Time Pulls a Big Tease On Us

The magazine gets a look at some photos of Jack Abramoff with President Bush – but do the pictures confirm the sort of relationship the White House has denied?

There was something strangely missing yesterday from Time magazine’s breaking news that it had discovered photos of the president fraternizing with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff: what was missing were the very photos in question.

This was how Time explained the discrepancy: “Time has seen five photographs of Abramoff and the President that suggest a level of contact between them that Bush’s aides have downplayed. While Time’s source refused to provide the pictures for publication, they are likely to see the light of day eventually because celebrity tabloids are on the prowl for them.”

In our experience, “refused to provide the pictures” translates to “This guy wants a bundle of dough and we’re not willing to meet his price.” Thus the reference to celeb tabs, which may well meet that price and run the photos (appearing next to Brangelina’s baby, maybe?).

But putting aside the fact that Time could have been more forthcoming about its reasons not to buy and run them, we wonder about the significance of these photos. If Time didn’t think they were important enough to buy, why did it present the news of their discovery as a big deal?

The only truly newsworthy photos of Bush and Abramoff would be ones that make Scott McClellan, who has claimed that the president doesn’t recall ever meeting Abramoff, look like a liar. If, for example, the photos were, say, of the two, one in a cowboy hat, the other in his signature fedora, clearing brush at Crawford, the administration would be caught with very long noses. But the detailed description of the five photos we get from the Time article — six if you count the one of Abramoff’s kids posing with Bush and Dennis Hastert — makes it pretty clear that they don’t necessarily confirm the sort of relationship that the White House has denied.

The pics sound like standard photo-op smile-and-shoots that all presidents do. One shot is of Bush with Abramoff and a few other unidentified people, the other four are of Bush smiling and shaking hands with Abramoff and each of his three sons. Though these photos are obviously not politically advantageous to the president, they don’t necessarily change the story or undermine the administration’s line. It’s still possible to say that the two paused to pose for a picture together but don’t know one another.

In spite of this, Bush’s people are clearly concerned; they sent White House counselor Dan Bartlett on Good Morning America yesterday in full defensive mode to argue that any photos of the two are the result of pure coincidence. That might be protesting too much — Abramoff didn’t just wander into the White House, after all — and is all the more reason for the press to actually explore the connections between Abramoff and the White House more closely. We first argued this point the other day.

But using the photos as proof that there was a “level of contact” (as Time put it) between George and Jack seems pretty pointless. As the folks over at National Review’s The Corner pointed out yesterday, by that standard the Clintons had a level of contact with cocaine smuggler Jorge Cabrera. It’s too easy a straw man to knock down.

Instead Time should have told us exactly what the significance of those photos is: if they’re as described, they’re politically dicey for the president, but they do not tie him to Abramoff in any incriminating way.

If that’s what Time is looking for, it hasn’t found it yet.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.