George Bush and the New York Times: A Contentious Relationship

By Anne C. Baker
2010, Vol. 2 No. 09 | pg. 1/1

George W. Bush’s relationship with the New York Times got off to a rocky start. At a campaign event in early September of 2000, Bush, unaware that his microphone was on, leaned in towards running mate Dick Cheney and said, “There's Adam Clymer - major league asshole - from the New York Times.” Cheney responded, “Yeah, big time.”1

Clymer, a Times veteran since 1977, served as the Washington editor and paper’s first political editor.2 Bush declined to publically apologize to Clymer for the comment, likely prompted by a series of articles Clymer wrote about Bush’s record as governor of Texas.3

And so began Bush’s public relationship with the New York Times. The long and frequently contentious back and forth between Bush and the newspaper became, in many ways, the definition of the president’s tenuous relationship with the press. Though the Times’ editorial board operates on a totally separate basis from the main newspaper, the staff editorials penned during Bush’s tenure in office offer an interesting insight into how journalists viewed the former president. An analysis of the editorials written throughout Bush’s first term paint the picture of the intellectual reaction to a presidency gone horribly wrong.

The analysis offered in this chapter was compiled through an examination of the editorials written by the New York Times during Bush’s first term. Those editorials of which George Bush, or one of his explicit policies, was the subject were counted. Editorials that merely suggested a course of action for the president, offered an analysis of his decisions without opinion, or included positive and negative comment were counted as “neutral” editorials. All others were designated as either “positive” or “negative”.

The New York Times Editorial Board is composed of 16 journalists.4 The board is responsible for writing the paper’s daily editorials, which represent the “voice of the board, its editor and the publisher.” The board’s members are all distinguished members of the Times’ universe; the current board editor, Andrew Rosenthal, served as National Editor for the Times during the 2000 election.

Though the editorial board would come to write highly critical editorials of Bush, in its endorsement of Al Gore for president in 2000, the board was kind. “We commend Mr. Bush for running a largely positive, inclusive campaign. He has not reviled government like Ronald Reagan in 1980 or played on divisive social themes as his father did in 1988,” the board wrote. “But on women's rights, guns and law-enforcement issues, he has a harsh agenda, and the centerpiece of his domestic program is a lavish tax cut for the rich that would negate the next Congress's once-in-a-century opportunity to move the country toward universal health care and stabilization of Social Security and Medicare.”

This early assessment of George Bush is in great contrast to the Times’ later editorials. Here, the divisions are ideological. It is not that the board sees Bush as a bad or ill-equipped candidate. Its problems with him are not personal. But the Times is irrefutably liberal, and as the above quote demonstrates, Bush was not. Still, there is an obvious respect for how Bush handled his campaign. Bush lost that respect, hard won, over the four years of his first term.


By his inauguration on January 20, 2001, Bush had made a somewhat favorable impression on the New York Times, and it gave a positive assessment of his inaugural address. It noted that Bush’s arrival at the White House had deeply divided the country, and he faced an uphill battle on his policy agenda.5 The board seemed impressed with the speech’s theme of unity and moving beyond partisanship, writing, “Mr. Bush spoke with the firmness of a man determined to step past the complications of the election and validate his hold on the office with pledges of high purpose.” 

The editorial was more generous than it may seem. Notoriously liberal, that the board would give Bush such an open chance is somewhat remarkable. The 2000 election, won by Bush only after a decision by the Supreme Court, had left an extremely bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans, particularly liberals. Polling after the election shows that 45 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the outcome election.6 Many Democrats were outraged on inauguration day, and in anything by a conciliatory mood. Indeed, Gallup recorded the highest ever partisan response difference for a president’s first quarter during Bush’s first term.

Bush’s inaugural message of unity clearly appealed to the Times. In the wake of such an acrimonious election and tense partisan divisions, the idea of every American coming together to make the country better was understandably appealing. But there are traces of doubt laced in the inauguration editorial. While the editorial board was drawn to Bush’s message of cohesion throughout the country, it suspected he might not be the one to do it. Following a quote from the speech about how every American deserves a chance, the board wrote, “If he governs in that spirit, Mr. Bush can lift the nation to a new era of inclusion and social justice,” the implicit suggestion being that Bush very well may not govern in such an inclusive spirit.

