Jim Mueller, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of North Texas, recently found out how you wake up a classroom of 300 sleepy students: You plop in front of them a synopsis of your book about how the press treats President George W. Bush. It's especially helpful if you give your book a snappy title, literally: Towel Snapping the Press: Bush's Journey from Locker-Room Antics to Message Control, which came out a few days ago from academic publisher Rowman & Littlefield out of Maryland. Mueller discovered all it takes to turn a discussion into a debate is the very mention of the president's name next to the words "locker-room antics."
"People are intrigued by the title," says Mueller, who began working on the book in 2000, after he heard Randy Galloway on the radio one evening. The then-Texas governor was running for president, and Galloway and his sportswriting pals, who knew Bush when he was owner of the Texas Rangers, were insisting the man they knew from the press box wasn't the same stammering stiff they saw on televised debates. Where, they wondered, had the laid-back George gone--the cocky George, the well-spoken George, the how-do George, the hands-around-yer-throat-jes-kidding-henh-henh George. Mueller wondered the same thing. Decided to write a book about it. Only took five years.
"They will say, 'Wow, that's a great title,'" the professor continues. "But they also read into the title what they want. From 300 students I got criticism from the right and the left. Students were angry about it. Most of them are pretty lethargic at 8 a.m., but a bunch of them stirred and shouted questions at me and took me to task. The pro-Bush people would say, 'How can you say he's so manipulative and cynical and using the media? He's a sincere guy doing the best he can, and the media hates him.' And people on the left would say, 'How can you say Bush is so skilled when he's obviously a boob who misspeaks and doesn't know what he's doing?' It kind of reflects our society: We're divided as a country, and we're divided over how we feel about Bush. It's hard to have an objective, analytical discussion about him. He's either good or bad. In the book, I tried to have an analysis and not be one-sided and let the reporters who've covered Bush over many years talk. But, still, people see what they want to see."
Towel Snapping the Press is an awfully fascinating and terribly fun read--surprising for a book with an academic pedigree, but not so shocking given that Mueller talked to some two dozen journalists (from Galloway and other local sportswriters past and present to Helen Thomas and The Dallas Morning News' Wayne Slater) who shared their anecdotes about behind-the-scenes George. They paint Bush as an affable no-bullshit kinda guy; more than once is he described as a man with whom you'd wanna share a beer. Mueller tries to reconcile their portrait of Bush the good sport with others' portrayals of Bush the grand schmuck--the man responsible for so many misstatements there are Web sites and books devoted to his so-called Bushisms. But still, Mueller says, he's not sure if he can reconcile the disparate images--or wholly explan how they came to exist about the same man Dallas' Only Daily called "articulate" after he was among those buying the Texas Rangers in 1989.
How did you first get the idea for the book?
I first got the idea in 2000, during the presidential campaign. I listened to Galloway's radio show, and I listened to him talk about Cowboys football. But one day, out of the blue, he and some other writers talked about a debate and how that wasn't the ol' George they knew. The sportswriters talked about how he looked stiff. Well, with professors it's publish or perish, and I thought it would be a good article to interview just sportswriters and see how he was with the sports press. Gradually it morphed into an idea for a book, and why not interview people who covered Bush as governor or a businessman or whatever.
One of the great things about the book is the way reporters share these intimate anecdotes about Bush--like Wayne Slater's opening story about Bush choking him in the White House. Not the stuff of your average academic articles.
I think most of the reporters did seem to enjoy sharing anecdotes. So many of them had great behind-the-scenes stuff, like Wayne, which I thought was funny to hear about. I like journalists. I was a reporter myself [in St. Louis], and it's fascinating to hear behind-the-scenes stuff. But other reporters I wanted to talk to wouldn't talk to me.
Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman. Most of the people I talked to said, 'You need to talk to Herman, because he's a big baseball fan, Bush is too, and he knows Bush well.' He was gracious but said, plainly, 'I don't want to be interviewed about someone I cover.' I respect that. But the people I talked to like Galloway and Wayne Slater, in particular, were cool guys.
What was the most surprising revelation you found while working on the book?
This is gonna make me sound very na�ve, but I thought people who cover the White House would know the president better than they do. Most American feels the same way. As a journalism professor, I should have known better. It turns out the presidency is so big and the security is so stringent and the president's so busy, it's night and day from being a candidate to the president, let alone being a governor or owning a sports team. The presidency is so big, presidents don't have relationships with reporters like politicians do on other levels.
You don't only sound surprised. You sound dispirited.
In a way it is dispiriting. As a journalism professor, you think there are some reporters up there getting to know the president, but there aren't. The reporters are hamstrung because there are too many competing for the same story. You think there are a couple who have the real inside knowledge they can share with the rest of us, but I doubt that's happening. You wonder if we get as much detail from Bush's press conferences, rare as they are, as we do from the reporters anyway. How much value do the reporters really have?
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Well, there are plenty of people who say Bush doesn't know that much anyway. Don't ask him. Ask Karl Rove. Or Dick Cheney. Or the guy in the White House kitchen. Anybody else.
There's a lot of debate about that. And being the head of such a massive organization, how much knowledge of the details can he have? You need to talk to the peripheral people. But I have to say, I thought there would be somebody there sharing midnight drinks with Bush and getting the real scoop.
Is that because, as you write in the book, Lyndon Johnson had that kind of relationship with the White House press corps? You sound surprised it isn't 1964.
Yeah, I guess I was thinking in terms of Kennedy and his relationship with Ben Bradlee. Nixon didn't have any great friends in the press corps, but Johnson would banter with reporters. I did some research in the LBJ Library, and there's an oral history in which Dan Rather talked about intimate encounters where LBJ would threaten him and then turn around and bribe him: "If you're a good boy, you'll get presidential pajamas." Stuff like that. --Robert Wilonsky