Gorging on George
Has the romance finally worn off in the gushy affair between George W. Bush and the Austin American-Statesman? Well, not exactly, so don't expect a great breakup any time between now and November 2000. But at the very least, since Bush's second term began, the editorial page of the local daily seems to have woken up a few times, looked over at its lover, and realized that the governor sometimes looks like hell in the morning. The news department, on the other hand, still seems to adore him.
Statesman readers may remember the lovefest that the paper had during last year's gubernatorial race. It almost seemed as if the Statesman had a policy of speaking no ill about our governor. If one wanted the dirt on Bush -- and by dirt, we don't mean stories of marital infidelity or whatnot, but hard looks at what, if anything, the guv has done to improve our environment, our schools, and our border counties -- one certainly couldn't find it in the Statesman. Instead, we got fluff pieces galore on how Bush gets along with everybody, what a nice guy he is, and on how much everyone in the Bush family loves one another. We even opined that Ken Herman, the Statesman's Capitol bureau chief and point man on all things Bush, must be bucking for a cozy PR job with the Bush administration ("Media Clips," Oct. 30, 1998).
Somewhere along the way, since that time, the daily's editorialists have realized that -- much to their surprise -- Bush does not share their opinion on any number of issues.
The first thing they seemed to discover was that, surprisingly enough, Bush really loves the death penalty. In the last six months, the Statesman has pleaded to spare the life of condemned killer Joseph Stanley Faulder and declared that "the state's reckless use of the death penalty offends basic notions of fairness and justice and fails to acknowledge that judges, juries and prosecutors make errors" and that "the state needs a life-without-parole statute" (Dec. 9).
They have demanded that the Board of Pardons and Paroles open up its secretive process of deliberating whether to grant clemency to a murder convict, calling the excuses for the secrecy "lame," "weak," and "callous" (Dec. 20, 23, & 30).
In one of the best editorials the Statesman has mustered thus far, columnist Mary Alice Davis was dismayed to find that Bush didn't mind executing the mentally retarded and that "during his first term, he granted fewer pardons than any of his predecessors during a comparable period" (April 30).
All of which just compels us to ask -- why didn't they think of this before they gave him such a gushing endorsement in the election? Of course, Bush's last two Democratic opponents, Ann Richards and Garry Mauro, managed to make asses of themselves over death penalty issues as well. Okay then, let's move on to some other issues.
How about the environment? The Statesman apparently had blinders on, or simply forgot about whom it was writing in its pre-election endorsement, when the editors wrote that "If we do not maintain the state's natural wonders and work on repairing environmental damage dealt by modern life -- particularly on the border with Mexico -- then we will have shortchanged Texas and future Texans." One would think, then, that Bush's support for building a nuclear waste dump less than 20 miles from the border might have caused them some concern on that point.
We certainly applaud the Statesman's righteous indignation over Bush's laughable plan to get industrial polluters to "voluntarily" give up their grandfathered status and come into compliance, which the daily ridiculed as "the governor's 'pretty please' approach" (April 14). But did they really not see this coming? Are they surprised? For crying out loud, the guy got his business beginnings in the oil industry! He received campaign contributions from many of these companies. Again we ask the question -- why didn't they think of this before they endorsed this guy?
On Feb. 16, the Statesman bitched about Bush's appointments to the University of Texas Board of Regents, moaning that "The powerful nine-member board -- with no African Americans and only one woman -- looks nothing like the state's general population, the state work force, or the university student body." Well, perhaps if the Statesman had stopped ooh-ing and ah-ing over Bush's ability to speak Spanish and marveling over how, by golly, we've found a Republican who is friendly toward minorities, they could have examined whether his policies have actually benefited people who are not white males. But no, last October they were in full overdrive trying to keep Texas' great presidential hope in power.
And on Jan. 26, the Statesman pointed out what educators had been insisting all through the election season: that ending so-called "social promotion" of failing students -- one of the main planks in Bush's educational platform -- is really a bad idea that actually hinders a child's education. Surely the Statesman was armed with this information last year -- so why endorse someone so firmly committed to this goal?
One more time now: Just why did the daily endorse this man? Was it his charming personality? Was it his so-called "bi-partisanship" (which seems to be breaking down in the last few weeks)? Did it never occur to the Statesman's editorial board that, while being a nice guy is certainly a laudable human quality, that maybe that alone is not enough to make a good governor? There were plenty of people trying to say it beforehand: Bush is a mile wide and an inch deep. But nobody at the daily wanted to hear that six months ago -- Bush's election was pre-ordained, and the Statesman never has been known for sticking its neck out and cutting against the grain.
As for the Statesman's news department -- has anything really changed? We certainly haven't seen it. It would be nice to see some hard-hitting investigative journalism on Bush. (The only exception we have seen thus far was from environmental reporter Ralph K.M. Haurwitz on May 20, in a story titled "Bush airs major environmental concerns for Texas," wherein Haurwitz correctly noted that Bush's "concern" is newfound and smacks of meaningless campaign posturing.)
Instead, their coverage of the governor has really been limited to the "will he or won't he?" question. Given that Herman has a Pulitzer Prize to his credit, we have to wonder if talent isn't being wasted.
The result is that the Statesman is letting Bush off the hook easily on some crucially important issues. A prime example:
On March 22, Bush went on record as supporting the gay-bashing bills of state Reps. Warren Chisum and Robert Talton, which would bar gays and lesbians from adopting children or serving as foster parents. But "Media Clips" learned this later, via a press release from the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, not from reading the Statesman. The daily's news department apparently never thought this horrifying admission from Bush worthy of big headlines or deep scrutiny -- a search of the Statesman's Internet archives reveals that they have never reported it. The closest they've ever come is this paragraph written by reporter Scott Greenberger on May 4, nearly a month and a half later:
"In fact, [the House State Affairs Committee] may never vote on the bill, which a majority of the panel appears to oppose. That probably would be fine with Gov. George W. Bush, who has said the state should 'work hard' to place children in 'traditional' homes. Signing the bill, or not signing it, would open him to fire from the left or right as he tries to steer a middle course to the Republican presidential nomination."
Herman, et al, have made much of how Bush likes to avoid wedge issues and keep the waters calm as he gears up to run for the presidency. But apparently, it has never crossed their minds that maybe they are the ones who ought to smoke him out on these issues, put him on the spot, and force him to answer some tough questions.
Asked how Bush's slick personal style -- he's been known to begin press conferences with a friendly "Good morning, Mr. Herman" and seemingly remembers every reporter's name and chats them up -- affects coverage, Herman would only say, "All my work is available for public scrutiny, and people can draw their own conclusions."
As we said, we loved the Davis editorial, which took Bush to task on many of these issues. Still, the premise of it was fundamentally flawed:"...now that he's running for president, or thinking hard about starting to explore a run, or however he puts it, a hard search for substance behind the smile has begun," Davis stated. And after realizing that, omigosh, Bush is on the wrong side of numerous issues, she asks, "Anyone else feel worried?"
Of course, one such worrier has always been The Texas Observer. Their current issue (May 14) had some especially good commentary from Molly Ivins pointing out that Bush hasn't had a terribly effective session, and Ronnie Dugger's "Questions for George W." throws down a few choice items that reporters might want to bring up at the next gubernatorial press conference. Do yourself a favor and go pick up a copy.