If George Bush winds up by winning this election, he may want to thank the press for his victory.
Writers for the major media are doing their best to defeat the president. They have gone ga-ga over Bill Clinton. In the process they are making Bush the underdog, and that ain't bad. An underdog tends to attract a sympathy vote, and Bush will need every vote he can get.
Such is the prestige of the New York Times that much of the press still takes its lead from its columns. Down in the journalistic foothills, the word of the Times is the Word of God. The awe is generally deserved, for the Times hires some fine writers and it gives them free rein.
The trouble is, from a Republican point of view, that Times writers take a Democratic point of view. If their bias were kept in quarantine on the opposite-editorial page, all right, but the contagion spreads.
Thus we learn on Page One that after a long ascendancy, the GOP "seems" to falter. The party's glory days "might" be numbered. The string "may" be running out. The brakes of history "seem" to be working against Mr. Bush and his party. We read in the Times that the convention presents a "jittery" scene. Reporter Robin Toner sees an "anxious" convention. Dissension simmers. The reporter speaks of Mr. Bush's "lagging campaign." Veteran correspondent Johnny Apple sees the same thing. He too sees a "lagging campaign."
My brother Apple finds Mr. Bush haunted by the specter of a one-term presidency. Mr. Bush is a wounded warrior, "seemingly at the mercy of events." The situation is grim. The party has begun to speak the language of doubt. Its office holders speak the language of fear. Meanwhile, self-confidence is flowing back into the veins of the Democratic opposition.
The Times treats us to what is known in the trade as "trust me" journalism, in which reporters attribute quotations to unidentified sources. Thus, "one of the party's senior strategists" says that the party has no campaign plan. Reporter Alessandra Stanley lets us know that Mrs. Quayle "recently confided to one friend" her thoughts about the Clintons' religion. She quotes "another friend" who would speak only "on condition of anonymity." Some friends.
Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, providing the lite touch, speak of Mr. Quayle as "the incredible shrinking vice president." Elizabeth Kolbert tells us how things are on TV. Republicans don't "seem" to have confidence. Most Republican officials look "cranky and sullen." Sam Skinner is "grim-faced." The exception is the president's son George W. Bush, who keeps up JTC an unflinching grin "despite an occasional difficulty coming up with a convincing answer." The headline reads, "GOP Leaders on TV Can't Hide Nervousness."
For his part, reporter Michael Kelly discusses the palpable awkwardness and strain between black and white Republicans. He has learned this from "a number of black delegates and alternates," none of whom have names.
My brothers and sisters of the press are up to the old expectation game. For a month the whole country has been told that President Bush's speech tonight will be a "make or break" oration. For a month we have heard speculation on the bounce he will get from the Houston convention.
Given this buildup, Mr. Bush could not satisfy his salivating critics if he made the greatest speech since Pericles bade farewell to his troops. Unidentified observers will see the speech as a serious disappointment. If Saturday's polls show a bounce of less than 15 points, it will be a grave disappointment. The campaign lags.
It is truly said that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. The beholder who wants to see anxiety in Houston will see anxiety. No doubt "most Republican officials" really did look "cranky and sullen" to Ms. Kolbert and her friends. They may not have looked cranky and sullen to me or my friends. They may have looked combative and determined to us.
These things get circular. The more the press reports that the Bush campaign is in disarray, the more disarray will be seen. Prophecies get to be self-fulfilling. Reporters are not deliberately slanting their stories. They believe they are honestly reporting what they see and sense. Equally honest reporters may not see or sense the same things at all. But these other reporters, alas, are not reporters who report for the New York Times.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.