George W. and the Texas Press

Is the honeymoon over?

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.

John Aloysius Farrell, who was an investigative reporter for The Boston Globe during the 2000 campaign and is now the Washington bureau chief for The Denver Post, says the stories done by the Texas papers “had become the bible for the work that the rest of us used when we got on the scene a year or two later.” In fact, Farrell said that several months ago, while he was still at the Globe, he wrote a memo to his editors that used the investigative work done on Bush by Texas papers as an example of the kind of coverage that the Globe should be doing on John Kerry. Farrell said he told his editors that they “can look brilliant in the way the Texas papers did. But if you don’t do it, you’ll look foolish.” For example:

The first story to detail Bush’s less-than-stellar history in the oil business was done by The Dallas Morning News in May 1994. That story, written by Charlotte-Anne Lucas, contained many of the details about Bush’s sale of Harken Energy stock that later became the subject of dozens of stories by the national press.

R.G Ratcliffe, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, was the first to delve into some of the investment deals that the University of Texas and the state’s Teacher Retirement System did with Bush’s supporters. Ratcliffe explained how the university’s endowment money was being invested in deals controlled by Tom Hicks, a wealthy Dallas entrepreneur who was on the University of Texas board of regents and had been a big donor to Bush’s gubernatorial campaign. Hicks later bought the Texas Rangers baseball team in a deal that gave the future president a profit of nearly $15 million.
The first questions about Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard were raised by Jim Moore, a reporter for KHOU-TV in Houston, during a televised debate in 1994. (Moore has just released a book, Bush’s War for Re-election, that contains new details about the president’s military record.) The first major story to explain how much money Bush would make from his investment in the Texas Rangers — and how the team’s owners plotted to use the power of eminent domain to gain control over land that they didn’t own near the ballpark in Arlington — was done by The Texas Observer in mid-1997. In September 2000, Pete Slover, a reporter at The Dallas Morning News, was the first to report the fact that while Dick Cheney was living in Dallas, he had neglected to vote in fourteen of the previous sixteen elections.

Many Texas journalists, especially those on the left, have feasted on Bush 43. Few have gained more attention — or barbecued Bush and his cohorts more often — than Lou Dubose, a former editor of The Texas Observer. Over the past four years, Dubose has co-authored three books, two about Bush and one about Karl Rove. Two of those books, Shrub and Bushwhacked (both of which he co-wrote with another Austinite, the syndicated columnist Molly Ivins) have been New York Times best sellers. “Bush’s presidency helped me,” said Dubose. “It helped Slater, Molly, Jim Moore, it helped everybody but Burka, who was the most obsequious.” And while Dubose has made a good living off Bush, he’s had enough. He’s pulling for John Kerry in November “or anybody else that can end the situation that Bush has put us into. The prospect of another four years of this guy is too much. I don’t want to write another book.” Dubose is now co-writing a book on another powerful Texan, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Texas Monthly has done “a more than honorable job covering Bush over the past fifteen years,” Evan Smith, the magazine’s editor, told CJR in mid-March. “People misunderstood our coverage of Bush as an endorsement or an embrace of what Bush did. Like everybody else, we were charmed by Bush. We found him to be a good governor.” But he quickly adds, “Our view of Bush in the White House today is wholly different from the Bush of Austin.”

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.

This December, the Observer will hold a gala celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, an event that is rather amazing for a small, regional, printed-on-newsprint magazine that has flirted with death many times in recent years. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributing writer for the Observer. I’ve also written for Texas Monthly). Financial struggles are nothing new to the Observer, which has been running on a sometimes ragged shoestring since it was founded by Ronnie Dugger in 1954. Since then, the magazine has gained fame for its relentless muckraking and for its editors, who include Willie Morris, who later edited Harper’s magazine, as well as Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, and several others.

The Observer, which has only 7,000 paid subscribers, will never compete with Texas Monthly or the other big news outlets in the state. But the magazine is now stable and financially solvent. And part of the reason for that stability, ironically, is George W. Bush. “Renewals have been good this year because of interest in Texas politics and in Bush,” says the magazine’s co-editor, Barbara Belejack.

Although Bush has moved to Washington, the Observer continues to run lots of anti-Bush pieces. Last November, the magazine ran a piece by columnist Hightower which said that “This is not America, the Land of the Free, but a new land of Bush autocracy.” Two weeks later, it ran a piece by Molly Ivins that skewered the Bush administration’s efforts to put a positive spin on the problems in Iraq. “Bush has been touting the cheerful reports brought back by congressional delegations,” she wrote. “Right. It’s so secure in Iraq, the delegations spent their nights in Kuwait.” Belejack told CJR that readers shouldn’t expect much change from the Observer in the years to come. “Bush and his administration are about crony capitalism and the abuse of power. They’ve given the Texas Observer — and all journalists — lots to do.”

