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Are Media Getting Tougher on George W. Bush?

Aired November 2, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): In this corner, the Bush bashers, calling the president a liar, a phony and worse. And blaming him for the continued carnage in Iraq.

In this corner, the Clinton bashers, calling the former president a liar and a sleaze, and continuing to blame him on terrorism, and, in case anyone forgot her, morality. How did journalism get so personal, so filled with hatred? And are White House correspondents getting tougher on George Bush?

Plus, low road. The supermarket tabloid that outed Kobe Bryant's accuser.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the increasingly hostile coverage of this president and the last one.

I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead, "The Nation's" David Corn and "National Review's" Rich Lowry will join the fray.

But first, when things are going well for the commander-in-chief, he has an easier time with the Fourth Estate. During the run-up to the Iraq War, critics found most White House correspondents rather timid. But today -- a very different story.

Let's take a trip through the spin cycle.


KURTZ (voice-over): In the wake of more deadly bomb attacks in Baghdad, including one that narrowly missed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the questioning at Tuesday's news conference was particularly aggressive.

NORAH O'DONNELL, NBC NEWS: At that time, you declared major combat operations were over. But since that time there have been over 1,000 wounded, many of them amputees who are recovering at Walter Reed, 217 killed in action since that date. Will you acknowledge now that you were premature in making those remarks?

BILL PLANTE, CBS NEWS: There are people out there who don't believe that the administration is leveling with them about the difficulty and scope of the problem in Iraq.

ELIZABETH BUMILLER, NEW YORK TIMES: And the second question, can you promise a year from now that you will have reduced the number of troops in Iraq?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The second question is a trick question. So I won't answer it.

KURTZ: But the Rose Garden grilling was nothing compared to the vitriol that some liberal commentators are heaping on Bush. Lots of books say he doesn't tell the truth, including David Corn's "The Lies of George W. Bush." Columns calling him an illegitimate president, a fake cowboy and a moron, all of which led to Jonathan Chait's "New Republic" cover story on Bush hatred.

JONATHAN CHAIT, NEW REPUBLIC: Personally, I don't like him, I don't respect him. But I say, the main thing here is his policies, and but you can hate him on both. And I do. There's plenty of hatred to go around.

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I think it makes complete sense that the Democrats hate George Bush, because what they really hate is the ideas that he stands for. But just like conservatives, it wasn't about hating Bill Clinton, it was about what he stood for. It was about the '60s and the 1970s and all the values that that brought forward.

KURTZ: Of course, there's still a cottage industry of conservatives calling Bill Clinton a liar, a cheater and a lousy president. Books like Rich Lowry's "Legacy," featured in "National Review," with a less than flattering caricature.


KURTZ: The more those on the left bash Bush, it seems, the more those on the right want to blame today's problems on Clinton's eight years in office.

Well, joining me now, Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review," and the author of "Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years."

And David Corn, Washington bureau chief for "The Nation," and the author of "The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception."


Rich Lowry, let's start with that press conference. Were the reporters unusually aggressive, because Iraq seems to be a mess, and they perhaps want to blame it on this president?

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Yes. Well, the media works off just a couple of very shop-worn templates, always. One's the scandal story. They work off of Watergate. When it's any story having to do with a conflict overseas, it's automatically Vietnam. So the media emphasizes the negative. They assume American power is going to go wrong and the war is going to be a disaster. And I think that's underlying a lot of the hostile questioning of Bush on the conflict now.

KURTZ: On the other hand, the president seemed rather testy with some of the reporters, refusing even to answer Elizabeth Bumiller's "trick question," as he put it.

DAVID CORN, THE NATION: Well, yes. I thought his tone there was a little off the mark. I mean, I think reporters -- I think the public has reasons to be worried about the president's credibility.

You look at what he said leading up to the war about weapons of mass destruction, and his refusal to engage in the debate or discussion of how much the war would cost and how many troops it would take afterwards.

You know, gave people the impression that we might not have this mess. And now the hard questions are coming down the pike. And believe it or not, I don't think they're hard enough.

KURTZ: Do you buy Rich Lowry's assertion that reporters are suddenly in Vietnam mode and are making everything seem like a quagmire, because that's one of the only ...

CORN: Well, I don't disagree with that ...

KURTZ: ... historical references they have?

CORN: I think the press tends to swerve too much in one direction, too much in the other direction. And they're like generals. They're always fighting the last war. That does happen.

