Whether Bush has changed his political stripes since moving out of the governor’s mansion is open to debate. But it’s abundantly clear that the magazine’s recent coverage of the president, his family, and his advisers has been nearly devoid of any critical analysis of Bush’s policies, the war in Iraq, or the administration’s controversial business ties. In October 2002, there was a piece on Dick Cheney and his tenure at Halliburton, which concluded that Cheney’s performance as CEO of the company “was just ordinary.” In March 2003, Karl Rove was the subject of a flattering cover story, titled “Genius.” The 7,400-word story almost completely ignored two critical biographies of Rove that had just been published and were getting lots of attention from the national media.
In July 2003, a gray-suited George H.W. Bush flashed the “V for Victory” sign on the cover. The same issue contained a rare interview with the former president done by Smith. During the interview, published in Q&A format, Smith didn’t travel within a West Texas mile of a hard question. There were no queries about Saddam Hussein, the second Iraq War, Saudi Arabia, or the Carlyle Group. That wasn’t due to any pre-conditions put on the interview by the forty-first president, says Smith. Instead, he said that he pitched the interview to the elder Bush as a chance to talk about his life since leaving the White House, and therefore didn’t think it would have been cricket to quiz him about the other, more controversial, issues. “If I had said I wanted to talk about Carlyle Group, he wasn’t going to agree” to do the interview, Smith said.
The December 2003 issue of the magazine delivered a flaccid story about the Bush family’s lawyer and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, under the headline “James Baker Forever.” Again, there were no probing questions about the Iraq war or the Saudis even though Baker was a key player in the first Iraq War and is personal friends with several members of the House of Saud. Nor were there any discussions of how Baker’s law firm, Baker Botts, has benefited from its connections to the Bush White House. (Two Baker Botts lawyers were given high-profile jobs in the Bush administration: Robert Jordan, who defended George W. Bush in the early 1990s, when the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating Bush’s stock trades at Harken Energy, was named ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Kirk Van Tine, a partner in the firm’s Washington office, was named general counsel at the Department of Transportation, where he is now deputy secretary.) The article did, however, contain a brief discussion of Baker’s role in the Carlyle Group that was explained away when Baker said, “I never make a pitch for money.”
The Baker profile, written by S.C. Gwynne, recounted much of Baker’s career. But it paused about halfway through for a digression in which Gwynne discussed the fact that he and his father attended both the Hill School and Princeton University — the very same schools that James A. Baker III attended. In fact, Gwynne informed Texas Monthly’s readers that his father and Baker were friends. Gwynne continued, “I claim no particular expertise here, but I have an insider’s sense of the culture of both schools.” And that culture was one that inculcated gentlemanly values that Gwynne said include “gentility, which means, above all, being nice to people, especially people who are not as rich or as smart or as professionally advanced as you are,” and “good manners.” Gwynne finished his discussion about Hill and Princeton by noting “how amazing it was” that Baker could “survive in Washington and still be a nice guy and a straight shooter; how, in a scandal-ridden political era, he stayed scrupulously clean and honest. My reaction is, Well, he’s a Hill boy. He believed all that stuff.”
Smith says readers can expect tougher journalism from Texas Monthly in the future. Whatever it does, it’s certain to get lots of attention. And with nine National Magazine Awards to its credit along with forty-seven nominations (the latest two came in March) it has an enviable track record. Still, the perception that the magazine is a Bush booster may be hard to shake.
While Texas Monthly has cozied up to Bush, The Texas Observer has been spanking him for ten years and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.