George W. Bush says he doesn’t read newspapers. He does, however, apparently read Texas Monthly magazine. In fact, the president of the United States drinks his coffee from a Texas Monthly mug.
And with good reason. Perhaps no other Texas media outlet has been more supportive of George W. Bush during his career than Texas Monthly. Ever since he announced that he was running against the incumbent governor, Ann Richards, a decade ago, the magazine has, with a few exceptions, been a reliable cheerleader. But in its February issue the magazine dropped one of its pompoms. The cover photo was a three-quarter-length shot of the slightly frowning president wearing a dark blue suit against a white backdrop. And just below Bush’s red print tie, in big red and blue type, was the word “Maybe.”
The “maybe” refers to the feelings toward Bush of the magazine’s long-time political writer and senior executive editor, Paul Burka, who, in a 6,000-word piece titled “The Man Who Isn’t There,” discusses his personal disappointments with the performance of America’s forty-third president.
Burka, who has long been criticized for being too soft on Bush, writes that covering George W. Bush when he was governor was “the best experience of my professional life.” And he acknowledged his critics, writing, “Did Bush generally come across well in my stories? Sure. When there was something negative to write, I wrote it, but aside from occasional disagreements over issues, there wasn’t a lot to be negative about.” But Burka goes on to say that he has been disappointed by Bush’s performance since he moved into the White House. And he asks, “Where is the guy we sent to Washington?” He continues, “The truth is, I don’t know President Bush. The person I knew was Governor Bush. I really liked him. I still do. But I’m ambivalent about his alter ego.”
Burka’s piece got immediate attention from Texas reporters. William McKenzie, an editorial columnist at The Dallas Morning News, wrote a 700-word piece in the paper’s February 10 issue that echoed Burka’s position. He concluded by writing, “All I know is that I want Governor Bush back, too. Soon.”
Given Texas Monthly’s history with both George W. and his father, the fact that the award-winning 300,000-circulation magazine admits to being ambivalent about the president is remarkable. But that ambivalence is part of a bigger story about the relationship between George W. Bush and the Texas media. Bush’s candidacy and presidency have given the state’s journalists a golden opportunity to sell their knowledge about George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, their advisers, their financial backers, the state’s colorful political history and other issues. “The Bush presidency has been very good for me,” says Wayne Slater, a senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News, who co-authored (along with James Moore) a New York Times bestseller, Bush’s Brain, an unflattering biography of Bush’s political Einstein, Karl Rove. “I’ve been in the movie that Alexandra did. [Alexandra Pelosi’s 2002 film, Journeys with George]. I’ve written a book. There’s a documentary being made about the book. These things never would have happened had he not run and been elected president.”
And though Slater admits that while he was governor, Bush’s “charm offensive” (his words) on the Texas press corps was effective in producing positive coverage, he also insists that the Texas press did the vast majority of the early, critical reporting on Bush, including stories on his unsuccessful stint in the oil business, his hugely lucrative tenure as an owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, his environmental positions, and his personal history, including his time in the Texas Air National Guard and his carousing days. “We didn’t roll over,” says Slater. “We were as critical of him as we were of Ann Richards.”
The record largely supports Slater’s claim. With a few exceptions, the reporting that was done by the national newspapers and TV networks before the 2000 election merely echoed work that had been done months, or even years, earlier by Texas reporters.