How Reporters Fall in Love: A Campaign-Trail Memoir

Ambling

into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush , by Frank Bruni.

HarperCollins, 278 pages, $23.95.

This is a curious book, in

that it’s both quite a good personality study of George W. Bush and also a

prize example of what’s wrong with political journalism.

The genre is campaign memoir,

and Frank Bruni takes us-at greater length than necessary-into the surreal

swirl of endless days, sleep deprivation, computer foul-ups, dirty clothes and

food-on-the-run that is a national political campaign: that bizarre,

hermetically sealed world of the bubble, where little things take on an insane

importance and wind up on the front page, perhaps affecting history. I quite

enjoyed the descriptions of the gang on the campaign plane, but then I’m a

political reporter who had to sit out 2000, and I missed the madness. I

especially enjoyed Mr. Bruni’s riff on the shifting vogue in electronic gadgets

carried by the correspondents, but one has to wonder how much the foibles and

travails of the press actually interest most readers.

The best account of a campaign from the press point of view is

still Tim Crouse’s 1972 classic The Boys

on the Bus , a much funnier book than Ambling

into History . But I’ll defend Mr. Bruni on this point: Those who have never

covered a campaign will think he is nutty on the subject of food, which the

Bush campaign provided in such lavish quantities

that the press collectively became a pack of porkers. The extent to

which press coverage of a campaign can be influenced by good eats cannot be

overestimated. I promise you: One reason Richard Nixon won in 1968 was because

Hubert Humphrey had a backer in Minnesota who manufactured wieners, and all we

had to eat for several months was teeny wienies. I suspect that next time out,

when Mr. Bruni is no longer new to national campaigns, much of this will strike

him as old hat and not worth reporting, which is a bit of a shame.

Mr. Bruni’s major thesis about Mr. Bush is summed up by a

slightly misquoted passage from Shakespeare, as cited by a close friend of the

President: “Some people are born great, some people grow to greatness, and some

people have greatness thrust upon them.” Mr. Bruni believes Mr. Bush got there

all three ways. If you are not a Bush fan, don’t urp yet. This is not that much

of a suck-up book. Mr. Bruni probably doesn’t believe that “greatness” is the

right word: I suspect he’d go for something between “great” and “adequate.”

That George W. Bush was born with a leg up, that he learned and got better as

he campaigned, and that Sept. 11 was one hell of a final exam is, I think, all

true. I do not subscribe to the theory that Mr. Bush became Winston Churchill

on Sept. 12, and I think most of his policies are disastrous.

I’ve known President Bush slightly since high school, watched him closely as governor of Texas, and

I think Mr. Bruni gets him well. By the end of the book, when Mr. Bruni says

some bit of behavior is “utterly Bush,” you know exactly what he means. Mr.

Bruni states at the beginning, “This book … is dedicated primarily to what Bush

looked and acted like on the edges of what was usually considered news.” The

downside to this method is far too many accounts of “mischievous grins,”

“special winks,” “conspiratorial glances” and “the springy frame that ambled

merrily along,” not to mention various tics Mr. Bruni found “endearing” and

“seductive.” All politicians aim to seduce. Mr. Bruni also describes Mr. Bush as occasionally or frequently

“inane,” “vapid,” “fatuous,” lazy and usually unprepared. Mr. Bruni maintains,

again accurately, that Mr. Bush will buckle down for a big game.

But I think he misses how disengaged , as we used to say politely

of the deteriorating Ronald Reagan, Mr. Bush appears to those who do not know

him. That first visit to Mexico, where the people are so cortes y formal , was a disaster: The President thought he was being

charmingly informal, and the Mexicans thought he was dissing them. The two

European trips were the same, but we get no hint of it here. Sorry to be mean,

but Mr. Bruni spends so much time bitching about sleep-deprivation, he

apparently had no time to read the local press.