From his inauguration until the end of 2001, the New York Times wrote 109 editorials about George Bush. 27 of those were neutral, 19 positive, and 63 negative. While the majority of the editorials written about Bush in 2001 are negative, these statistics are better than they seem. The negative editorials are largely accounted for in ideological differences. Bush, a conservative, and the Times, a liberal newspaper, will never meet in the middle on some issues, such as abortion or the role of the government. The Times was always going to write more negative articles about Bush because of these issues. What is truly insightful are those written about non-foundational issues and Bush’s personality and how he has handled the responsibilities given to him.

From this perspective, 19 positive and 27 neutral are impressive numbers. They suggest that the paper had yet to make up its mind about Bush as a president, and that he had done many things well.

An early decision that did not impress the Times was Bush’s selection of John Ashcroft for Attorney General. Bush’s unsuspected hard line conservatism jarred the board. As a candidate and in the election’s aftermath, the paper wrote, Bush had painted himself as a moderate, and the paper was dismayed to discover that in his first 100 days – the traditional benchmark for grading a new president -, he was anything but. “George W. Bush has had a placid 100 days. Yet as we measure them today, the most striking feature on the domestic front is the emergence of a deep-rooted, unnuanced and sometimes almost truculent conservatism from a man once regarded even by many Republicans as a moderate,” said an April 29 editorial.

Ashcroft’s appointment was particularly worrisome. A former governor and senator from Missouri, Ashcroft was seen as the penultimate Christian conservative.7 On his nomination before the Senate, the Times wrote, “Opponents do not now have the votes to reject his nomination, but it is essential to demonstrate with as many votes as possible that Mr. Ashcroft cannot convert the Justice Department into a place of hostility to civil liberties and the rights of women, minorities and gays.”8

Ashcroft represented a side of Bush the Times simply did not wish to see: that of an archconservative. The Times had clearly hoped that Bush would follow through on his promises of unity and bipartisanship, but Ashcroft’s appointment was demonstration that those promises were largely empty. He is an early indicator that the board’s worst nightmares about what a Bush presidency meant would come true.

The environment remained a serious subject of concern for the board throughout Bush’s first term. The paper devoted no fewer than 13 editorials on the subject, most worried about his lack of concern for global warming and energy issues. The energy crisis in California, at the time a national story, was of particular concern. On May 16, the board sharply criticized Bush for ignoring the problem, writing that his indifference to the problem was “puzzling.”9 It would be far from the last time the paper expressed its disappointment in Bush over environmental issues. Though it seems likely that the Times did not expect the conservative Bush to be exceptionally friendly on environmental issues, the paper was genuinely shocked by his blatant disregard for them. It was especially upset by the jeopardizing effects his energy proposal would have on the Clean Air Act; the board suspected Bush would put the priorities of his utility and mining industry donors first.10

Economic issues were another divisive early issue for Bush and the Times. Of the eight editorials devoted entirely to Bush’s planned tax cuts, not one was positive. The paper felt strongly that the taxes would leave important government programs strapped for cash. In these editorials, the board wrote that the taxes would help only the rich, contrary to Bush’s promises that every socioeconomic class would benefit. But what is missing from the editorials is the suggestion that Bush is willfully trying to hurt America’s poor.

“What is most worrisome about the president's speech is that it shows an alarming lack of appreciation for the role that the prudent management of public finances played in the past decade's economic expansion,” wrote the paper about the cuts on March 28. It does not seem that the board felt Bush was a bad person, so much as a clueless one. The board was obviously concerned that Bush lacked the thoughtfulness it felt America deserved. Bush in these editorials comes across as an arrogant cowboy, all bravado and no mind.

While the cowboy perception of Bush would later return, the terrorist attacks on September 11 marked a turning point for the Bush presidency in the eyes of the New York Times. In handling the attacks and their immediate afterward, Bush acquired a newfound respect. “Mr. Bush accomplished everything he needed to do last night,” said a September 21 editorial of a televised speech Bush gave.
“He was as strong and forthright as the nation could have wished, while also maintaining a calm that must have reassured other nations that the United States will be prudent as well as brave.”11 The terrorist attacks gave Bush an opportunity to show courage and good judgment, something he had previously been lacking. Bush was finally able to unify Americans as he had promised nine months before.

