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ROBERT KUTTNER

The honeymoon is over, Mr. Bush

LAST WEEK I suggested that President Bush had reached a tipping point in his credibility with the broad public and the press. I speculated that we would soon see newsmagazine covers depicting Bush in trouble. Well, Time magazine obliged. Its new cover depicts a two-faced Bush and asks: "Does Bush Have a Credibility Gap?"

 

Does he ever. The press has at last given itself permission to be tougher on misrepresentations that have characterized the Bush presidency since its beginnings.

Bush's hourlong Sunday interview with Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" crystalized the moment and underscored just how vulnerable the president suddenly is. That Bush did the interview at all is an indication of panic setting in. This president is not noted for his effectiveness off the cuff. He does well to the extent that he is scripted and not exposed to spontaneous encounters where he might wander "off message."

The Russert interview with the president was a reminder that the Democratic candidates get relentless press scrutiny that exposes the most minute inconsistencies while Bush, hiding behind his role as chief executive, almost never faces close questioning. Indeed, this was the first time during his presidency when Bush has been subject to a string of follow-up questions that could expose either his misrepresentations or his ineptitude at trying to cover them up.

Russert successfully walked a tightrope, being as exacting with Bush as he has been with Bush's challengers without seeming disrespectful to the presidency. Russert pointed to a long litany of misrepresentations, including the deceptive accounting on the tax cuts, the budget, the deficit, the economy's job creation, Bush's own military record, and the war against Iraq.

Under firm but respectful questioning, Bush wilted. He couldn't explain his constantly shifting rationale for war with Iraq or why he was permitted to quit National Guard service eight months before his hitch ended or why his deficit goes ever deeper in the red or the dismal job creation record on his watch.

The result was not just that Bush came off looking evasive and defensive; worse, he looked feeble. You can't very well wrap yourself in national security threats -- Bush kept calling himself a "war president" -- and then look like a weakling. If the United States is indeed facing permanent terrorist threats, then Americans want a plausible leader.

The Bush spin machine has tried to depict the interview as a triumph. But in yesterday's New York Times, Bush loyalist David Brooks devoted an entire column to what Bush should have said (if only he were as clever as Brooks). You don't write a column like that when your guy did well.

All over Washington, journalists were suffering from Russert-envy. Given Bush's dim performance, it's unlikely that his handlers will repeat an open-ended interview any time soon. But the rest of the press should take heart. You don't need a live interview with the president to expose his misrepresentations. All you have to do is check the public record, compare what he said with what he did, and not flinch from reporting what you find.

The press often behaves as if "fairness" dictated not drawing conclusions in a news story. But if the president insists that black is white, pointing out the lie is not opinion journalism; it's reporting fact.

Bush has gotten a friendly press, until lately, for several reasons. First, the working press in the 2000 campaign experienced Bush as a nice, likable guy, while they experienced Al Gore as a stiff. Minor inconsistencies in Gore's statements got a working over, while more serious lapses by Bush were indulged. This friendly treatment carried over into his presidency.

Just when the press was getting skeptical, Bush benefited immensely from 9/11. There was a natural coming together behind the chief executive, and criticism of the president seemed almost unpatriotic. Bush's political operatives exploited this sentiment ruthlessly. Also, the White House staff works systematically to isolate reporters who do ask impertinent questions by denying them access.

Finally, Bush has had the advantage of a closely allied right-wing press, ranging from Fox News to The Wall Street Journal's editorialists, the Washington Times, The Weekly Standard, and the talk radio ditto-heads. There is no comparable propaganda machine among his critics.

But most reporters, in their hearts, want to play it straight. And, finally, they've had a bellyful. Bush can dismiss Democrats' charges as just politicking, but it's harder to dismiss independent reporting.

Once a president loses a docile press, he seldom gets it back. It's good to see the media doing their job again.

Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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