FNC’s Panel of Kondracke, Liasson & Barnes Ridicule Newsweek’s “Bush in the Bubble”

The roundtable members Monday night on FNC’s Special Report with Brit Hume derided the premise of this week’s Newsweek cover story with President Bush on the cover inside a bubble. Inside the magazine, under the “Bush in the Bubble” headline, Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe insisted: “Bush may be the most isolated President in modern history, at least since the late-stage Richard Nixon.”On FNC, Morton Kondracke contended “that this piece comes directly from the Washington establishment. ‘Bush is in a bubble that does not include us. We should be inside the bubble, all buzzing in Bush's ear.’” Kondracke contended that Bush talks to the people that he wants to talk to. But the people who he doesn't talk to is, you know, this Washington old guard that buzzes back to the press all the time." Mara Liasson of NPR rejected the premise of the article that Bush would act differently if only he talked to more people and suggested Newsweek was frustrated by a White House staff who “aren't inviting them in for long lunches where they bare their souls.”

Fred Barnes characterized the magazine’s take as a “hearty perennial...for journalism” and recalled how Newsweek had dismissed President Reagan’s White House as “The Detached Presidency." In fact, the September 7, 1981 Newsweek article was headlined: “A Disengaged Presidency.” But the first sentence of the story acknowledged the media’s lack of respect for Reagan and included the “detached” term: “For weeks the White House press corps has wondered and wisecracked about Ronald Reagan's detached style of leadership: his apparent unfamiliarity with some issues before him, his reliance on aides and campaign-style cue cards in dealing with Congressional power brokers and foreign leaders.” The piece, which carried Eleanor Clift’s byline, later charged: “Reagan's undemanding approach to his work can lead to embarrassing displays of inattention and ignorance.” (The discussion on FNC and how the Newsweek story also praised 41 for raising taxes, as well as an excerpt from the 1981 article, follow.)

The cover of the December 19 Newsweek shows President Bush inside a bubble with this question below, "Bush's World: The Isolated President: Can He Change?" In addition to up top bylines from Thomas and Wolffe, the end of the story lists “assistance” from Holly Bailey, Daniel Klaidman, Eleanor Clift, Michael Hirsh and John Barry.

The very last paragraph of the article praised President Bush’s father for doing the “right thing” in breaking his “no new taxes” promise and described that as “essential” to creating the boom of the 1990s: “True mandates for hard choices come from reaching out and compromising. Bush's father understood that. Breaking his own ‘read my lips’ promise at the 1988 Republican convention, he raised taxes in 1991 as part of a fiscal-reform package that was essential to the 1990s economic boom. The tax hike probably cost the senior Bush a second term in 1992. But it was the right thing to do. It's very unlikely the son would do the same.”

To conservatives, that’s a good thing. But not to the media elite.

For excerpts from the Newsweek article (plus a shot of the cover) and a list of the unattributed claims, check this Sunday NewsBusters posting from Noel Sheppard.

A transcript of the discussion during the second segment of the panel segment on the December 12 Special Report with Brit Hume:
Hume: “There's an article this week [in Newsweek] saying that the President is perhaps ‘the most isolated in modern American history.’”

Morton Kondracke of Roll Call: “The ‘most isolated since late-stage Richard Nixon.’”

Hume: “Alright. There you go. So what about it?”

Morton Kondracke: “There's a new book, which I want to tout, that’s coming out in January. It’s called Rebel-in-Chief, it’s by Fred Barnes and a large part of it describes how disdainful Bush is of the Washington establishment. Now I think that this piece comes directly from the Washington establishment. Bush is in a bubble that does not include us. We should be inside the bubble, all buzzing in Bush's ear. The people at the White House say, look, he, that he does talk to lots of people. He talks to Bono for heaven’s sakes, you know a rock star, about AIDS and has had in, you know, all kinds of think tank chiefs and stuff like that. He talks to the people that he wants to talk to. But the people who he doesn't talk to is, you know, this Washington old guard that buzzes back to the press all the time.”

Mara Liasson, NPR: “There's a couple things. Number one: The implication of a story like this is that he would do something different if he wasn't in a bubble, in other words, that he would change his policies if he talked to more people. I don't think that's necessarily true. I think he can talk to hundreds more people than he is now and would probably end up in the same place. But there's always a problem with trying to do these President on the couch stories when you are covering a White House that doesn't open up its doors and its psychies for the press especially what the White House probably considers to be the mainstream press or press that doesn't consider it to be, you know, simpatico. So I think that the news magazines have an inherent problem with this White House. It’s hard to cover, people aren't inviting them in for long lunches where they bare their souls. And I think Bush has always, you know he values loyalty. He might talk to a small circle. But I think the implication that he'd somehow do something different is just false.”

The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes: “I don't think, and Mort, thanks for mentioning my book. I don't think, they also made a case that President Bush in his second term is any different from the way he was in his first term and I don't think he was different except the Washington establishment has called on him to fire people at the White House and hire people from where? Guess what, from the Washington establishment, the old hands, the Dave Gergens and so on. That's what they've urged. The President has spurned that. The other thing is, of course, this idea the President-”

Hume: “Fred, I’ll have you know that Dave Gergen is now a card carrying member of the Boston establishment, or the Cambridge establishment.”

Barnes: “Oh I'm sorry, I missed that. But I'm sure he’d still fit in. The other thing is this is a hearty perennial -- as I think Mara was suggesting -- for journalism. Remember back, I think it was Newsweek, correct me if I'm wrong Mort, that had President Reagan, don’t you remember, ‘The Detached Presidency.’”

Kondracke: “Absolutely.”