In the months following the attacks, Bush received several favorable editorials from the Times. An October 8 editorial praising Bush for his plan for the war in Afghanistan is a remarkable study in contrast to those written later about the war in Iraq. The paper praised Bush’s insistence on humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan throughout the war and called his military objectives “reasonable.”12 The contrast could largely be attributed to its sense of legitimacy. Though the basic premise of the Iraq War was later questioned, no one quibbled with Bush over the military action in Afghanistan. Strong international support from Canada, Australia, Germany and France and Great Britain also went a long way towards convincing the Times and the public that the offensive was the right thing to do. Bush would not receive the same support for his later military endeavors.


2002 was an important transitional year from Bush. For the six months following the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush’s approval ratings remained above 80 percent.13 Bush finally got the national mandate that the 2000 election had failed to provide.

The New York Times wrote 147 editorials regarding Bush in 2002. 40 of these were neutral, 26 positive and 71 negative. The neutral editorials indicate the paper’s initial reluctance to be highly critical of the president in the initial aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Though Bush would no doubt label the journalists on the Times editorial board “liberal elites,” it is important to remember they are also Americans, and New Yorkers at that. The writers are real people who were as susceptible to the fear and uncertainty following the terrorist attacks as anyone else.

Still, the paper’s editors found their own resolve to criticize Bush on environmental matters. As in the previous year, the Times worried that Bush’s disregard for Global Warming would be the undoing of the world. It saw its beloved Clean Air Act as something of a target. As the Times wrote it, Bush, no enemy of big business, would happily sacrifice a better earth for more profit-friendly environmental standards.14

Those where he received positive marks are a somewhat random assortment of one time praise, such as a singular editorials favorably reviewing his recognition of mental illness as a serious problem and his intentions to make prescriptions less expensive for the elderly.1516 But national security and the impending War in Iraq were, by far, the dominant issues in 2002.

The president was a scarce nine days into January before the New York Times wrote its first editorial warning Bush on the dangers of overreaching a war on terrorism.17 While Bush has a responsibility to do everything in his power to make Americans safe, they wrote, it would be unwise to engage in a globe-spanning war the United States could not possibly win. Ironically, the paper ends the editorial on its relief that Iraq was not included on the Pentagon’s list of places it might act. “With no effective opposition movement inside Iraq and much of Europe and the Arab world strongly opposed to military action, this is not the time for Washington to wage war against Saddam Hussein,” it said.

By the end of the year, it became clear that Bush was about to do just that. The situation in Iraq leading up to the U.S. invasion began to make regular appearances on the editorial pages in July. The paper’s consistent message regarding Iraq – a lack of open dialogue – is evident in its first editorial on the matter, writing that an “informed and serious debate” was “urgently” needed.18

On the War in Iraq, the Times is an interesting case study. Like many Americans, it would later become highly critical of the war and Bush. In 2002, while not totally convinced of the need for the war, it did not take a strong stance against it. The paper’s concern was largely that Bush and his advisors were making military decisions that were not based on prudence or the will of the people. On Sept. 14, the board wrote of its worry that Bush was moving forward on the war without needed support. “If he expects to gain domestic and foreign backing for dealing with Iraq, he will need to treat Congress and the U.N. Security Council as partners and not as mere compliant bodies that can be bludgeoned into acting,” the editorial said.19

Other elements of national security were also concerns for the editorial board. It initially commended Bush for his plans to create an integrated Department of Homeland Security, but became highly critical of Bush for stalling the creation of the department by demanding Congress that he have absolute firing and hiring powers.20 The paper urged Bush to fight for computerized ballistic tracking and approved of his decision to vaccinate emergency health workers against smallpox.21 Bush’s plans for a commission to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks was met with praise, but then disgust when Bush selected Henry Kissinger to lead the commission (he was later replaced). 22

The Times condemned the Bush Doctrine as unrealistic and lacking in the humility the president promised when he took office. “Strong, confident leaders need not be arrogant leaders,” it said. “Indeed, arrogance subverts effective leadership. Whether the issue is protection of the environment or protection of the homeland, the United States needs help. In securing America's safety, Mr. Bush must be careful not to create a fortress America that inspires the enmity rather than the envy of the world.”23

The cowboy image of Bush had returned. At a time when the Times felt Bush would have greatly benefited from humility in dealing with foreign nations, the president went out of his way to be the opposite. The Times’ clear disgust for his blind arrogance and hubris would become hallmarks of editorials written about the War in Iraq. But the editorial, written in September, is still somewhat shocked by the Bush Doctrine. It is the outrage of disappointment; the board had expected more of the thoughtful strength that had brought Americans comfort in the wake of Sept. 11. That is not what it received.

