Just before he left office in 1992, I told then-Vice President Dan Quayle that if he wanted to return to the national stage as a credible political figure he'd have to re-invent himself. I said, "The press will never admit they were wrong about you, so you will have to do things that will cause them to write about 'the new Dan Quayle.'"
That's what is happening with President Bush. After pounding Bush as a dunce and an illegitimate occupier of a White House that rightfully belonged to Al Gore, the big media has flipped. Suddenly, President Bush has gone from a 95-pound weakling who's little more than a chip off the old block, to the incredible hulk.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., writing last Friday, calls the President "new and improved," as if he were a box of laundry detergent whose cleaning potential has been enhanced by a chemical additive. Dionne can't resist concluding that the source of Bush's "new" strength is that he is adopting policies more to Dionne's liking. He likes Bush's "end to unilateralism and the construction of a broad international coalition" to fight terrorism.
It's the same over at The New York Times, which used its considerable weight in an attempt to propel Al Gore to election victory while dismissing Bush as a lightweight. Suddenly, Bush has "new gravitas." According to a Times editorial of last Friday, Bush is a "different man from the one who was just barely elected president last year, or even the man who led the country a month ago." There's no question that Bush's syntax is far better than it used to be because he's more focused on what he's saying and how he's saying it. At his press conference last week, Bush spoke almost entirely without notes and played a good ringmaster to the always contentious circus that is the White House press corps.
The media will never admit they were wrong about Bush, or that they might have focused too much on superficialities and not enough on the man's substance. How is it possible for a "C" student (as the press constantly reminded us of Bush's academic achievement) who was a "party boy" in college and through early adulthood, to transform himself overnight into someone who thinks and acts like a president should? It isn't possible to instantaneously acquire leadership skills, like Popeye downing a can of spinach for strength. Those skills must have always been there. The question the press should be asking is how and why they missed them. Instead, they are predictably writing about the "new" George W. Bush.
The great media awakening to the politically born-again Bush won't last long. Already we're seeing a few journalists reverting to type. Like the Democrats, the media (but I repeat myself) read the polls. They don't want to be accused of ruining the bipartisanship so newly discovered in Washington. The same New York Times which editorially heaped praise on Bush for his "gravitas" last Friday, a day later faulted him for "partisanship" in promoting new tax cuts to stimulate the economy and the search for new sources of energy in Alaska to lessen American dependence on Arab oil.
On the outer fringe, liberal media types (again I repeat myself) are preparing for the anticipated drop in Bush's sky-high approval ratings by deliberately stirring controversy. Last week, CBS's Bob Schieffer speculated that the reason Republicans oppose federalizing airport bag screeners is that these workers would be required to join a union and unions usually support Democrats. On NBC's "Today" show last week, Matt Lauer questioned the humanitarian air drops of food in Afghanistan, saying in an accusatory manner to the Air Force general in charge of the project, "You can't deny that when you drop these (meals), you're sending U.S. propaganda."
Bush hasn't re-invented himself. His style may have changed somewhat out of necessity caused by war. But his substance has been there for a long time. The media missed it but don't expect them to acknowledge their mistake.
Cal Thomas writes for Tribune Media Services.
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