Barnes: “Which I guess went on for eight years. So I don't think Bush is particularly -- he sees plenty of people but he doesn't see Washington establishment people or Democratic enemies. He's invited some Democrats up to the White House this week. They're Democratic supporters of his position in Iraq. But bring in John Murtha? Why would he bring in him?”

Liasson: “I think it is a legitimate point. He certainly has not gone out of his way to co-opt people on the other side of the aisle.”

An excerpt from the top of the September 7, 1981 Newsweek story, barely seven months into Reagan’s eight years, which I located on Nexis:

A Disengaged Presidency

By Peter McGrath with Thomas M. DeFrank in Santa Barbara and Eleanor Clift in Washington

For weeks the White House press corps has wondered and wisecracked about Ronald Reagan's detached style of leadership: his apparent unfamiliarity with some issues before him, his reliance on aides and campaign-style cue cards in dealing with Congressional power brokers and foreign leaders. So reporters were well primed a fortnight ago when White House counselor Edwin R. Meese blundered by failing to notify the President immediately after two U.S. jets, fired on by Libyan fighters, blasted their attackers out of the sky. Suddenly the private doubts went public in a rush of cynical stories and slightly spiteful cartoons: was Reagan so disengaged from the daily routine of government as to be--in the words of one correspondent -- "little more than a figurehead President"?

At first blush the question seems more than a little odd. The first half-year of Reagan's tenure was marked by decisive victories over Congress -- two on the budget, one on his tax cut--and in each case Reagan himself fought in the trenches, staying on the phone "until there wasn't anybody left to call," says deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver. "Hell," says Deaver, "we've just come through the greatest six months of accomplishment since Franklin D. Roosevelt. If that's disengagement, what could we accomplish if he ever decided to really get into it?" Moreover, on his return to Washington this week, the President faces a number of hard personal decisions -- on the MX-missile system, arms control and changes in Social Security. "We're on an escalating line in terms of his personal involvement," says Cabinet secretary Craig Fuller, "and people suddenly begin to ask how plugged in he is. It's crazy."

Reagan is no workaholic, however, as even his most ardent admirers privately admit. Even in Washington, he's never in the office before 8:45 a.m., and it's a rare day that doesn't see him out by 6. He takes Wednesday afternoons off for horseback riding at a Marine base in the Virginia suburbs -- "Nothing's as good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse," he says -- and at night he alternates TV viewing with what an aide calls "a reading program" -- in essence, an even briefer version of the usual Presidential briefing papers. One White House assistant who thinks that Reagan should be more immersed in daily affairs claims that "he probably spends two or three hours at most on real work." Once, for a magazine story, aides reshuffled Reagan's appointments to produce a whirlwind, ten-hour tour de force. "That wasn't a day in the life," another senior staffer joked later, "that was a week in the life."

'Wing It': Reagan's undemanding approach to his work can lead to embarrassing displays of inattention and ignorance. He was unable to answer a press conference question about a pending fishing treaty with Canada on the very day the White House was telling the Senate that the treaty would be withdrawn for renegotiation. At a meeting with mayors, he greeted his own Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel R. Pierce Jr. as "Mr. Mayor." And he drew a blank when a congressman he was lobbying on the budget raised the subject of synthetic-fuel programs. "He didn't know what I was talking about," said Democratic Rep. Charles Wilson of Texas. "He's a quick study, but he's got to study," a White House aide complained after another Reagan gaffe. "Sometimes he'd rather wing it."

Reagan appears unruffled by such snafus, however. Briefly forsaking the total isolation of his ranch last week for a GOP fund-raiser, he rendered a personal verdict on his Presidency: "After all the horror stories about the job, I'm kind of enjoying myself." Yet he is easily bored, some aides admit, alternately joking and yawning through subjects that don't interest him. "There are times when you really need him to do some work, and all he wants to do is tell stories about his movie days," says one top assistant. Another puts it more charitably: "It's never been a question of his work capacity or his stamina. It's always been a question of his interest level."

In the President's absence, his staff takes up the slack. As Eisenhower did before him, Reagan has decentralized authority, locating a good deal of it in his "troika" of top aides--policy "synthesizer" Meese, personal aide Deaver, and chief of staff James A. Baker, the master of politics and organization. As Deaver explains, "There isn't a major decision made without [Reagan's] active participation, but he doesn't feel the need to get involved in everything. He just assumes a lot of stuff will get taken care of without him getting into it."

The Troika: But this approach, too, has its perils. Things do get done when all three members of the troika are on tap, but the absence of one or two can seriously overload the third. And even at best, the arrangement makes Reagan vulnerable to criticism that he is a creature of his staff. That line emerged after Meese decided not to worry him about the Libyan dogfight--or later when he overprotectively fended off reporters trying to question Reagan about his delayed decision on the controversial MX missile. "Mr. President, you're not obliged to answer any questions," prompted Meese, much to the annoyance of other top aides. "That's the second time this week he's made the President look foolish," said one. "He's out of control. He likes being President Meese too much." Meese shocked some colleagues, for example, by taking a front-row seat near Reagan during their visit to the aircraft carrier Constellation. Though still "first among equals" to Reagan, he is faulted for poor organization and a weak staff.

To the degree that Reagan's remote control leaves him ignorant of important issues, it also limits his ability to be a credible world leader. At the recent Ottawa summit meeting of free-world heads of state, for example, White House officials had to negotiate for fewer sessions in which Reagan would meet his counterparts alone, without staff, because they feared he would be overmatched. "There are some uncomfortable moments, especially with guys like [Canadian Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau, who have complete mastery of their dossiers and can talk about these things off the top of their heads," says one high-ranking aide. "The President's not there yet, and my guess is that he won't [ever] be."...

END of Excerpt from the 1981 Newsweek
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center