Much of the national security narrative for 2002 centers on the idea of broken promises and missed opportunities. The Times seems to see Bush as a president who has good intentions, but is led astray by his nefarious White House colleagues or partisanship. This feeling is best summarized in a September 8 editorial in which the board, disappointedly, writes that Bush has failed to take the opportunity of the Sept. 11 attacks to make America stronger. “What has Mr. Bush made of that moment of opportunity, which may have passed us by?” is said. “Sad to say, not much. Most of us had expected the country to be in a different place by now, and the fact that it is not can be attributed largely (though by no means exclusively) to Mr. Bush's failure to leverage the political and moral capital Sept. 11 provided.”24


The run up to the Iraq War was a common topic on the editorial pages of the New York Times in 2002. The war itself and its disastrous aftermath absolutely dominated the same pages in 2003. The early wheels of disfavor can be seen turning against Bush by the fall of 2002, and within the first few weeks of January 2003, the Times expresses that disfavor with full force. Though Bush remained fairly popular with the American public – his approval rating was still well above 50 percent at the end of the year – his fate had already been sealed at with the editorial board at the New York Times.25

Of the 161 editorials written about Bush that year, 127 were negative. A mere 24 were neutral and 10 positive. The neutral pieces were largely directives. Many suggested Bush would be better served if he made up with most of Europe and the U.N. Others warned of the consequences of ignoring another nuclear threat: North Korea.26 “Washington must simultaneously cope with three separate and potentially grave threats -- from Iraq, from North Korea and from the threat of reconstituted international terrorist networks,” said a January 5 editorial. “It is absolutely essential that appropriate priorities be set.”

The Times often could not resist jabbing Bush on the rare topics on which he was favorably reviewed. Although happy that Bush finally seemed to be taking the plight of AIDS in Africa seriously, the paper pointed out that his financial and humanitarian efforts came late.27 Another expressed happiness that Bush had put some planned tax cuts on hold, but spent most of its column space railing against the president for thinking they were a good idea in the first place.

But a major Bush tax cut did go through, contributing to the negative editorials written about the president. The paper devoted six separate editorials to the proposed cuts, all highly critical. “With the blitzlike speed of his generals, President Bush has come out fighting for his disastrous plan for more upper-bracket tax cuts, which will only stoke the nation's record levels of deficit spending and deepening debt well beyond his incumbency,” said an April 16 editorial.

To the Times, the tax cuts brought out some of the worst points of Bush’s conservatism. Tax cuts for the rich that would leave important social programs thirsty for funding was anything but compassionate, the paper wrote, and it would be impoverished children who would most likely suffer. The Times clearly thought Bush’s insistence that the tax cuts would benefit all Americans was nothing more than a sham. For a group of journalists sensitive to the plight of America’s poor, the suggestion that cutting taxes and programs for the poor would somehow be a better aid was nothing short of outrageous. Perhaps for the first time, the Times seems to be truly critical of Bush as a person. It cannot be chalked up to ideological differences. Its disgust, now, had become personal.

Though outraged by Bush’s tax cuts, Iraq and the war against terrorism was, by far, the dominant issue. The Times wrote several negative editorials on the impending war before taking an official stance opposing it on March 9. “We believe there is a better option involving long-running, stepped-up weapons inspections. But like everyone else in America, we feel the window closing. If it comes down to a question of yes or no to invasion without broad international support, our answer is no,” it said.28

Interestingly, the Times did not initially question the basic premise of the war or question Bush’s intentions. It believed, as did the entire nation, that Sadaam Hussein was harboring nuclear or biological weapons that could cause great harm to the United States. Its opposition was more a function of the circumstances surrounding the invasion. Had Bush stronger international or UN support, the above editorial suggests that the paper would even be in favor of the war. It is a suggestion that it would later regret. Following the initially successful invasion of Iraq in March, things quickly turned on Bush.