Most reporters fall at least a

little in love over time with the politician they’re covering. It’s an

occupational hazard in our trade–and a good reason to rotate reporters. Mr.

Bruni describes this phenomenon as a “cult,” in which everyone on the plane

becomes obsessed with the leader. One notices Mr. Bruni’s empathizing with the

Bush team-and again, that’s almost inevitable for a one-candidate reporter-in

his inadvertently comic accounts of the other campaigns. He spends a few days

with John McCain and finds there is Too Much Access, and it’s an unfair

advantage that Mr. McCain makes reporters like him so well. A visit to the Gore

camp is even worse since there is No Access At All, not even for The New York Times . Al Gore did

not make nice with reporters: “He made no

effort. His energies were channeled into his campaign trail remarks, so dense

with knowledge, so showy with digressions. He sweated the big stuff and muffed

the small stuff.” How awful! It’s as though Mr. Bruni has visited rival frat

houses and felt they just wouldn’t do.

Mr. Bruni is occasionally

self-important, but then he works for The

Times and it goes with the territory. One of the more sympathetic passages

is Mr. Bruni’s anxiety over a big interview with George and Barbara Bush. He

arrives absurdly early, times his route, lays out his suit and is as nervous as

a whore in church. A one-shot interview is always risky, but Mr. Bruni gets

some fabulous quotes. Bush père

observes that his son’s shot at the Presidency is “a six-inch putt” given his

advantages, and Mr. Bruni finds rich material for insights. In far more elegant

language, he describes a trait that we summarize in our crude Texas fashion as Dubya thinks his own shit don’t stink .

Mr. Bruni identifies the quality as “a strain of moral arrogance,” as if “Bush-ness

itself was proof of civic righteousness, of the impossibility of wrongdoing.”

Mr. Bruni finds this “extremely presumptuous.” One sees it frequently: Mr. Bush

is perfectly capable of taking the low road, as he did in South Carolina, and

then complaining about his opponent’s tactics, as though he were on high moral

ground. There’s an element of pure snobbishness to it.

I’m less persuaded than Mr.

Bruni of the famous Bush family loyalty: They dump old friends who get dropped

in the mud in what Texans call a New York minute. (Ask Ken Lay.) I’m also less

persuaded that one of Mr. Bush’s most notable traits-his emphatic preference

for the familiar in people, pets, pillows, peanut butter and cabinet members-is

just a yen for the snug and the cozy. One might just as fairly deduce a lack of

curiosity and an unwillingness to stretch himself.

If someone has written a book about Botswana, you can’t criticize

it by saying, “But he doesn’t even mention

Italy.” If this book is limited, as almost all political journalism is these

days, to the politics of elections rather than what governance does to people’s

lives, Mr. Bruni has missed half the story. Contemporary politics is the

marriage of personality and money ;

Mr. Bruni barely mentions money. Mr. Bush flew around the country promising to

“restore honor and integrity to the White House,” in part courtesy of Enron

planes. He has been a servant of corporations all his political career.

There is an even graver flaw in the book: the complete disconnect

between the political race and the issues. Mr. Bruni observes the reason

political reporters don’t write about issues during a campaign is because they

already have-usually the previous summer, when no one was paying attention-so

it’s not news , whereas gaffes are.

Nine-tenths of the way through the book, Mr. Bruni notes in passing that Mr.

Bush’s entire campaign was based on the tax cut and education. He says the

candidate’s “tax families,” trotted out at campaign stops to prove his tax cut

would help average Americans, were considered a complete joke by reporters. As

for education, the federal budget supplies only 7 percent of school funding: No

President is going to make much of a dent in those problems. So we watched a

campaign based on a tax cut painfully canted toward the rich and a bunch of

malarkey. Shouldn’t that have been the “story line,” rather than “Can the

goofball from Texas beat the stiff from Tennessee?”

Molly

Ivins is a syndicated columnist. Her most recent book is Shrub: The Short

but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (Vintage).