With one day to go, both campaigns are hustling to portray their candidate as a cocksure prize fighter on the eve of the big match — “loose,” “confident,” “relaxed,” and “upbeat.” That’s not too surprising. What’s surprising is a press that’s all too happy to play along.

Above the fold on A1, the New York Times today brings us a pair of such “mood” stories. Richard W. Stevenson’s piece on the president gets top placement, with a lead that reads as follows (emphasis ours): “One of the best indications of President Bush’s mood, his aides say, is the degree to which he indulges his boyish humor and enthusiastic impatience. So it was telling, they said, that as he crisscrossed the country in the last few days … [he has] made a show of goofing around on Air Force One.”

Ummmm … and for whom, exactly, did Bush make “a show of goofing around?” Why, for reporters, in part, so that they would write exactly the story that Stevenson files today.

Stevenson goes on to cite evidence of Bush “resolutely enjoying himself” (to quote the headline on Stevenson’s piece). On Saturday, Bush was apparently “spied (gee, do you think he may have wanted to be seen?) near the staff cabin swinging his arms like a samurai warrior with a sword,” which, Stevenson writes, perhaps “mystified” his aides but also “reassured them” that Bush was “having a great time” as the campaign wound down. Next, Stevenson quotes Karen Hughes recounting how Bush told her just the other day that he was “really having a good time.”

Then comes a sentence that shows, sort of, that Stevenson is not entirely credulous: “Calculated or genuine, Mr. Bush’s playful optimism has become part of his campaign’s playbook …” Bravo for letting readers know — five ‘graphs in — that some of the candidate acting out may actually be “calculated,” part of his “campaign’s playbook.” But why play into that “playbook” by writing a story about Bush’s “playful optimism” — and hanging the lead on what “aides say”?

Paired with Stevenson’s story this morning is a similar piece on candidate Kerry by Jodi Wilgoren, headlined, “A Looser, More Jovial Kerry Prepares for Voters’ Choice.” In Wilgoren’s lead we learn that Kerry is doing some (calculated, per chance?) goofing around of his own. For example, on Saturday he put “his long-suffering press secretary, David Wade, in a headlock, then swatted him in the back of the head.” She recounts how Kerry recently watched the Indiana Jones trilogy, how Kerry “summoned the campaign photographer to capture his sober strategist, Bob Shrum, wearing a puffy yellow cheesehead,” and how Kerry has “jumped into the shower ahead of his wake-up calls.” We also get an anecdote from his daughter remembering how Kerry recently “cracked up laughing, to the point where he couldn’t breathe.” This is all part of the “looser, more jovial” Kerry, who, Wilgoren writes, “replaces the brooding, super-serious persona he has displayed on the campaign trail for much of the year.”

Both reporters do give a moment or two to the notion that it perhaps isn’t all fun and games all the time on the campaign planes. Deep in his story, Stevenson tells readers that “some of Bush’s closest family members admit to an extraordinary level of tension, suggesting that the president may not be quite as carefree on the inside as he tries to come across on the outside.” Bush is also, Stevenson reports, “grayer, and his face is considerably more lined than it was” before 9/11, and “he has bags under his eyes.” Wilgoren reports that Kerry has actually displayed quite a range of emotions and attitudes of late: he has “been relaxed and playful yet workmanlike and focused, visibly weary — and hopelessly superstitious.” Like Bush’s relatives, “some around [Kerry] show their increasing stress.” And like Bush, Kerry has “shadows sett[ling] under his eyes.”

The Times, alas, is not alone. The Associated Press’ Deb Riechmann files her own President Bush “mood” story today — headlined, “Bush Relishes Last Day of Campaigning” — for which she relies entirely on a press conference Bush gave to reporters at which he assured them that “I have the energy and the optimism and the enthusiasm to cross the line” and “said he was confident he would be re-elected.” He also, Riechmann reports, “flashed a thumbs-up and cried, ‘Oh yeah!’ as he boarded Air Force One.”

Who’s kidding whom? All of this is concocted by campaign aides on both sides, confident that if they spoon-feed these moments of “calculated” confidence and joviality to journalists who dutifully report them, then voters everywhere will start to see the relaxed, loose-as-a-goose candidate as a lock, coasting home on a prayer and a yuk.

Yeah, right.

Liz Cox Barrett

Ends today: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.