On April 1, the paper wrote that the war was not going at Bush intended or promised; a group of American soldiers had shot seven Iraqi women and children to death.29 It was far from the last editorial maligning Bush for putting American soldiers into a situation they did not want to be in. Once a month for the remainder of the year, the paper dedicated at least one editorial to outlining the ways in which Bush and his team were making mistakes in Iraq. He was criticized for overstretching the troops and spending too much money.30 The paper was outraged by his perceived lack of foresight and planning. Over the year, the paper wrote just under 40 editorials on Bush and the war. Comparatively, the Times only wrote five editorials about Bush and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. All but one, ironically, scolding him for ignoring it.

By September, the paper awoke to the realization that it and the American people had been duped. “A draft of an interim report by David Kay, the American leading the hunt for banned arms in Iraq, says the team has not found any such weapons after nearly four months of intensively searching and interviewing top Iraqi scientists,” wrote the editorial board.31 Interestingly, the board did not blame Bush, saying that he had made the best decisions he could have with the information it had. But it did use the lack of Weapons of Mass Destruction as evidence that the Bush Doctrine was not a clever international relations policy. “But even the best intelligence can turn out to be mistaken, and the likelihood that this was the case in Iraq shows why pre-emptive war, the Bush administration's strategy since 9/11, is so ill conceived as a foundation for security policy,” the editorial went on to say. Intelligence should always be doubted, it said, and Bush’s pre-emptive war had turned out to be a waste of time, money and lives.

Though tax cuts and Iraq were the dominant topics for the Times in 2003, it did spend some space discussing Bush’s domestic policies. As it had in the previous years, the Times expressed serious concerns with Bush’s environmental policies. But it was also extremely dismayed by his favorable stance on partial birth abortions.32 No Child Left Behind was also a subject of serious concern for the Times. Though it welcomed Bush’s promises of standards and accountability, Bush drew serious ire for failing to properly fund his initiative. The Times was especially irritated when Bush attempted to take credit for introducing a groundbreaking program that would forever change the public school system in America for the better. “The Bush administration wanted to trumpet No Child Left Behind, then fail to pay for it — without the voters taking notice,” wrote the board. “But Americans, who value education, can tell a bait-and-switch when they see one.”33 For the board, No Child Left Behind became a typical Bush program: all talk and no follow through.


Bush faced a still more negative year in 2004. The fall election, revelations from the 9.11 Commission, and a series of unimpressive domestic policies, all against the backdrop of an increasingly trying war abroad left the New York Times little to be happy about.

Of the 186 editorials written regarding Bush, 157 were negative, 19 were neutral, and a slight 13 were positive. Nearly 85 percent of the editorials written about Bush were critical, the highest percentage of his term. His approval ratings dropped to 49 percent that year, the lowest of his first term.34 Though Bush won re-election, low approval ratings would haunt him for the remainder of his presidency.

Though it provided a backdrop, the War in Iraq did not dominate the editorial pages with the same urgency as it had the year before. Still, in a jarringly strong piece published June 17, the paper demands that Bush apologize to the American people for the War in Iraq. “Of all the ways Mr. Bush persuaded Americans to back the invasion of Iraq last year, the most plainly dishonest was his effort to link his war of choice with the battle against terrorists worldwide,” it wrote.35 The editorial marks the first time the paper calls directly for an apology from Bush. It had previously painted him as a president who had done the best he could with bad intelligence. An apology was akin to admitting his mistake, something Bush was far from inclined to do. The paper would have known an apology was impossible, but it demanded on its pages – not a place where one wastes space – for one, anyway. It is one of the strongest indicators of just how disillusioned the editorial board had become with the Bush White House.

But a scandal connected to the war certainly did: the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Before the U.S. invasion, Abu Ghraib was famous in Iraq as a prison west of Baghdad where torture and executions took place.36 By spring of 2004 it was famous across the world as the location where U.S. soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners.