But having said that, I think there are hard questions that should be asked. Now, that has nothing to do with Vietnam. And even in the press conference -- a good example was -- he was asked about the fact that the donor's conference, they got $13 billion out of other countries. The nations of the world -- the U.S. is kicking in $20 billion. That's $33 billion. They say the total figure they need is $56 billion. He was asked, how do you make up the shortfall?

He said, oil revenues. But Paul Bremer has said many a time that those revenues aren't coming...

LOWRY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) look, there were obviously, ...

CORN: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE) focus on those details.

LOWRY: ... there are obviously -- obviously fair questions and tough questions to ask about this.

But there are a couple of media myths that are grown up now, and they're basically unmovable. One that Bush said the threat from Iraq was imminent, which no Bush official said. The other thing that he said, it was going to be easy. He never said that either. But, you know, as a background to a lot of these stories and oftentimes explicitly stated in these stories, is that Bush officials said those things. He didn't.

CORN: Well, wait a second, he didn't say the word "imminent." But he did say "immediate" and "direct." And he said there was a high likelihood -- the White House did -- that there'd be a surprise attack from Saddam Hussein.

LOWRY: Right.

CORN: Using weapons of mass destruction ...

LOWRY: Well, ...

CORN: ... If that's not imminent ...

LOWRY: ... the premise ...

CORN: ... I don't know what imminent is.

KURTZ: All right, all right, all right.

LOWRY: ... the premise of the statements, though, is that you can't wait for the threat to grow up, and you never know when it's going to happen.

KURTZ: Before we re-fight the Iraq war, I want to turn to the subject while you're here -- and before we get into some Bush bashing, let's take a brief look at the Bush being bashed.


BUSH: There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, "Wanted -- Dead or Alive."

There are some who feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring 'em on.


KURTZ: What do you make, Rich Lowry, of all of these books -- David Corn's included -- and some of them calling Bush a liar, a deceiver, a really bad guy?

LOWRY: Well, I mean, Bush hatred is very real. And when "National Review" read a story about this four or five weeks ago, the debate was, does Bush hatred really exist?

Now we know it exists. We had a writer on the "New Republic" actually saying he hates Bush personally, not just his policies, but him personally. And they're driven crazy by this guy.

And I think there's a real elitism behind it. They think he's stupid and dumb. And I think that's been a lot -- behind a lot of the media coverage of Bush.

And, you know, you can argue those policies are mistaken, he's made mistakes. But I don't think the public is going to buy the idea that he's a liar.

His poll numbers on honesty are quite high. And his poll numbers on leadership are quite high. So they're not going to buy the personal attacks on him.

KURTZ: You're dying to jump in.

CORN: To me it's not a matter of poll numbers. Clinton's poll numbers were very high through impeachment, and that didn't prevent people on the right, like Rich and others, from attacking him and wanting to be outraged. And there's a lot of Clinton hatred, too.

To me it's not the issue of hatred. Listen. The premise of my book ...

KURTZ: You don't hate George W. Bush?

CORN: No. I don't hate George W. Bush.

KURTZ: But when you (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...


KURTZ: Before we get to the premise, when you catalogue Bush's lies, ...

CORN: Right.

KURTZ: ... you're saying in part, you don't like his conservative policies.

CORN: What I'm saying is, he's not presenting them honestly.

And if you go down the list and if you -- I argue in my book that on the war, on tax cuts and Social Security and global warming, Medicare -- you name it -- stem cell research, energy policy -- that he has not argued his case honestly.

And if that is indeed true, if the premise is true, then shouldn't people be angry about it?

Now, you could argue the facts (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...

KURTZ: Don't you undermine -- don't you undermine your own argument when you say the president lies about everything -- every issue you just ticked off.

CORN: And I -- well, I (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...

KURTZ: There's nothing on which he's honest about?

CORN: ... well, I know. I have not ... KURTZ: He's just a full-time deceiver?

CORN: ... I have not said that he's not honest about everything. I mean, he said he -- during the campaign -- that he would stick with his tax cut plan, even though it didn't poll well. Indeed, he stuck with it.

He said he would confront Saddam Hussein during the campaign. There are sometimes when the president does tell the truth.

He said that Iraq is a dangerous ...


CORN: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Well, I mentioned this in my book, Howard.

KURTZ: OK, ...

LOWRY: David ...

CORN: But most of it -- most of it is not -- listen, I'll be fair. Most of what I'm saying is, on the big policy issues, he has not argued his case honestly.

LOWRY: Well, David throws the kitchen sink in there. And if Bush sneezes, he calls it a lie.

The fact is, David just has some policy disagreements with Bush, and then characterizes those as lies in order to play to this animus that Bush is fundamentally evil. That's out there and very real.

