The most obvious way to look at George W. Bush's characterization of a New York Times reporter as a "major-league asshole" is to call it a gaffe, a careless moment in which the candidate and his running mate forgot they are as wired as contestants on Big Brother.
Of course, it could have been worse. At least W.—who has already retired Dan Quayle as the king of malapropisms—didn't have one of his verbal meltdowns and call journalist Adam Clymer a "major-league asthmatic" while meaning to say asshole. That would have been embarrassing.
For the record, I am sure, well, pretty sure, that Bush does know the difference between "hostile" and "hostage," to cite just one example of the governor speaking with forked tongue. Clearly, we are dealing with a quirk of brain chemistry, some congenitally crossed wire between lobe and mouth. Mocking W. is like making fun of the disabled. Still, it makes him a curious spokesman for "plain speaking."
The gaffe theory is good as far as it goes, but it's not paranoid enough. Remember a few weeks ago when Bush killed a Republican National Committee attack ad that went after his opponent? While some analysts described the move as proof of a strategic rift in the campaign, the conspiracy theorists declared the "controversy" staged. What better way to get the ad on the air, courtesy of news shows, where it racked up free publicity while preserving the candidate's preferred image as a classy campaigner?
If you believe that, surely you can believe this "overheard" quip was not caught but planted. It was released just before a speech in which Bush called for a White House where people "say what they mean and mean what they say." And if that context doesn't make you suspicious, how about Bush's refusal to apologize for the remark? Instead, he regretted it was picked up by every news organization and patched into the sound system. Sounds like an "I am not a wimp" strategy to me.
In the logic of conspiracy, a refusal to apologize is the bold stroke. Apologies are now one of the regular requirements of public life. It is one of the symptoms of a culture of, by and for the people. For diddling with an intern in the Oval Office, President Clinton had to apologize twice—his first mea culpa was deemed insufficiently heartfelt and abject. He got so good at it he was soon apologizing to African Americans for slavery.
The Pope as good as apologized to Jews for centuries of anti-Semitism, stopping just short of saying, "I'm sorry." Even Vladimir Putin apologized to the Russian people for the Kursk fiasco.
Corporations apologize, too. Recently, I caught a commercial break with back-to-back mea culpas from Ford and United, which in their different ways have wreaked havoc with the nation's confidence in its transportation. I don't know whether this cheek-by-jowl airing was an accident or some "misery loves company" media buy. But if the effectiveness of a buy depends on context, this wasn't a good idea.
One might question the effectiveness of one graying white guy in a suit, looking into the camera and declaring in a firm voice how sorry "we" are for any troubles suffered by customers and pledging in the future to be worthy of their trust. But two in a row looks like a rote exercise.
Besides, for some reason, citizens seem to be more forgiving than consumers. Surely calling a reporter a "barnyard epithet" is not the moral equivalent of slavery. Bush's private aside was on video- and audiotape, slavery is not, which made an apology more urgent. Within hours of the crack, the press gave Bush the ritual opportunity to do the expected thing.
Instead, he said what many suspect wrongdoers really mean when they publicly apologize: I am sorry for getting caught. That is meaning what you say and saying what you mean. Can you blame the conspiracy theorists for doubting this on-message publicity was just a bit of frat-boy camaraderie accidentally picked up by the microphones?
At any rate, a politician can't go wrong insulting a journalist. Many Americans believe reporters are assholes; they don't begrudge Bush his right to say so.
Plus, as slurs go, it was victimless. Clymer later said he was "disappointed at the governor's language," but something tells me his feelings aren't too hurt. To be considered an asshole by someone you cover is an occupational hazard of journalism. Indeed, journalists who never provoke an insult probably aren't doing their job.
If only all of Bush's verbal pratfalls were spinnable, he'd probably be doing much better in the polls.