The New York Times did not respond favorably to revelations of the abuse. Though it initially gave Bush credit for expressing disgust at the abuse, it eventually blamed him for not doing enough to prevent prisoner abuse in the first place and stop it from happening again. The abuse at Abu Ghraib and Bush’s apparent reluctance to do anything about it outraged the board. “When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal first broke, the Bush administration struck a pose of righteous indignation,” it wrote. “It assured the world that … the United States would never condone the atrocities we saw in those terrible photos, that it would punish those responsible for any abuse… None of this appears to be true.”37

Concern over the war itself dominated 2003; its fallout concerned 2004. The paper was sharply critical of Bush’s disinclination to reform the bad intelligence gathering operations that had allowed the U.S. to enter a war in Iraq under false pretenses. Bush said he took intelligence reform seriously, but the Times expressed frustration that he moved too slowly and without serious purpose.38

The editorial board also condemned the president for his perceived encroachment on American’s civil liberties. A July 4 editorial outlined the mistakes Bush and his administration made during the search for “enemy combatants.”39 It noted several innocent men who were held for months at Guantamo Bay for errors or misunderstanding. The implicit warning that runs throughout the editorial is that such a mistake could happen to anyone. “People too often get the impression that the only people who use the nation's civil liberties protections are lawbreakers who were not quite guilty of the exact felony they were charged with,” said the editorial “Perhaps we should thank the Bush administration for providing so many situations that demonstrate how an unfettered law enforcement system, even one pursuing worthy ends, can destroy the lives of the innocent out of hubris or carelessness.”

Indeed, in criticizing Bush, the New York Times also came to subtly criticize the American people. Though it never said so outright, the reader gets a sense that the Times felt that Bush’s errors were also the errors of the people who elected him. Or even the errors of the Congress who supported him or the citizens who did not voice their opposition loud enough. Bush’s failures are everyone’s failures.

Bush’s handling of the 9-11 Commission became another political disaster in the eyes of the Times. The paper was dismayed at Bush’s lack of cooperation for something that, as far as it was concerned, could have no greater importance. The administration initially refused to turn over relevant documents and tried to prevent its members from testifying in a months-long incident the Times called “oddly self-destructive.”40 The paper suggested that if Bush had been more curious, the attacks might never have happened, a startlingly strong accusation. Up until this point, Bush had previously looked like something of a victim of circumstance; this was the first time it accused him of having any responsibility. Though the paper stops short of suggesting that Bush was actually responsible for the attacks, its insistence that there was more he could have done comes startlingly close.

Though foreign and military relations remained a source of agitation for The Times, domestic policies got a great deal of play as well. This is likely a result of the fall election; as a candidate for President, Bush needed to be more than just a commander in chief. Domestic policy, on the backburner for much of the previous years, would win him voters. His foreign policy track record was of little relevance to those Americans concerned with their own backyards.

The New York Times was not impressed. Just as Bush’s attempts to take credit for the success of No Child Left Behind has irritated it a year before, they were outraged by it now. Bush’s reluctance to uphold teacher quality standards only proved he had hoped to undermine public schools in order to get more support for the school voucher program, the board wrote.41 Its disgust over the issue seethed from the Times’ pages. Bush had promised to create a better future for America’s children, but he failed to do so.

As a president, he claimed to have the best interest of Americans at hear, but the Times felt there was a disconnect between Bush’s rhetoric and his policies. In 2004, the issues of gun control and gay marriage perhaps best summarized this feeling. The Times felt that Bush was casually using both for political support.

The Massachusetts State Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage in November 2003 made gay marriage a national issue.42 It was injected into presidential politics by February of 2004, when Bush announced his support for a constitutional ban of gay marriage.43 In clear disgust, the Times wrote that a constitutional ban would, “inject meanspiritedness and exclusion into the document embodying our highest principles and aspirations.” It sharply criticized Bush for his support, suggesting that his support came only with the promise of votes. It clearly felt that something so precious to so many Americans as marriage should not be exploited for political purposes.

Though not as personally sensitive an issue as gay marriage, gun control was also a pressing issue in 2004. On the subject, the Times found Bush to be deeply hypocritical. On February 27, the paper accused Bush on changing his favorable positions on an assault weapons ban and a law that would prevent weapons sales at gun shows in order to win campaign donations from the gun industry.44 Bush had killed two much-needed laws in order to help his own reelection, the board wrote. The editorial is tinged with wonder of whether Bush had the best interest of his citizens at heart. “This struggle in Washington is a measure of just how regressive political leaders have become in their responsibility to protect the public from gun violence,” it wrote. “Scrapping the assault weapons law and keeping open the gun-show loophole would mark a disastrous retreat in the nation's checkered history of battling the scourge of gun deaths. President Bush could still save these laws by speaking up for them as firmly as he has for the gun industry.”

