Joe Gandelman: Will George W. Bush and AJ Clemente get mulligans?
When should you give someone a mulligan? Should you give a former President a mulligan for a good chunk of his eight years in office? Should you give a young broadcaster a mulligan when he doesn’t realize his mike is on and he says words more suitable for a Chris Rock routine?
This is the subtext issue in two recent media extravaganzas.
First, there was the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, which included a media blitz quoting former Bush administration members and his political buds, who seemingly argued for a Costco sized portion of mulligan stew. All living Presidents were there. And Bush was praised for the resolve he showed after 9/11.
The Baltimore Sun’s Jules Witcover wrote: "Never was heard a discouraging word about the war in Iraq nor the economic morass the honoree left behind. The former presidents took the microphone in turn to praise Dubya not as a great national leader but as a well-meaning guy whose heart, despite all the brickbats thrown on other occasions, was in the right place... Subjects of controversy were left to exhibits at the new presidential complex library that consider key decisions he made in office."
And then there was the case of young broadcaster AJ Clemente, fired after his debut on North Dakota NBC affiliate KYFR after dropping an f-bomb heard around the world. His earpiece was off and he didn’t know he was on the air. Many viewers demanded he be given another chance. The station didn’t give him one, but he did get a Top Ten List and interview on David Letterman’s show and a sympathetic interview on NBC’s "Today" — where he smoothly introduced a segment.
In the long-term, will he and Bush get mulligans?
It’s not unusual during a Presidential library dedication for Presidents and their followers to paper over or minimize failures. When the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace opened in Yorba Linda, Calif. in July 1990, Nixon by then had become sort of a blemished elder statesman writing thoughtful books on foreign policy and had seemingly partially rehabilitated himself. Or so his supporters, the media and some Republicans claimed.
Just as in the case of the George W. Bush library, the then-current President and most former Presidents were there. Pundits breathlessly talked about Nixon’s big "comeback." Newsweek even ran a cover formally declaring it. Much was said and written about his foreign policy expertise. But in the long run that was meaningless: over the years new books, audiotapes and historical documents emerged with more details about him and his administration. Nixon did not receive a Mulligan.
A Presidential library opening is the ultimate P.R. event, but historians make their own decisions. And Bush supporters who dismiss historians critical of Bush as simply being "liberals" (a word they think instantly discredits someone) won’t halt the flow of the consensus of history. Bush was ranked 39 out of 43 Presidents in a 2010 Siena poll of 238 Presidential scholars. There are already signs of a counterattack on historians who don’t praise Dubya.
But in the end? I predict historians won’t give Bush a Mulligan, no matter what Karl Rove or Fox News or conservative writers and historians say. And Clemente? When he told Letterman his dream is to work for ESPN, Letterman said, "isn’t going to happen."
But I’d put my money on news types giving A.J. Clemente a mulligan for putting his foot in his mouth the way so many sportscasters, newscasters and politicians have over the years, and that Clemente is eventually hired, puts his journalism and broadcasting training to work, rises in his chosen profession — and always makes sure his earphone is working.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.