KURTZ: What is it about George W. Bush that seems to drive some liberals crazy?

LOWRY: I think it's a cultural thing. You know, it's the way he walks. It's the way he talks. He's, you know, ...

KURTZ: The cowboy approach?

LOWRY: He's got the cowboy image. Whenever he says something like bring 'em on, it's not just the words that drive people crazy, it's the way he says them. He drops a syllable, and that really -- if you're a Manhattan liberal who's going to buy David's book, ...

CORN: Wait, wait, ...


CORN: I love Texas. I love it. I have Texas cowboy boots. I have nothing -- there's nothing -- I like, you know, cowboy music. It's not a cultural (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in me.

But when he says things like, his tax cuts, the vast majority of my tax cuts go to the bottom end of the spectrum. That is demonstrably untrue. You can argue in favor of trickle-down economics. You can argue in favor of the people who ...

LOWRY: Right.

CORN: ... the rich (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...

LOWRY: Is John Kerry a liar, by the way?

CORN: ... no, wait a minute.

LOWRY: Was John Kerry a liar when he said that middle class families are getting these tax cuts, so it's a mistake to repeal them? Is he lying?

CORN: That's -- that's a different statement than to say the vast majority of these cuts go to the bottom end of the spectrum.

LOWRY: Depends on how you ...


KURTZ: Let me come back to the press coverage. Is hatred -- as some people are using the "H" word -- is that an appropriate and logical response to the policies of a president that you disagree with?

CORN: Well, it depends who you're talking about. From the public at large, if you think the president is running the country into the ground and fighting unfair wars, I think hatred is fine. If you think the president ...

KURTZ: Personal hatred?

CORN: From a citizen towards the president? Yes. I mean, not personal in the sense that you know someone.

I think if you feel that Clinton, you know, despoiled the Oval Office, you can feel hatred or intense emotion against him. There's nothing wrong with that.

KURTZ: And is that ...

CORN: But I think when journalists -- you've got to be analytical about it and stick to the facts, which is what I do in my book.

KURTZ: In fact, a lot of your conservative friends, including your colleague ...

LOWRY: That's right.

KURTZ: ... Jonah Goldberg, say they hated Clinton, couldn't stand the guy, ...

CORN: Right.

KURTZ: ... couldn't stand the sight of him. So aren't we really just seeing, if not payback, just another form of ideological warfare that has now spilled over into incredible, emotional, personal animus?

LOWRY: Right. Well, I think it's ideological and cultural warfare. And these guys are -- Clinton and Bush are sort of archetypes for each side in this conflict. And that drives a lot of the energy and the anger.

But I think the hatred of Clinton was based on the idea that he was a moral reprobate, which was clearly proven in office. He demonstrated to everyone in the most flagrant fashion possible.

So, that to me seemed to be a very solid case ...

KURTZ: So, in your view, that's justified, this isn't, OK.

LOWRY: Well, that's -- well, I wouldn't hate him.

KURTZ: Why are all these Bush-bashing books coming out now? Could you have written this book a year ago?

CORN: Well, it's interesting. In the spring of 2002, I talked to my agent about doing a book like this.

She sniffed around the publishing houses, and at that point there was no interest. Bush was riding too high in the polls, and I think the publishing houses didn't think there was enough of a readership for this type of book.

KURTZ: They were perhaps intimidated by the president's popularity?

CORN: No, I think they're trying to judge what the marketplace will bear.

And then, you know, in October 2002, my agent tried again and got six houses within a day to say, yes, we want to do it. And at that time -- I didn't know it, but Al Franken was selling a book, Joe Conason was selling a book. Molly Ivins (ph) was.

So the publishing houses all gathered that there was somewhat of a shift.

KURTZ: And the one thing that changed in that period is that suddenly the president was leading toward a war with Iraq.

LOWRY: Right, right.

KURTZ: How much of this liberal animus, in your view, has been galvanized by what happened in Iraq?

LOWRY: Oh, that's a huge part of it. You saw this hatred developing early on with the idea that he had stolen Florida and was somehow an illegitimate president. And then the war just added fuel to the fire. So, if I would have been a publishing house, I would have eagerly taken David's book, knowing -- you can come to me next time, David -- knowing that there was this feeling on the left.

And look. A lot of things in our politics and our book buying is driven by anger and fear.

KURTZ: We finally have agreement on something. Maybe it's a good place to stop.

When we come back, bashing Bill. Clinton criticism still all the rage among conservatives. Talk about that next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Still with us are authors David Corn and Rich Lowry. Both are FOX News contributors.

