By Alexandra Starr
AMBLING INTO HISTORY
The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush
By Frank Bruni
HarperCollins -- 278pp -- $23.95
White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett once told me that, every evening at 11:05 p.m. during the Presidential campaign, he was reminded of the influence of The New York Times. That was when TV producers began calling him at home--right after they had consulted the first edition of the newspaper, which was posted on the Web around 11. The networks, Bartlett quickly grasped, planned their coverage around what the Times deemed to be the story of the day. And that made Frank Bruni, the Times's man on the Bush campaign, one of the most powerful journalists in America.
Now, Bruni has written a memoir of his days on the campaign trail and later at the White House, Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush. He doesn't focus on political issues or positions in this elegantly written, frequently funny book. Instead, Bruni relates a series of behind-the-scenes anecdotes in an effort, he says, to shine a light on "the personality behind the policies." Ultimately, however, this memoir is as much about Bruni as Bush, and the relationship between the two men. And it quickly becomes apparent that Bush successfully cultivated Bruni to coax out more positive coverage of his campaign.
In the beginning, Bruni had doubts about the GOP candidate. He frequently voiced skepticism about Bush's seriousness of purpose even though he viewed him as "instinctively bright." But Bush went out of his way to win the reporter over, and eventually, Bruni succumbed to his charms. Shortly after the candidate met the Times correspondent, "he was already shouting out to me in a familiar, we-go-way-back fashion," Bruni recalls. Bush regularly made himself available to the media (unlike his opponent, Al Gore) and bestowed nicknames upon them. Bruni's was Panchito, a diminutive form of a Spanish version of his first name. The candidate momentarily halted a press conference when he saw Bruni having difficulty with his tape recorder. Bush dashed off a note to Bruni's father on his birthday. When Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes, attacked Bruni over one article, Bush insisted that she apologize to the correspondent. And at a campaign event later in the day, Bush yelled to Bruni: "You know we love you!"
Bruni describes Bush as a seducer, and his affinity for the candidate had obvious repercussions for his reporting. Throughout this memoir, Bruni gently--perhaps too gently--takes himself to task for being overly soft on Bush. The author describes Bush in the opening days of the campaign as a man who occasionally resembled "a nervous, befuddled student," frequently answering questions with lines from his stump speech. "He often seemed content to get by on as little as possible," Bruni writes, "and we perhaps focused less on this than we might have in the fall of 1999." Instead, Bruni and his colleagues wrote about "what a deft campaigner" Bush was--hardly a phrase that fits Bruni's description in this book.
The most salient example of pulling punches involves Bruni's decision not only to bury the news of Bush's 1976 drunk-driving arrest, which surfaced in the waning days of the campaign, but also to tone down reports that, while governor, Bush had lied about his arrest record in an interview with a Texas paper. "The story that I ultimately wroteplayed all of this in a tempered way," the author admits. Because of the Times's influence over other media, this restraint was nothing less than a godsend, and Bush knew it. "You're a good man," he told the reporter, in an implicit thank-you.
Perhaps in atonement for such journalistic lapses, Bruni here provides a series of anecdotes that are bound to embarrass the President. One of the most disturbing involves Bush's comportment during a funeral service for seven Texans who had been shot dead in a Fort Worth church. A slew of reporters were trailing Bush during the service, and far from conveying solemnity during the event, the governor mugged and made faces at the assembled press corps. "It was astonishing that he wasn't more concerned that one of the televisioncameras might catch him in mid-twinkle," Bruni marvels.
Bruni also dwells on Bush's famous malapropisms, such as his concern for Americans who were trying "to put food on your family" or the burning educational-policy question, "Is our children learning?" The bumblings often leave you wondering whether to laugh or cry. At one point, a reporter did both: During an especially convoluted Bush riff, Bruni spotted a colleague with tears of laughter streaming down his face.
In between these anecdotes, Bruni moonlights as an armchair psychologist. He theorizes that Bush's sometimes over-the-top behavior may stem from an early realization that he was not going to win acclaim in the classroom or on the athletic field. Therefore, perhaps Bush cultivated a class-clown personality to stand out. His bonhomie could charm observers, but at events such as the funeral, Bush crossed the line.
Bruni ends by arguing that, post-September 11, Bush matured into a capable President. With Bush's approval ratings in the stratosphere, most Americans obviously agree. But we shouldn't underestimate how influential Bruni was during one of the tightest Presidential races in U.S. history. Politicians will come away from this book with a new appreciation of how vital it is to woo the media. And voters might come to regard the press even more skeptically.
Starr covers politics from the Washington bureau.