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Spurious George/Condoms in the News/George Again 

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Spurious George

We question whether Jacob Weisberg's new book is a literary event that actually demands observance. But colleagues keep wandering into our office and picking up Bushisms and laughing out loud. Maybe the laughter is significant. Some people are so hungry to believe George Bush will just blow away in November they grab at any straw. A quick and easy potshot "compiled by the editors of the New Republic," Weisberg in particular, Bushisms is such a straw.

It is tempting to turn, say, to page 54, on which is recorded this response at a 12/4/90 press conference--"I know what I've told you I'm going to say, I'm going to say. And what else I say, well, I'll take some time to figure out--figure that all out"--and be persuaded by the syntax that this dude's history.

Weisberg returned to Chicago last weekend to join a reunion of the Francis W. Parker class of 1982. They're going to ask you if you think Bush can get reelected, we warned him. There was silence on the phone.

"God!" he replied at last. "If I had to bet on it, I'd say he's going to be."

Weisberg is remembered at Parker as one of the greats, as an even more exemplary alum than Daryl Hannah. He owes his fame to his response to question 15-C in his application to Yale University. It begins: "My father began reading to my younger brother and me when I was 3. . . . But when I was 6 and my brother was 5, ages when most parents would regard their children as too old to be read to, we took a bold leap. We read the Odyssey of Homer in its entirety."

The four-page reply to 15-C goes on to remember warmly A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Candide, Dead Souls, Don Quixote, Joseph Andrews ("Fielding is the only novelist we have found who reads aloud nearly as well as Dickens"), and several other books, and wisely concludes:

"My father did not read to my brother and me to change our lives or to make us bookworms. He read to us initially to give himself a chance to read and reread books he might not otherwise have made time for. He continued for so many years because we all enjoyed it so much. . . . As simple a pleasure as it is, our reading aloud has turned out to be the most rewarding educational experience of my life."

Weisberg's tribute is posted annually on the wall outside the grade-one and grade-two classrooms, where it inspires some moms and dads and rebukes others with the message that even after a child can navigate the Berenstain Bears unaided, the parents' work is far from done.

But if an old classmate asked Weisberg what he'd made of himself since high school, a truthful answer would be smart aleck. A fairly recent feature in the New Republic, the weekly Bushisms that he oversees became an immediate hit, and a two-month blitz has turned them into a book.

In time to shape the election? we wondered.

"I don't think it'll change anybody's mind as to how to vote," Weisberg demurred. "The idea is to capture the sense of how Bush behaves in high gear."

Bushisms is the kind of book that indulges the persuaded. But despite Weisberg's modesty, we doubt if he'd mind attracting some of the unpersuaded as well.

Consider the introduction by New Republic columnist Michael Kinsley. "Bush's problem is not a lack of intelligence--or (as some have suggested) an excess of the tranquilizer Halcion," he writes. "At bottom, his problem is a simple lack of anything to say. That's why he babbles. That's why he contradicts himself. That's why he tells you how you should perceive what he's saying, instead of just saying it. That's why he tells transparent whoppers.

"A man anchored in true beliefs not only would be more articulate in expressing those beliefs, he would make a better liar, too. . . . Ronald Reagan, a man of a few, clear, rock-hard beliefs, was a brilliant liar."

That's serious stuff. Kinsley's calling Bush an empty suit.

"I think the preeminent sense that comes from this book is that Bush is goofy," Weisberg told us. "The effort is not to make a serious point about him, not to mock him."

You are mocking him! we said.

"We are mocking him," Weisberg agreed.

And Kinsley makes a very serious point. Perhaps you don't agree with it.

"No, I agree with the point," said Weisberg. "In the introduction he sums up very well what we've been trying to do with this." Weisberg referred to books celebrating the wit and wisdom of Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle. "There's something humorless about them because the hatred that comes through is so strong," he said. "They're mirthless. That's not what we're doing here. The New Republic is not sympathetic to Bush, that's no secret. But there's not really any anger in the book."