Turning now to Bill Clinton, let's take a look at the former president, both when he was in the Oval Office and afterwards.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.

Most scandalous of all, this last tax cut is proposed to be paid for by kicking 500,000 poor children out of their after-school program.

Oh, it's regrettable, but I've got to have this tax cut, man. That dividend cut, I need that really bad.


KURTZ: David Corn, Bill Clinton, whatever his record, has been out of office for three years. Why are conservative pundits still kicking him around?

CORN: Oh, I think two reasons. One is that it sells. Two reasons. One is that it sells, the other is that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...

KURTZ: That's the only reason you need.

CORN: ... there you go.

And, you know, I think the anger, you know, is there. It still resonates. And that there is still a feeling that, with Bush in the White House, that you have to blame somebody for some of the problems we have. The war -- you know, being struck on 9/11 and such.

And it's very convenient to go back and look at him, rather than going back to looking at the Reagan-Bush years when they, you know, made mistakes, too, on terrorism.

So, in any event, I think, you know, all these things give a conservative a good reason to go after Clinton, even though he's out.

And the fourth reason is, he refuses to leave the stage. So he's a good, convenient target.

KURTZ: Even some Democrats wish he would give them a little more daylight.

CORN: Yes.

KURTZ: In your book you criticized Bill Clinton seemingly on everything. Did Clinton not do one good thing during his eight years in office?

LOWRY: No, he did some good things. He signed a tax cut for the rich in 1997, which was great. Right, David?

He passed NAFTA. He expanded NATO.

But let me tell you why I wrote this book. It goes to one of David's reasons and to your intro, in fact, at the beginning, which I would take issue with.

I started this book a year-and-a-half ago when Bush was riding high. It was in no way an attempt to save him from his critics, because his critics were on the defensive at the moment.

The reason I wrote it was, there have been a lot of anti-Clinton books, you know, on various scandals and whatnot. But there's not been a real, substantive, factual, intellectual, intellectually serious critique of his entire administration. And that's what I sought to do in this book.

KURTZ: Your book is definitely substantive. But you won't even give Clinton credit for the booming economy of the '90s. You say -- now, let's make it clear.

Presidents always get more credit and more blame than they deserve, ...

LOWRY: Right, right.

KURTZ: ... as the economy bounces up and down.

But it seems rather grudging on your part that you won't even give Clinton a nod in this direction.

LOWRY: No, I think if people read my whole economy chapter -- and I did spend a lot of time on it, because it's important -- I say he's not responsible for the recovery in the early 1990s, which happened before he was in office.

The recession officially ended in early 1991. When he was touring the country in '92, saying this was the worst economy since the Great Depression, the economy was growing at 3 percent a year.

Now, later in the decade, we had a great boom. And what I give him credit for is playing ball with congressional Republicans and having mildly conservative economic policies on trade, on taxes, on regulation.

All those things are good. And if he would talk about those things, I would, you know, hold hands with him and sing "Kumbaya." But he never does.

KURTZ: I don't think I'd do that.

CORN: I remember that when he passed his budget plan in 1993, I was not a big fan of it, but I didn't think it was so bad. You had the Republicans and the conservatives literally saying that this economy will be destroyed, will be, you know, just smashed to bits within three years of this plan being passed. And no Republican voted, and that's continued ...


KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Hold up. I want to come back to the coverage and not just debate Clinton's record.

We now know that Clinton did lie, about Monica Lewinsky at the very least.

CORN: Sure. He lied about other things, too.

KURTZ: But you didn't write a book called "The Lies of ...

CORN: No, no ...

KURTZ: ... William Jefferson Clinton."

CORN: But -- that's right. I didn't write that book about that. But I wrote many a piece in which I challenged what he was saying. I remember several pieces I wrote about -- well, the genocide in Rwanda, when he came out and said, I never knew the situation was so bad. He went back and apologized.

That was just clearly B.S. He did know at the time.

KURTZ: But you don't think that ...

CORN: So I'm an equal opportunity accuser here.

KURTZ: Do you think liberals have been harder on Clinton than Rich's friends have been occasionally holding Bush's feet to the fire?

CORN: I'd like to see -- and, Rich, give me an example of anyone who's written for the "National Review," who has called Bush a liar or taken a risk ...

LOWRY: That's because he's not a liar, David. That's a ridiculous canard. Clinton said all the same things about weapons of mass destruction than Bush did.

CORN: Has Bush never told a lie? LOWRY: Not in the true sense of deliberately telling ...

CORN: Whoa!

LOWRY: ... something's that untrue. You call ...

CORN: When he said ...


