On December 15, NBC’s Today invited Time editor Richard Stengel to promote who might become their Person of the Year, which allowed Stengel to boast: "Obviously, Barack Obama is a titanic figure on the world and American stage now. I mean, he may already be a transformational figure in American politics." (Stengel returned two days later to publicize Obama’s selection.)
By contrast, on December 29, Today promoted the liberal magazine Vanity Fair and its new "Farewell to All That" good-riddance piece on the Bush administration. Co-host Meredith Vieira plucked out what liberals would find to be the most insulting lines: "one of Colin Powell's former aides actually called Bush a Sarah Palin-like president." Vieira’s only nod to conservatives came in defending Vanity Fair’s reputation against viewers at home she suggested might say "Well, Vanity Fair, of course, this is a liberal magazine, so they're going to take pot shots at the president," but she noted they also talked to Bush-friendly sources.
The guest was Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum, a former New York Times White House reporter in the Clinton years who was friendly enough with the Clintons to marry press secretary Dee Dee Myers in 1997. That didn’t come up in his introduction.
MEREDITH VIEIRA: Looking back at the last eight years, Todd, we had 9/11, Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Hurricane Katrina, the rise of Iran, global warming, economic disaster, so many challenges that this administration had to deal with, and yet, Matthew Dowd, Bush's pollster and a chief strategist, summed up the Bush presidency in two words: missed opportunity. What did he mean when he said that to you?
TODD PURDUM: I think he meant that there was a period after 9/11 especially when President Bush had the country and in some ways, the world in the palm of his hand, and a great potential to be maybe a kind of transformative leader who could have unified the country. And in some way, that never happened. And of course, quick on the heels of that came the foray into Iraq, which was very controversial, divided the country, and divided the world. And somehow, President Bush’s ambitions when he came to Washington have changed the tone, to be a kind of uniter, not a divider. That never came to pass, and I think many people who worked for him regret that.
VIEIRA: You know, Todd, several people – and I want to point out to our audience that you interviewed more than 50 insiders for this story, or folks who were policymakers or politicians – several of them said to you that this notion of him as somebody who would unite rather than divide in 2000, that went out the window with the recount. What happened?
PURDUM: Yes, I think that's true. I mean, he obviously came to Washington with almost half the country not thinking he was the legitimate president, but as Matthew Dowd pointed out, it's not like "Star Trek" where some room makes you do something. He still had the potential to adopt a different tone. And from the very beginning, it seems pretty clear they were sort of hunkered down. There's a wonderful scene we have where just after Tom Daschle became the majority leader of the Senate, when the Democrats took over in 2001, the White House communications advisers had a big debate about whether the president should call and congratulate him. And Margaret Tutwiler, who was a veteran of the first Bush administration, said you absolutely have to call and congratulate him.
Purdum here is simply rewriting history. In the early months of 2001, President Bush aggressively worked to make friends with Ted Kennedy and other Democrats, to a degree that made some Republicans sick. He let Kennedy rewrite his education bill and had him over to the White House to watch the movie "Thirteen Days." Even after 9/11, Bush was boasting of his friendship. "I told the folks at a coffee shop in Crawford, Texas that Ted Kennedy was all right. They nearly fell out." Then the discussion turned to that "damaging" story of Iraq:
VIEIRA: You know, you spoke to many of these folks who are Bush loyalists about the legacy of the war in Iraq. What did most of them feel about that?
PURDUM: I think most of them felt that because weapons of mass destruction were ultimately not discovered and because the rationale for the war seemed to change as time went on, that there was a certain lack of trust in the whole enterprise, and in some ways, that it has really torn American credibility around the world in dealing with other problems, whatever they may be, because foreign governments say to us, why should we trust you? You got it so wrong on Iraq. So I think that's a big – a big damaging thing for him.
VIEIRA: Were you surprised at some of the candor from these folks that you spoke to? One of the gentlemen that you interviewed, one of Colin Powell's former aides, actually called Bush a Sarah Palin-like president, lacking experience, particularly in international affairs.