The editorial pages at several Texas papers are showing their unhappiness with the Iraq War, Bush’s fiscal policies, and his swing to the right.

On February 26, the Waco Tribune-Herald, the paper closest to Bush’s homestead in Crawford (which sits about fifteen miles west of Waco), excoriated the president for his support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. “Bush’s unnecessarily divisive call for constitutional activism is more likely to be remembered as election-year political grandstanding than as a serious threat to the constitutional rights of a group of Americans,” said the paper. The editorial concluded with a direct shot at Bush’s campaign slogan that he was a “uniter, not a divider.” Supporting the amendment, the Tribune-Herald said, “is the act of a divider, not a uniter. The issue of gay marriages should be left to the states.” That piece followed a pair of editorials in January that criticized Bush’s fiscal policies, including a January 28 piece titled “Strangulation by Debt.”

The recent editorials are a sharp contrast to the tone taken by the Waco paper in October 2000, when it gave Bush an unqualified endorsement in the presidential race. In its endorsement, the paper said Bush “offers Americans the hope that his leadership can break the regrettable gridlock that has characterized government in Washington in recent years. As governor, Bush took the lead in establishing a tone of mutual respect and bipartisanship in Austin. That spirit of working together to solve common problems is sorely needed in the nation’s capital.” The editorial went on, “The people who know Bush the best, Texans, support him the most. That’s a telling point.”

The Houston Chronicle endorsed Bush for president in 2000 as well, saying that he offered “Americans sincerely held beliefs and a blameless record in public office.” But since 2002 — and particularly in the months leading up to the second Iraq War — the paper in America’s fourth-largest city has been sharply critical of Bush. In a March 9, 2003, editorial, the paper said the Bush administration “has managed to get the United States crosswise with some of its principal allies — Turkey, France and Germany. Bush’s fixation on Iraq has also aggravated rifts with Russian, China and other regional powers.” The piece also scoffed at Bush’s claim that he had not made up his mind about military action, writing that “Americans can be forgiven for not trusting their president on this point.” Nine days later, on March 18, the paper said that in its rush to go to war the Bush administration had “left the United States paying a price in failed diplomacy, upended alliances and globally bad public relations.” The same editorial warned about the dangers that lurked in rebuilding Iraq after the war. “Perhaps the administration will learn from its prewar diplomatic ineptitudes and will manage this area more skillfully. Perhaps.”

Even The Dallas Morning News, which has been staunchly Republican since shortly after the battle of the Alamo, has been taking on the Bush administration. “Karl Rove has been particularly irate on some occasions with our editorials,” says Keven Ann Willey, vice president and editorial page editor at the Morning News. In particular, Willey said the editorial page believes that Bush has not been vigilant enough on environmental protection.

Harvey Kronberg, the editor of the Quorum Report, a political newsletter based in Austin, believes that some Texas journalists are going through the “jilted lover syndrome.” After covering Bush as governor, they thought they knew who he was and what he stood for, says Kronberg. And they also thought they’d get an interview or two once Bush moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That hasn’t happened. Instead, the reporters who covered Bush have gone back to covering state politics and have left everything having to do with Bush and the White House to the national press corps. As one reporter at a big Texas daily paper, a person who has covered Bush since 1994 and rode on Bush’s plane throughout the 2000 campaign, told me, “We don’t even go to Crawford anymore.”

That lack of access to Bush may be contributing to the Texas media’s ambivalence toward Bush. “Liking him or not liking him is based not on whether he’s joking around with you but on his policies,” says another Texas reporter who covered Bush while he was governor. “So it’s a lot easier to be dispassionate about a guy when you don’t have any access.”

In 2000 all of the state’s major newspapers endorsed George W. Bush in his race against Al Gore. Despite that fact, Rich Oppel Sr., the editor of the Austin American-Statesman, told CJR that “there’s no guarantee that Bush will get our endorsement again.” In particular, Oppel said, the editorial board at his paper “will look very hard” at Bush’s fiscal policies.

While it’s far too early to predict what the major papers will do, The Dallas Morning News will probably back him again. “It’s safe to say that we’ll start out favoring the former governor of Texas,” said Willey. It appears that he’ll also get the vote of Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka, who concluded his February story on Bush by writing, “If I end up voting for him — and I probably will — it will really be Governor Bush who gets my vote.”

Governor Bush or President Bush, the president will always be a Texan. And come endorsement time, that fact will likely outweigh all other considerations. As Bob Rivard, the editor of the San Antonio Express-News, told CJR, “I’d bet my salary against a Starbucks that we endorse Bush.”

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.