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White House Rumors And Roving Reporters

Letter from Washington

WASHINGTON--IN THE SUMMER of 1979, Jimmy Carter was attacked by a killer bunny. He was fishing near his home in Plains, Ga., when a rabbit actually swam up to his boat, prompting the ex-Navy officer to beat it back with an oar. Brooks Johnson, then an Associated Press reporter, witnessed the bizarre event and wrote a story about it. The "killer rabbit" became a metaphor for Carter's faltering presidency.

George Bush's killer rabbit was the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego on July 14. As his name was announced over the loudspeaker, a chorus of boos arose from the crowd. Not everyone booed, of course, but The New York Times reporter there estimated a 60-40 heckles-to-cheers ratio. That would be more than a landslide on November 3.

It's even more surprising when you consider who goes to All-Star Games, especially in conservative San Diego, political birthplace of California's republican governor, Pete Wilson. Tickets to such games are expensive (40 bucks for the cheapest seats this year) and usually obtained by what Richard Ben Cramer, in his new book What It Takes: The Way to the White House, calls the "corporate perks crowd"--white and GOP-friendly.

But that crowd hissed George Bush. In fact, much like Carter, Bush can't seem to get a break the summer before what he hopes will be his second election to the White House Just last Friday, family members of POW MIAs--another group Bush advisers thought would be polite--jeered the president at their annual meeting in Crystal City, Va. Now Dukakis-like, Bush was left angrily defending his patriotism and war record.

Campaign aides and GOP members of Congress have begun to worry about their ticket. And more importantly, reporters want some explanation for Bush's inability to find the path so well- worn by expert Republican campaigners. It is this combination which has slowly cranked up the rumor mill now known as the White House.

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Ironically, neither left nor right finds his broader failures hard to explain. The right constantly cites his acquiescence to a tax hike as the reason for his and the economy's collapse.

For moderates and liberals, the problems are broader: Without any vision for the country, he has allowed America to degenerate further into racial and ethnic tension and economic malaise. He had fought primarily for a capital gains tax cut instead of formulating a larger plan for the economy.

And all this has happened at a time when the Cold War's end held so much promise for America, mainly in the opportunity to reorient our national priorities. Overseas, Bush spent billions and took thousands of lives to push back a dictator the administration built up--and then left him entrenched in power. And his directionless non-policy for the break-up of communist Europe has resulted in no leadership to help stop the killing in Sarajevo.

But while this case is easily made, almost everyone is confused by Bush's failure to do what the Republicans have done best in their time in power--run decent campaigns.

Obviously no one should write him off; the Republicans haven't even had their convention yet, But boos in San Diego? A 20-point plus deficit in the polls? Bush and his aides never expected that. And neither did reporters.

THE MOST COMMON method reporters employ to investigate anything is to create a set of reference mnemonics for it. We often call this the "background," and there's a background, or subtext, for every story. Al Gore for veep? He ran before; his wife hates dirty lyrics; he's big with greens. Boris Yeltsin visits the U.S.? He was here before and got drunk; his nation desperately needs our investment; he's growing unpopular at home.

These subtexts shape the way a story gets covered. They add texture, but they certainly emphasize one set of points time and again. And often, reporters will be looking out for any bit of information that confirms their subtext.

This is no less true for White House stories. And these days, the subtext of Bush stories has become: His campaign is in a tailspin.

The subtexts (an idea I borrow from University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato and his 1991 book Feeding Frenzy) are reinforced by the chummy yet competitive nature of White House reporters.

Those folks spend years working and traveling together. On press planes they hear the same stories and retell whatever juicy morsels of gossip they have heard recently. Press hotels, press buses, filing centers, poolside chats among journalists on the road with the president--all become an echo chamber of rumor upon hearsay upon possible story idea. And the reporters are constantly pushing sources for something, anything, that The Post or The Times or CNN does not have.

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