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W.I.M.P.: Why Ignore Media Personifications

President Ronald Reagan endorses then-Vice President George H. W. Bush for President of the United States, May 11, 1988.

President Ronald Reagan endorses then-Vice President George H. W. Bush for President of the United States, May 11, 1988. Photo courtesy The George Bush Presidential Library. PD.

Is Michael Tomasky’s characterization of Mitt Romney as a “wimp” unfair? The 1987 Newsweek article and the 2012 Newsweek article have this common: At their core, both articles demonstrate how the candidates, both of whom hail from the Eastern wing of the GOP, have had to navigate a party with a thriving ideologically conservative base and at the same time appeal to a broader electorate. This is perhaps why both George H.W. Bush and Mitt Romney appear eager “to be liked,” “risk averse” and to lack “principle” or “political identity” in the context of the campaign. But, we should look beyond commentariat characterizations of candidates in electioneering persona and instead examine the records of how the candidates performed in actual governing situations. Of course, the greater the record, the more voters have to go on in terms of evaluating how a candidate performs under varying institutional settings and political contexts.

In this post, we highlight Miller Center Oral History Program interviews with several of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign staff regarding the so-called “wimp factor.” The interview excerpts are a great reminder that voters are inundated with media frames of the candidates, and, during the campaign season, there is a publicity battle between the commentariat and the campaigns to define the candidate.

Sigmund Rogich, Assistant to the President, explained the Bush campaign’s response to the 1987 Newsweek article:

First of all, I don’t think people bought that. I think that was really an unfair characterization….

The wimp factor was a one day, one week, story from one magazine. I mean, how do you call him a wimp? You’re going to be called a wimp? That’s such a push, a stretch. He’s been called a lot of things politically, but wimp is not one of them. And no one bought it…

In fact, I look back on the things that we did in the White House while I was there, I think one of the worst things we did, we broke the major stories a lot of times for the weekly newsmagazines and they never gave us a fair shake. I told President-elect Bush the same thing. Every time we thought we were doing the right thing, we got burned. Such as that morphed cover in Time magazine. As another example where the press had a preconceived notion, I will tell you a short story.  I join the White House and right away, my first assignment in the White House in ’89, in early ’89. The President’s doing an interview with John Apple of the New York Times and the story out there was that George Bush was timid, if you recall. Everybody said, Timid. So I looked up the word timid, and I said, Mr. President, I know he’s going to ask you about this timid factor. Here’s about six ways to characterize it if it comes up. Johnny, You call it timid, I call it conservative. You call it timid, I call it prudent. You call it timid, I call it safe. So, sure enough, John Apple said, Well, what about the timid thing? Everyone says you’re timid. The President said, You call it timid, I call it prudent. And that’s where wouldn’t be prudent came to be utilized by the press and comedian Dana Carvey…

So I look back, I just think we failed to share the special personality of the President with the American people.

Bonnie Hackman Franklin, Commerce Secretary, also agreed that Bush was unfairly characterized because of his style and personality:

He really wasn’t Reagan, when it came to being a great communicator, and in that sense maybe I wish he had used the bully pulpit a little more. He wasn’t as comfortable with doing that as Reagan was. There was the wimp thing, now that you reminded me, and I guess that's where it came from because he was second in command. I knew he wasn’t a wimp. That was ridiculous actually. Anybody who had done what he had done in that war and who had done a whole variety of other things that were not easy wasn’t a wimp. One of the things about George Bush though, is that he makes things that are difficult look easy, and doesn’t, therefore, always get credit for them. I’m thinking of his presidency and the whole foreign policy aspect of it. When the Cold War was over, the world situation could have come unglued a lot more than it did. His handling of that was quite masterful. The German reunification, same thing. The Gulf War too, but he is not the kind who puffs about it. He just does it, and, therefore, I think, doesn’t get always the credit that should go along with these things. That’s his style though, a question of doing it, not talking about it. That's his mother again. Don’t talk about it.

In response to a question about whether the press was unfair during the campaign, such as the Newsweek article, James A. Baker, III, Campaign Chairman, told the Miller Center:

Vice President Bush sure thought that was unfair. But that was one article. Yeah, that was unfair. Here’s a guy who was shot down over the Pacific, a war hero, Congressman, Ambassador to the United Nations. Tough, tough guy, courageous as I said to you earlier. Who the hell would get out there and do what he did in ’79? They call him a wimp? Come on. That’s George Will. Came right from George Will.

Timothy J. McBride, Personal Aide to the President also addressed the wimp factor:

I’m certain it was painful, distressing, disturbing. He was undoubtedly pissed off; we all were. That was an unfair characterization for a guy who has worked hard to be a good Vice President, a loyal Vice President, who by definition doesn’t get to run around and spout off every time he disagrees with the President.

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