LOWRY: David, let me respond.

CORN: That's not lying?


LOWRY: Can I respond. You call Bush a liar for saying that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and saying the exact same things about Iraq ...

CORN: No, no, no.

LOWRY: ... that Clinton did. Those aren't lies.

CORN: Well, ...

LOWRY: Those may have been mistakes. Those may have been intelligence failures.


LOWRY: They weren't lies.


CORN: Don't put words in my mouth. In my book I say that Bush says that intelligence leaves no doubt that Saddam Hussein has significant weapons of mass destruction, OK.


KURTZ: Hold on, hold on.


KURTZ: OK, I'm going to ask you guys to hold it.

LOWRY: Everyone agreed on the intelligence, whether you like it or not.


KURTZ: All right. Now, you call Bill Clinton in your book a monstrous, world-shaking failure. But, despite that view -- and you're entitled to it, ...

LOWRY: Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: ... he remained pretty popular with the American people, ...

LOWRY: He did.

KURTZ: ... even after being impeached.

LOWRY: Let me explain that. The monstrous, world-shaking failure was leaving the country vulnerable to 9/11.

Now, he stayed popular by ignoring the difficult and tough issues. You're very popular if you go into shopping malls and ask people, what do you want to hear the president say? And then you have the president say to them -- V-chips, school uniforms, teenage curfews.

All that was a very shrewd political formula. And I say this in legacy, to keep his poll numbers up. And the poll numbers stayed up. But that shouldn't be the standard for judging presidential leadership.

KURTZ: We've got 30 seconds. Half the country seems to like George W. Bush, despite your indictment about all the lies.

CORN: Well, and half don't. And, you know, we live in a 50-50 country. You could say the same thing about Bill Clinton. Actually, Bill Clinton had higher numbers and there was less of a division, despite, you know, the accusations of lying there, which were merited.

I think we're going to continue to fight this, based on people's partisan desires, rather than looking for the truth and having a hard standard.

And I judge Bush by his own words. He said he'd be different from other politicians. And I don't think he's restored honesty ...


KURTZ: You two, ...

CORN: No, it's not partisan.

KURTZ: You two will have to take this outside. David Corn and Rich Lowry, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, the new man on top at FOX News Sunday. Plus, Rosie O'Donnell in a high stakes court fight against her former publisher. That and more ahead in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now to check the latest in the world of media news.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ (voice-over): Veteran journalist Chris Wallace is leaving ABC to become the new host of "Fox News Sunday," replacing Tony Snow. The Emmy-award winning son of Mike Wallace tells me that Fox's reputation as a right leaning network is a bum rap. And that "if Roger Ailes and his network wanted a conservative fire breather, they wouldn't have hired me."

Most of the media have respected the anonymity of Kobe Bryant's accuser, until now. "The Globe" has flashed a sexy picture of the 19- year-old on its cover, along with her name. Is this how Bonnie Fuller, the new editorial chief hired from "US Weekly" plans to sell magazines? This is the same supermarket tabloid that outed Patricia Bowman (ph) in the William Kennedy Smith trial a dozen years ago.

Then NBC and "The New York Times" followed "The Globe's" lead. This time let's hope the media don't go down that sleazy road.

Is she the queen of nice or a profane loud mouth who ditched her self-titled magazine and sent dozens of employees to the unemployment line? Rosie O'Donnell is in a courtroom this week as a judge seeks an answer to that question. The one-time magazine editor is being sued by publisher Gruener & Yarr (ph) for allegedly violating her contract when she quit last year. O'Donnell's lawyer says she's no Mother Teresa. But Rosie says she doesn't understand why the matter has gotten this far.

ROSIE O'DONNELL: It is funny to me that I'm going to court for this, and where are the Enron guys? I'm just -- it's hysterical to me.

KURTZ: And CNBC has a new and funny prime-time face. Comedian Dennis Miller. Miller, who had been a Fox News commentator, will launch a nightly program early next year.


KURTZ: Hope it works out better for Dennis than "Monday Night Football." Just ahead, your viewer e-mail.


KURTZ: Turning now to our viewer e-mail, a lot of you wrote to us after our interview last week with actor George Clooney. Some just wanted a date, but others talked about the role of the press and the paparazzi. George in California writes: "If George Clooney doesn't like having his picture taken and people writing about him, he checked the wrong box when he said he wanted to be a movie star."

But Laurie in New York City says: "I'll never quite understand people who feel they have a right to see photos of celebrities in private moments. No offense, Mr. Clooney, but I couldn't care less where you eat dinner or with whom. It's your business and no one else's."

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


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