Though the upcoming election had prompted Bush to speak out about these issues, in turn prompting the Times to write about them, relatively little else was said on the subject. The editorial board expressed disappointment that Bush had not condemned a series of ads attacking Bush’s opponent, John Kerry’s, war record and made a few other notes of the campaign (including analysis of the debates), but it largely sidestepped the election until it endorsed Kerry for president.

In its previous presidential endorsement, the New York Times had been kind to Bush. He received no such generosity in 2004. “There is no denying that this race is mainly about Mr. Bush's disastrous tenure,” it wrote. “Nearly four years ago, after the Supreme Court awarded him the presidency, Mr. Bush came into office amid popular expectation that he would acknowledge his lack of a mandate by sticking close to the center. Instead, he turned the government over to the radical right.”45 Kerry’s endorsement may be the perfect summation of the editorial board’s feelings on Bush by the end of his first term. It denigrated his obsession with secrecy and keeping the American public in the dark, calling it a “Nixonian obsession.” It seethed on his tax cuts for the wealthy and miscalculations in Iraq. The editorial barely stops short of begging the public to vote for someone else. The bitter resentment of what might have been flows from every word. Compiled into this single editorial is the complete chronicle of the Times’ disappointment for George Bush’s presidency. “We look back on the past four years with hearts nearly breaking, both for the lives unnecessarily lost and for the opportunities so casually wasted,” it wrote. “Time and again, history invited George W. Bush to play a heroic role, and time and again he chose the wrong course.”


Bush, of course, did win reelection. The Times did its best to hide its obvious disappointment in its editorial assessment of Bush’s win. “We have had enough of the rancor for a while, and our greatest hope now is that Mr. Bush will set out to earn the right to be seen as leader by all the nation,” it wrote. “Now, most of all, we hope that Mr. Bush will balance his enormous and justifiable self-confidence with a large dose of humility. That could mark the beginning of a White House for all the people.”46

It is still unclear if history will look kindly on President Bush. In his second term, the American public certainly wasn’t. His average approval rating for his second term was 36.5 percent, and it was well below that for the majority of his last year in office.47 Though unexamined in this chapter, the New York Times editorial board undoubtedly had criticism for him; it is unlikely that he lived up to its November 3, 2004 hopes.

Through the lens of the editorial board, we can see President Bush’s first term perhaps as the rest of the country saw it: a cruel disappointment. The Times offered Bush the opportunity to use the Sept. 11 attacks to prove that he deserved to be president. Instead, over the next three years, the board wrote hundreds of sharply critical editorials. The War in Iraq, Bush’s tax cuts, his disregard for the environment and his secrecy all contributed to a highly negative relationship with the Times editorial board.

The board, comprised of 16 journalists, does not speak for America. But it offers an insight into the kinds of Bush-related issues the media cared about. Bush shocked and disappointed the Times, just as he did mainstream America. Only time will tell if he can recover any of its respect, but if the language from the editorials written during his first term is any indication, that is unlikely.


1.) Tapper, Jake. “A ‘Major League Asshole.’” 4 September 2000. 12 March 2010.

2.) New York Times. “Adam Clymer.” New York Times.

3.) BBC News. “Bush: No Apology For Gaffe.” BBC News. 5 September, 2000

4.) New York Times. “Editorial Board.” Opinion Section.

5.) “Editorial: A Vision of Unity.” New York Times, January 21, 2001, Opinion section, New York edition.

6.) Jacobson, Gary. A Divider, Not a Uniter. New York: Pearson Education Inc, 2008.

7.) Jacobson, Gary. A Divider, Not a Uniter. New York: Pearson Education Inc, 2008.

8.) “Editorial: The Battle Over Mr. Ashcroft.” New York Times, January 28, 2001, Opinion section, New York edition.

9.) “Editorial: Indifference to California.” New York Times, May 16, 2001, Opinion section, New York edition.

