Professor writes book on Bush’s "towel snapping" of media

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Dr. James Mueller first became interested in George W. Bush's relationships with reporters when he was running for president in 2000.

After Bush's first debate against Vice President Al Gore, Mueller heard Randy Galloway, then the host of a popular show on WBAP-AM in Dallas-Fort Worth, discuss Bush's manner with the press.

"Randy Galloway said, ‘That's not the George Bush we knew as owner of the Texas Rangers,'" says Mueller, a University of North Texas associate professor of journalism. "When Bush bought the team in 1989, he threw himself into his new job, attending most of the games while mixing with the fans, making public appearances and, most importantly, cultivating reporters."

Mueller says another reporter recalled interviewing the new Texas Rangers owner by phone, then receiving a greeting from him at a game they both attended - before the reporter had even met him face to face.

Bush's relationship with reporters, which has become more controlled by him during his presidency, is the subject of Mueller's new book, "Towel Snapping the Press: Bush's Journey from Locker-Room Antics to Message Control."

In the book, Mueller includes anecdotes from 29 journalists - from those who covered Bush during his unsuccessful run for Congress in 1978 to those who covered him when he was in the Texas Governor's Mansion and members of the White House press corps - to compare Bush's press relations with those of other presidents and conclude that he is among the best modern presidents at understanding and handling journalists.

Mueller says the title of his book came from a column that mentioned Bush having a "towel-snapping," or buddy, relationship with reporters, such as that seen among members of sports teams. The president has bestowed nicknames on certain reporters and "worked the White House press with charm" by teasing them, he says.

"In reality, Bush is like the all-star quarterback of a team. He'll snap the towel, but won't allow anyone else to snap it back. By doing that, he stays in complete control of the press. Some presidents, like Bush Sr. and Clinton, worried about what the press thought about them, but Bush never seems to worry. He understands that he's in charge," Mueller says.

He points out that the president has really been interacting with reporters since he was a child. At age 8, young George appeared in a photograph in the Midland Times-News that showed him competing in a YMCA electric train race. His father, George H.W. Bush, then a civic activist, had befriended the newspaper's publisher.

"Young George may have been a cute kid, but it was equally likely that his picture was taken because of who he was. Well before he was 10 years old, he was interacting with the press, getting the idea that it was natural to be photographed and interviewed - and that this was part of the process of running for office in the United States," Mueller says.

As he grew older, George W. Bush actively participated in his father's political campaigns, and during his own first campaign in 1978, his opponent noticed Bush "working the press by helping the camera guys carry equipment," he says.

A decade later, during the 1988 Republican convention, Bush spontaneously decided to go from booth to booth on the press floor of the New Orleans Superdome, campaigning for his father.

"A person doesn't do that without being well practiced with the media," Mueller says.

Mueller says in 1989, during his first press conference as owner of the Texas Rangers, Bush impressed the sports media by being "well spoken," with one columnist writing that Bush showed the "early earmarks" of a politician and praised his poise.

"This seems odd when Bush's intelligence and speaking style have been satirized. Another politician may have been destroyed by depictions of him as a fumbling speaker, but, in the White House, Bush has adapted it as part of his regular guy persona," he says, noting that during the 2004 campaign, the president would contrast himself with John Kerry, who "used big words."

"His argument was that Americans would be suspicious of a polished speaker and prefer a regular guy," Mueller says.

Nicknames, which became status symbols among reporters during the 2000 campaign, "goofy, at times roughhousing" humor with reporters, and limiting the number of press conferences, have worked in the president's favor in controlling the press, Mueller says. As a result, reporters have seemed afraid to ask him tough questions about the war on terrorism and other issues, he says.

The White House press corps "turned on itself" after the 2004 election, "criticizing themselves and their colleagues for not holding the president to account," Mueller says.

"Towel-snapping the press doesn't mean you have locker room camaraderie with reporters. It means you keep them in their place," he says.

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