper is a kind of an all out fluff. This was an uncalculated revelation, as it were, about how he feels about you, and in general about the media, I would take it. I think blooper is much too generous an estimate.

CLYMER: Yes, but if he's a -- there's a biased reporter, it wouldn't have been a story.

KURTZ: Maybe a paragraph.

CLYMER: Maybe.

KURTZ: But, Adam, what do you think about this?

KALB: That's language, I'm sorry. That's language.

Go ahead.

KURTZ: What do you think about all the stories now, that have been in newspapers and on television about the Bush campaign in trouble and the Republican nervousness? Don't they, kind of, take on a momentum of their own that may be a little premature in early September?

CLYMER: They may, just about -- I mean, but we've had waves of this. We had waves of, "The Gore campaign can't do anything." Then we've had ways of, "Boy, has Joe Lieberman made everything perfect for them."

If, you know, we do this, it's not the best thing about us. But, you know, if a whole bunch of reporters go out and report it. I mean, a lot of listeners may have the idea that somebody writes it first. You write it, or Rick Berke writes it. And then everyone else says, "I have to write the same thing."

Everybody gets asked about that story, but you go out and report it, and if they all come to the same general conclusion -- you know, it's something that's going on. And it'll change again, and I don't know how many times. KIELY: Yes, I mean, I think all of us who have worked in newsrooms are familiar with this syndrome that, I think we're so self- conscious about pack journalism, that there's actually a tendency to try to be counter-intuitive or to run counter to the trend.


KIELY: Well, but what I'm saying is that if people -- I do think people try not to follow somebody else's lead. I mean, it's just pride of your craft. And the fact that all of these stories are being reported, may not be so much a sign of pack journalism, as the fact that, you know, if Republican politicians are telling reporters these things, there may be something there.

KALB: Yes, but how can you fight what seems to be obvious? I mean, you can't simply write a story in the negative, because it has a, kind of, a popular appeal and goes against the pack. If the facts of the people you talk to give you this, sort of, a forfeit of reality, you've got to go with it.

KIELY: That's what I'm saying.

SIMON: But the facts are open to interpretation. I really think had George Bush been 17 points up in the polls, as of Labor Day, and he made that same remark, it would have been laughed off. It would have been covered by the media, but it would have been treated as a harmless gaff, not some serious sign of disorganization or befuddlement or grave error in his campaign strategy.

KIELY: But I don't think that...

KURTZ: Kathy, let me get a break here. But I -- just a brief observation, which is these all-important polls are showing, the candidates still are in pretty close to a dead heat, or Gore is a few points up, so some of these pronunciations of panic might be a bit premature.

Well, more of our conversation in a moment. And we'll also look at the role of the networks in the debate over debates.



Roger Simon, we've been talking about the press, sort of, slapping the Bush campaign around for a couple weeks now, the candidate who was deemed unstoppable just about a month ago. What about Al Gore? Has he been getting an easy ride? Has the vice president made no mistakes lately?

SIMON: No. But the fact is every day candidates do things that are smart and things that are dumb, or at least every week. When the polls are good you tend to hear about the smart things the candidates do. When the polls are bad you tend to hear about the dumb things they've done.

KURTZ: Example?

SIMON: Al Gore goes to batting practice for the Detroit Tigers, throws a pitch, and it hits the first baseman on the hip. If he were 17 points down it would be another example of how this -- it would be like Dukakis riding in the tank with the baby potty on his head.

But because he's up it was laughed off, it was a joke...


CLYMER: Or Gerald Ford, probably the most athletic president in this century, getting a reputation as a stumblebum.

KALB: Adam, what sort of a job do you think the media's doing in explaining the completing pressures in both camps about debating, how they'll go about the debate?

CLYMER: I think at first it wasn't so odd, but I think it's gotten better because...

KALB: The media coverage of it.

CLYMER: Yes. I think the point of, if you take the commission's debate you get all the networks, if you -- and Bush is trying to say, "Well, no, I'm, you know, why are they written in stone?" Well, they're written in stone because those are the days that all or most of the networks will clear them and, you know, and 90 million people can watch them if they want, whereas, with all respect to Larry King or Tim Russert, there are very much smaller audiences, in particular because the other networks are going to ignore them.

KURTZ: If there's counter-programming on.

But Kathy Kiely, did CNN's "LARRY KING LIVE" and NBC's "Meet the Press," kind of, put themselves in an awkward position by offering to sponsor these debates and then becoming part of the debate over who would do what and trying to, sort of, extend their corporate branding, knowing full well that, you know, ABC and CBS are not going to air "Meet the Press"?

KIELY: Well, I don't -- I don't think so, because I don't think there's any way that either NBC or CNN could have anticipated that George Bush would suggest doing them as an alternative to the commission on debates. And I think certainly every news organization has every right to offer to sponsor a meeting between the candidates, certainly in a year when you have multiple candidates and there might be some forum, some organizations that want to sponsor debates that would include candidates the commission won't include. I think that's very legitimate.

But you can certainly see that now, with George Bush saying, "I'll do this instead of the commission," it does create an awkward situation, but I don't know what the news organizations could have done. I think they're doing...

KURTZ: He has -- Governor Bush has been softening that position. CLYMER: But CNN, at least, by complaining about his use of their footage in its ad, has tried to distance itself from this attempt to exploit it.

SIMON: The Bush strategy was based on two faulty premises. One, that the public gives a darn about process, about how debates are put together.

CLYMER: I think people are saying, "Wake me up in October and tell me what time it's going to be on."

SIMON: Yes, exactly, if that.