10.) “Editorial: Retreat on Clean Air.” New York Times, August 22, 2001, Opinion section, New York edition.

11.) “Editorial: Bush’s Most Important Speech.” New York Times, September 21, 2001, Opinion section, New York edition.

12.) “Editorial: The American Offensive Begins.” New York Times, October 8, 2001, Opinion section, New York edition.

13.) Jones, Jeffrey M. “Despite Recent Lows, Bush Approval Average Is Midrange. Gallup, January 5, 2009, Online Edition.

14.) “Editorial: Environmental War Clouds New York Times, November 25, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

15.) “Editorial: Ending a patent drug scam.” New York Times, October 22, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

16.) “Editorial: Toward Mental Health Parity.” New York Times, May 1, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

17.) “Editorial: Terrorism’s Other Battlefield.” New York Times, January 9, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

18.) “Editorial: Battle Plans for Iraq.” New York Times, July 6, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

19.) “Editorial: A Measured Pace on Iraq.” New York Times, September 14, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

20.) “Editorial: Impasse on Homeland Security.” New York Times, October 4, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

21.) “Editorial: How to Prepare for a Smallpox Attack.” New York Times, June 23, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

22.) “Editorial: The Kissinger Commission.” New York Times, November 29, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

23.) “Editorial: The Bush Doctrine.” New York Times, September 22, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

24.) “Editorial: An Uncertain Trumpet.” New York Times, September 8, 2002, Opinion section, New York edition.

25.) Jones, Jeffrey M. “Despite Recent Lows, Bush Approval Average Is Midrange. Gallup, January 5, 2009, Online Edition.

26.) “Editorial: Wizard’s Chess.” New York Times, January 5, 2003, Opinion section, New York edition.

27.) “Editorial: AIDS and the Right to Life.” New York Times, May 1, 2003, Opinion section, New York edition.

28.) “Editorial: Saying No to War.” New York Times, March 9, 2003, Opinion section, New York edition.

29.) “Editorial: Death of Innocents.” New York Times, April 1, 2003, Opinion section, New York edition.

30.) “Editorial: An Overstretched Army in Iraq.” New York Times, October 5, 2003, Opinion section, New York edition.

31.) “Editorial: The Failure to Find Iraqi Weapons .” New York Times, September 26, 2003, Opinion section, New York edition.

32.) “Editorial: Partial Birth Abortion Ban.” New York Times, November 6, 2003, Opinion section, New York edition.

33.) “Editorial: Bait-and-Switch on Public Education.” New York Times, October 21, 2003, Opinion section, New York edition.

34.) Jones, Jeffrey M. “Despite Recent Lows, Bush Approval Average Is Midrange. Gallup, January 5, 2009, Online Edition.

35.) “Editorial: The Plain Truth.” New York Times, June 17, 2004, Opinion section, New York edition.

36.) New York Times. “Abu Ghraib.” New York Times <>

37.) “Editorial: Abu Ghraib, Unresolved.” New York Times, October 28, 2004, Opinion section, New York edition.

38.) “Editorial: A Truly Lame Duck.” New York Times, November 23, 2004, Opinion section, New York edition.

39.) “Editorial: About Independence.” New York Times, July 4, 2004, Opinion section, New York edition.

[40] "Editorial: The Mystery Deepens.” New York Times, April 3, 2004, Opinion section, New York edition.

41.) “Editorial: School Reform Left Behind.” New York Times, January 10 2004, Opinion section, New York edition.

42.) Burge, Kathleen. “Gays Have Right To Marry, SJC Says in Historic Ruling.” Boston Globe. November 19, 2003. Front Section, Boston edition.

43.) “Editorial: Putting Bias in the Constitution.” New York Times, February 24, 2004, Opinion section, New York edition.

44.) “Editorial: Down and Dirty in the Gun Debate.” New York Times, February 27, 2004, Opinion section, New York edition.

45.) “Editorial: John Kerry for President.” New York Times, October 17, 2004, Opinion section, New York edition.

46.) “Editorial: President George W. Bush.” New York Times, November 3, 2004, Opinion section, New York edition.

47.) Jones, Jeffrey M. “Despite Recent Lows, Bush Approval Average Is Midrange. Gallup, January 5, 2009, Online Edition.

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