Bush’s Labor Day Bumble Plays Poorly at The Times

Who knows what candidates say about reporters? Very often, bad things. Very often, unprintable things. But when a candidate mutters into an open mike–in the legendary manner of Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd –it’s a day to remember. And when, at a Labor Day rally in Naperville, Ill., George W. Bush called New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a “major-league asshole” in an aside to Dick Cheney (who gave the memorably Vice Presidential response, “Oh yeah … Big time”), it was a field day for the tabloids, the Internet, the anecdotalists.

In the Budd Schulberg-Elia Kazan version, Lonesome Rhodes is derailed, ruined. In the George W. version, he’s bumped up a couple of points in the polls. What could be safer than attacking a New York Times reporter in Illinois? Governor Bush and former Secretary of Defense Cheney happened to be standing and waving close enough to a podium microphone that, when Mr. Bush leaned in to Mr. Cheney, his comment was broadcast loud and clear to the television cameras recording the event.

” There’s Adam Clymer–major-league asshole ,” Mr. Bush said, leaning toward Mr. Cheney. ” From The New York Times.”

Mr. Cheney replied, with a blunt conspiratorial assent: ” Oh yeah. He is. Big time .”

Immediately reported on the wire services and across the Web, and repeatedly played on television news broadcasts, the Labor Day holiday news cycle had found a story.

Andrew Rosenthal, who has been running the Times national desk since Dean Baquet headed west for the Los Angeles Times in July, was initially befuddled that the not-so-flattering assessment of one of his reporters would merit national headlines.

Reached on Monday afternoon, Mr. Rosenthal said he didn’t want to include the Naperville incident in his coverage. “We had no intention of covering the remark. First of all, we can’t print it based on our standards, and so we were just going to let it go.”

But Mr. Rosenthal was upset when the story looked as if it had legs, after Bush campaign spokeswoman Karen Hughes told news services that while the insult was not meant to be public, it was “a reference to a series of articles the governor felt was unfair.”

Ms. Hughes did not point to any specific stories by Mr. Clymer.

The Gore campaign soon jumped into the major-league-asshole issue, with Mr. Gore expressing his love and respect for the “fourth estate” at his campaign stops throughout the day.

Once the campaigns started talking about the matter publicly, Mr. Rosenthal believed the quote became news. And when the testy, hormonally seething Governor Bush refused to apologize, but in fact defiantly regretted only that, as the Times reported, “a private comment had made it to the public airwaves,” then it really became news.

Initially, the plan was to run a 197-word account by Mr. Rosenthal, with a quote from Times executive editor Joe Lelyveld stating that Clymer’s coverage “is both fair and accurate.” But then the evening network news started running its tapes of the exchange and, before the Times ‘ deadline, Mr. Rosenthal’s brief story was folded into Alison Mitchell’s main story about Bush. “Generally speaking we don’t like to cover ourselves–we find it a little too self-referential for our tastes,” he said. “Other people cover us, but I just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s hard for me to imagine this becoming an issue but you never know.”

Asked by Off the Record on Tuesday morning why the newsworthiness of the remark had been upgraded, Mr. Rosenthal said, “I got calls all day from people who had nothing better to do on Labor Day.” He added, “We felt it had become a part of Bush’s day.”

It’s not clear what exactly provoked the Republican ticket’s wrath toward Mr. Clymer. Kausfiles.com writer Mickey Kaus had called one of Mr. Clymer’s recent critiques of a Bush television ad biased. And in April, Mr. Clymer wrote a pointed story critiquing Mr. Bush’s record on health-care policy as governor of Texas. But lately, Mr. Clymer has filed off-news stories such as the one that ran in the Sept. 4 edition: Seven political scientists attending a conference in Washington, D.C, and using statistical models of the 2000 election, predicted that Mr. Gore would be the next President.

“I have never heard that the Bush campaign made any kind of organized or specific complaint about our coverage,” Mr. Rosenthal said.

Other Times reporters stood behind their insulted brother-at-arms, Mr. Clymer. “I think most people just feel that Bush is a jerk to go after a reporter like that.”

Most reporters may feel like that. But people?

Stop guessing: the anonymous author of “Route 27,” the catty but fictional Hamptons Magazine series detailing the sex lives and drug binges of rich and/or famous East End denizens, is Miramax Films director of acquisitions Andrew Stengel.

Word is that Mr. Stengel, a personal friend of Hamptons Magazine publisher Jason Binn, suggested a Sex and the City-like column for Hamptons Magazine while staying at Mr. Binn’s Southampton house over the Memorial Day weekend.

Reached for comment, Mr. Stengel owned up. “I thought it would be fun to write about characters who run around the Hamptons. I just think it’s fertile ground,” he said.

Mr. Stengel is currently pitching television rights to the column. As per his contract, Miramax gets first dibs.

Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein said, “I’ve been following the series and have really enjoyed it. I think it would make for a great book or TV show and we’re definitely interested in it.”

The New York Post showed that it was willing to forego newsstand revenues for readership on Sept. 4 when it cut its cover price to 25 cents. But publisher Ken Chandler says that it will not go free.

Mr. Chandler told Off the Record that it had been approached by two European companies, including the Modern Times Group of Sweden, which publishes free daily papers distributed in transit systems throughout Europe as well as in Philadelphia and Toronto, about putting out a free edition of the Post .

“We’ve looked at it, because we’ve seen what has happened in Europe,” Mr. Chandler said. “There’s two groups, one in Norway and one in Sweden. We’ve had talks with both groups, but we’re not doing anything with them over here.”

Mr. Chandler refused to concede that the Daily News Express , an afternoon paper to be given out free to commuters beginning Sept. 12, was the cause of the move. “I believe the [ Daily News ‘] move has more to do with the problems that they have rather than the problems we have,” he said, though he did admit that the Post, which was long published in the afternoon, has an evening circulation threatened by the Daily News Express edition.

“We do have a significant p.m. readership,” Mr. Chandler said. “That’s true. There’s no disputing that.”

He added, though, “We’re not looking at it in those terms, we’re looking at it as a long-term strategy to bring in new readers.”

And the Post newsroom seemed to greet the price cut warmly. “We’re on equal footing with a peep show,” said one reporter, “but I’ve always been a cheap tabloid journalist. The more that’s out there, the better.”

Hollywood-obsessed Us Weekly must be getting closer to Hollywood–it lost one of its reporters to the movies. Staff writer Oliver Jones left just before Labor Day for Los Angeles, where he will work for Will Smith writing a book about the actor’s experience playing Muhammad Ali in director Michael Mann’s biographical film about the heavyweight champion of the world.

“I will be living in L.A. for two months and then I will hit the road with the movie, going to Miami, Louisville, Chicago and Africa,” Mr. Jones wrote to the Us Weekly staff. “That’s right: an all-expense-paid trip to Louisville, imagine.”

One source said that Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones will then auction off the book when it is completed.

The writer called the stint with Mr. Smith temporary, however. “Anyway, I suspect that I will be returning here in six months, provided the powers that be agree to have me back,” Mr. Jones wrote. “Whether I will be wearing a chinchilla coat and throwing money at your feet or I’ll be just another sad, out of work Chihuahua, remains to be seen.”

Mr. Jones’ farewell party was held at senior photo editor Brittain Stone’s house on Aug. 30. White Castle burgers and tater tots were served, one attendee reported. Mr. Jones was told by Us Weekly editor in chief Terry McDonell that he would be welcome back when he was done with Mr. Smith’s project.

Mr. Jones took an 8 a.m. flight to Los Angeles on Aug. 31. He was unavailable for comment.