PURDUM: I was surprised at the degree of candor, and I think, frankly, at this point, the candor springs from regret. A lot of people who worked on this enterprise in these two terms were themselves very disappointed because they thought President Bush was going to do different things than he turned out to have done. So I think at some point, when you look back, as the presidency's coming to an end, there might – this might be an occasion for some stock-taking. But yes, I was very surprised at the degree of candor.
If there had been a non-liberal in this discussion, they might suggest "candor" isn’t the best word. For people like Matthew Dowd, now working for ABC, or aides to Colin Powell, who endorsed Obama for president, it might be called "slamming your old boss in liberal circles to improve your own image among the elites." Then came the Vanity Fair defense section:
VIEIRA: You know, there are some people at home who might say, `Well, Vanity Fair, of course, this is a liberal magazine, so they're going to take pot shots at the president,' but in fact, you did interview people who spoke about the president's kindness, his effort to combat AIDS in Africa and also education reform in this country. Will those be remembered as part of his legacy?
PURDUM: I think they will be remembered. And one of the striking qualities of this president--and we do quote people talking about this--is his personal loyalty to the people who work for him and their loyalty to him in return, and the kind of human qualities that he had. I think some of the people who were disappointed were disappointed that he had not been able to communicate those qualities better to the public and to the world at large and that the George Bush they know isn't the one the public has gotten to know over the past eight years.
Surely, there are Bush loyalists who felt he didn’t communicate well enough, but there’s also that massive roadblock known as the liberal media to mangle (or ignore) your communications efforts. That notion only seems to emerge for the media to disparage: "Some say you’d take pot shots at Bush." As if media pot shots aren’t one constant feature of the Bush era?
In fairness, it should be noted that Purdum’s last appearance on Today came earlier this year on June 2, to discuss a "searing" piece he’s written on Bill Clinton called "The Comeback Id." They didn’t speak of the title on NBC (it did appear briefly on screen as Lauer read a quote from the article.)
In fact, Matt Lauer’s introduction of Purdum came with Clinton rebuttal. "Clinton's office calls it ‘a tawdry, anonymous, quote-filled attack piece,’ and ‘journalism of destruction at its worst.’ Vanity Fair's national editor Todd Purdum wrote the article. He should -- we should mention, is married to Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton’s first White House press secretary." Lauer didn’t defend Vanity Fair’s honor like Vieira, he pressed Purdum to defend his sleazy attack journalism:
LAUER: And let me get into – you know – and this is a difficult area, Todd. I mean, these whispers of womanizing. I mean, this is a – this is something we have to tread very lightly on. Do you have any concrete evidence that it has actually happened?
PURDUM: I say emphatically there is no concrete evidence, and I don't know of anybody that has concrete evidence.
LAUER: So, why bring it up?
PURDUM: Because what happened was that several of his aides told me that one former aide was so concerned about the rumors he was hearing from prominent Democrats around the country that he wanted to let the president know this was a topic of discussion. And that's all I say, and that's all, as far as I know, that anyone can say.
LAUER: Yeah. Actually, I just want to make sure I read it correctly from the article: "Nor, indeed, is there any proof of post-presidential sexual indiscretions on Clinton's part, despite a steady stream of tabloid speculation and Internet intimations that the big dog might be up to his old tricks. On any given visit to London," you write, "for example, Clinton is as apt to dine with Tony Blair or Kevin Spacey as anyone who might raise an eyebrow."
You've heard this quote and this statement from the Clinton side that says it's "a tawdry, anonymous, quote-filled attack piece, repeats many past attacks on him, breaks no new ground. It is, in short, journalism of personal destruction at its worst." Is this fair?
PURDUM: Well, I don't think it's fair at all. They spent five pages complaining about the piece, but they don't say that there's anything factually wrong about it.
This sounds like the defense the New York Times used when it claimed John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist – we can’t prove it, we only found aides who thought it might be happening. All Vanity Fair can fall back on is the notion that with Bill Clinton’s past history, the idea that he’s still committing adultery doesn’t sound implausible to the public. Their big obstacle is the liberal media having the decency (or the same old protective and partisan impulses) to let the "big dog" run free.