No, said Weisberg, Bushisms "makes you sympathetic, in a strange way. Here's a man who doesn't know who he is, and he babbles."

George Bush, 5/12/91: "I've got to run now and relax. The doctor told me to relax. The doctor told me to relax. The doctor told me. He was the one. He said, 'Relax.'"

Weisberg may be right. Getting angry with George Bush is like seething at the White Rabbit.

Condoms in the News

Who got it right? The Sun-Times's county reporter, Lou Ortiz, stands by his story. The Southtown Economist's county reporter, Rick Bryant, stands by his story dumping on Ortiz's.

Ortiz wrote first. An article with the headline "County to offer free condoms to high schools" ran on page one of the April 30 Sun-Times. An offer of condoms plus education to interested high schools would be "the most controversial part" of a new $25 million program called the AIDS Center of Excellence.

Four days later the Sun-Times hailed Cook County for "moving boldly." An editorial noted that "teenage sexuality" is a subject "that many politicians prefer to duck."

On May 6 a column by Bryant ran at the top of page one of the Economist. The headline announced "Media error leads to condoms for schools." Bryant declared the Sun-Times had (1) misrepresented the AIDS program and (2) praised the county for a courageous step it hadn't taken, but also (3) apparently convinced board president Richard Phelan that if a condom offer was going to be that popular he might as well make it.

Bryant suggested that the Sun-Times reporter (Maribeth Vander Wheele) present at the news conference in which Phelan described the AIDS Center of Excellence had misunderstood Phelan. Bryant asked him if the county should pay for the distribution of condoms in county schools and Phelan said, "If that's what we have to do, that's what we'll have to do."

Bryant wrote that Phelan told him the Sun-Times story was "sensationalism," and Dr. Renslow Sherer, director of the AIDS Center, called it "misleading. [Cook County Hospital] has no explicit plan to distribute condoms in public schools. That is not within our authority."

And yet, wrote Bryant, on the heels of the Sun-Times editorial "endorsing Phelan's nonexistent plan," Phelan told him there would indeed be what Phelan called a "new program" making condoms available at schools whose officials and parents want them.

Two days later the Economist ran its own editorial, "Backing into policy." It asserted, "Changing government policy by getting the story wrong is not exactly every journalist's goal."

Ortiz says the basis of his reporting wasn't Vander Wheele's notes; it was three conversations he had with Sherer. But Bryant says Ortiz admitted privately that Sherer had misled him. Ortiz responds that he said no such thing to Bryant, and adds that the next time he saw Bryant "he immediately apologized to me for the story. He told me, 'That wasn't my idea. It was the editor's idea.'"

But Bryant says he wasn't apologizing for the story, simply explaining that it was editor Michael Kelley's idea to run it so conspicuously. Which it was. "I think it's a terrific story," said Kelley. "This is public policy due to a newspaper error. Holy cow! What are we doing here?"

It's rare to see one paper take apart another, we told Kelley.

"We all live by the sword in this business," he said solemnly.

It should be easy to settle this dispute. It should be as easy as asking Phelan and Sherer if they have a new condom plan, and if so, when they had it. But Sherer, and Phelan's spokeswoman Pam Smith, made it clear by the circles they talked in that the last thing county officials want to draw attention to is any bold venture involving kids and condoms. We had two talks with Sherer and were never certain what he was telling us. But we gather this much: condoms have long been available at Cook County Hospital. Now, if talk turns into action, the hospital will also provide them to schools that ask for them. And this plan, such as it is, owes nothing to the Sun-Times, said Smith.

Tribune reporter Jean Latz Griffin also talked to Sherer at length. Two days after Ortiz's account appeared, she weighed in with a story that had Cook County expanding "its education program for teenagers to include information about and free distribution of condoms to city and suburban schools who request it."

Bryant dismissed this article as evidence that Ortiz's condom story "took on a life of its own." It seems to us that Griffin pretty much got it right.

George Again

George Bush, 2/16/92: "I'm all for Lawrence Welk. Lawrence Welk is a wonderful man. He used to be, or was, or--wherever he is now, bless him."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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