And secondly, that the public or anyone would believe that Al Gore is afraid to debate George Bush, and so he's, you know, playing by a different set of rules. The fact is everyone knows that Al Gore can't wait to debate George Bush. I really think the campaign -- the Bush campaign stumbled on this one.

KALB: Roger, the media's piling on in favor of the three debates on the three -- on all the networks at the same time. The consequence is is that Gore is getting a much better image in the media. Bush is being hurt by that and the media seems to be playing it that way.

SIMON: Well, I think it's for the reasons I just said. We can't really -- first of all, we don't care -- we care about process because that sort of fills our pages, but in the end we'd like them to debate.

I mean, there are only a few dramatic moments to these campaigns, their speeches before the conventions was one of them, and the debate is the second and last one before Election Day, and we'd like to see these two go head to head, and anything that delays that process is going to result in media criticism.

CLYMER: The other thing about the debates, and this isn't -- it isn't that somebody is going to stumble and be out of the race or be brilliant and win it, the thing that debates do is that they tell the American people about the positions of the candidates. And even if that doesn't change a great many votes, that's a civic virtue.

KURTZ: Do to do that you need a mass audience...


KURTZ: ... like the 40 million or 50 million that have watched in the past, and you can only get that by what's called road blocking, getting it on all the networks at once.

Kathy Kiely, we're running a little short on time, but did the press get taken in basically -- and I can think of times when this may have happened before -- when George Bush put up -- released an ad criticizing Al Gore on this very question of debates, trying to make it appear that he was the one who was ducking, and now, at least according to "The Los Angeles Times," that ad has not run in any of the 75 major media markets? In other words, they got a lot of free press out of it, but apparently didn't put a lot of dollars into it.

KIELY: Well, it's a strange phenomenon, but I don't know what you can do about. Do you not write about an ad? Do you not -- it just seems to me to be a kind of -- I think self-censoring is a dangerous thing. So if you decide, "I'm not going to write about this," I think that -- I think you get into very dangerous territory, because you're...


KURTZ: Or in television's case play it on the air.

KALB: Yes, but it wasn't released, it wasn't shown, and the media's given them all this free publicity.

CLYMER: Well, maybe the next time they do one...

KALB: Don't you -- I'm sorry.

CLYMER: ... one of these promotions we should say, "Can we see the booking list?"

KALB: Can we...

CLYMER: I mean, this stunt was invented by Ron Brown when he was running California for Ted Kennedy. He didn't have any money to put ads on the air, so he flew around the state saying, "I'm going to unveil our new ad campaign," and giving everyone free tapes, and it got on the news shows.

KURTZ: That's why they call it free media.

Kathy Kiely, Roger Simon, increasingly famous Adam Clymer, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, coming up, a final word about politicians and the open mike, next in Bernie's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page," Bernie.

KALB: Well, to get back to those two syllables we talked about earlier in the show, what Bush said about "New York Times" reporter Adam Clymer, well, that inevitably got the media resurrecting some other comments never meant to produce big headlines.


(voice-over): Back in '84 -- and no one knows whether it's genetically semantic or semantically genetic, but here's the governor's father, a boom microphone picking up that he had kicked a little you know what after his vice presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro.

And there was this nuclear-sized gaffe by George Sr.'s boss when thought he was tossing off an innocent little joke.


RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you that I have passed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.


KALB: The Kremlin was not amused.

The open mike is absolutely non partisan. Here's President Clinton last year trying to act as a peacemaker in the Irish peace talks.


CLINTON: They're like a couple of drunks walking out of the bar for the last time. When they get to the swinging door, they turn right around and go back in and say, I just came, bartender.


KALB: Irish-Americans were outraged.

These last few days, the media have had a feeding frenzy over that ad lib by the governor. But let's face it, the shock was more about the choice of language than in that well-known adversarial relationship between politicians and the press. For Bush, his whispered remark turned out to be a direct public hit on his target, and it hit a sensitive media nerve on the question of bias: In other words, this wasn't just a plain old gaffe.

The fact is, an open mike is one of the greatest things about a democracy -- at least from a reporter's point of view. It takes you behind the scenes, behind the smiles. You'd never have such an open- mike controversy in this chap's country, but in the land of the free, there have always been these tensions going all the way back to the founding fathers. And politicians -- and this is bipartisan, really -- politicians aren't exactly wild about being dissected, psychoanalyzed and just about everything else by the media. But sometimes their innermost feelings about the media...




KALB: ... don't require an accidentally open mike.

Here's Richard Nixon in his farewell to the press after his defeat for California governor in 1962.


RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.


KALB: And once he was in the White House, Nixon developed what ultimately came to be known as the "enemies list" of reporters he regarded to be enemies. My brother Marvin was on that list as a CBS news correspondent.


KALB: I was not on the list. Very simple explanation: Only one to a family.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

When we come back, the story of a reporter disabled by the Gore campaign.


KURTZ: Before we go, this note from the world of media news: Chad Zwytecki (ph), a 22-year-old reporter, fresh out of college, got his dream assignment last Sunday. His newspaper, Michigan's "Flint Journal," asked him to cover Al Gore's local campaign swing. But when Zwytecki, who uses a wheelchair, called the Gore campaign to make accommodations, he was told the vans for the press corps weren't wheelchair accessible and that he wouldn't be allowed to follow the press van in his own car. The "Flint Journal" ended up sending a different reporter to get the story.

On Thursday, the vice president called to apologize. And Zwytecki tells us that Gore invited him to fly on Air Force 2 next time the campaign hits Michigan.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.



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