Building a House of Sticks

Yesterday morning, President Bush visited campaign reporters in the back of Air Force One. It was a marked departure for the reporters ensconced in the press section of the plane. Though Bush regularly stopped back to chat with reporters during his 2000 campaign, yesterday’s surprise visit was just the third time he has popped in since his election — and, indeed, the first since Sept. 11, 2001.

This morning, the Los Angeles Times wrote a story about the visit, headlined “Bush Camp’s Friendly Overtures May Belie Case of Jitters.” Here’s a snippet:

… with the polls showing Bush struggling in some key states, the president’s decision to do something out on the campaign trail that he usually avoids raised questions.

What did the five-minute visit mean? Could the normally imperturbable White House be getting a little nervous?

Well, that’s one question. Another is, “Could the normally closed-off reporters, trapped in the bubble that accompanies the traveling circus, be attaching a little too much importance to a break in their routine?” Something as inconsequential as a quick visit to the back of the plane seems a thin reed to hang an entire piece on — especially a piece positing a new nervousness on the part of the Bush campaign.

Times reporters Maura Reynolds and Edwin Chen seemed to sense this, so they went to former House Speaker newt Gingrich to back up their theory, writing that “even as stalwart a Republican as [Gingrich] … thought there might be uneasiness.”

Here’s what Gingrich said, according to the Times:

“If you don’t have some anxiety you are not in touch with reality,” he said.

For one thing, Gingrich said, there are more wild cards in this election than in most previous campaigns, including a surge in new voter registrations and the explosion of spending by independent political groups.

“We don’t understand this election. No one does,” he said.

That’s a legitimate point that Gingrich makes, but it doesn’t quite support the idea that Bush’s visit to the press seats on Air Force One demonstrates a sudden anxiety on his part after a period of relative confidence.

The Times seems to be trying to build a new storyline by composing a piece that takes a relatively insignificant event and using it as a jumping off point for not-terribly-well-supported speculation. The Bush team may indeed be nervous — 18 days from the election, they’d be stupid not to be. And, from what we’ve seen, they do seem to be reaching out to reporters more than they did earlier in the campaign. But for the Times to imply that such a development signals a sudden panic, or even a last-minute loss of confidence, looks an awfully lot to us like a new narrative constructed to frame the events of the next couple of weeks — and one constructed of especially flimsy building materials.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.