Memories

 

The Wimp—A Cover Story

 

By Evan Thomas and Rich Thomas

 

   No one was ever angrier at Newsweek than vice president George H.W. Bush at the beginning of his run for the presidency in October of 1987.

   Bush was born with not just a silver spoon but a whole table setting in his mouth.  His manners were painfully genteel and Yalie, where America was hearty and Penn State.  Many in Washington thought Bush just too effete to be a President.

   Key Factor? Newsweek placed this premise on its first campaign cover story about Ronald Reagan’s vice president in October 1987. The cover slash read,  “The Wimp Factor.”   The piece mocked such WASP Bush habits as thanking every one twice, wearing imitation English regimental neckties (called “Reps”) and sporting wrist watch bands of  Rep-patterned silk instead of leather or steel.  Rumor had it that Bush even stepped out of the shower when he needed to take a pee.

   The wimp notion was surely arguable, however, and our cover said so. Newsweek noted there was nothing wimpy about Bush when volunteering for navy combat flying World War II, being shot down and rescued after three days on a raft. Newsweek also applauded Bush for succeeding in the rough and tumble of Texas oil wildcatting after the war.

Many political experts judged Newsweek had actually done Bush a favor.  We had called him a wimp in public and then explained why it could be a bum rap.  We had aired the issue and more or less put it to bed at the start of the campaign.

   Bush didn’t see it that way.  He was outraged.  He ordered his campaign to place a freeze on Newsweek and the main reporter on the cover, Margaret Warner.  Indeed, Bush may take his anger his grave.

   Rich Thomas spoke in the late 1990s at a major convention held in Miami’s Viscaya Palace.  Bush gave the opening address.  His speech contained a long attack on the Democratic bias of the press. He used a series of nasty New York Times reports  as his main example.  Afterwards, I introduced myself as a Newsweek reporter.  Bush erupted.

   “Oh my God,” he exclaimed, his voice rising, startling his tablemates at dinner, “you from Newsweek?  If I’d known that I‘d have used you, not the Times, as my example.  That cover calling me a Wimp was the most outrageous slander I suffered in my whole career!  A wimp!  Outrageous.  You’ve got a lot of nerve approaching me here”

    As Evan Thomas reports:

  From my perspective on the Wimp Factor, everyone played their assigned roles. I was bureau chief. Margaret Warner, our chief reporter covering the vice president, got inside with Bush and produced great (and nuanced) reporting. Her draft did not include the word "wimp."

   That Word: Knowing the desires of New York to play up the issue, I wrote the word "wimp" into the story a few times as I re-wrote the story. The story was actually pretty smart and mostly balanced, thanks to Margaret's reporting. But in retrospect, I was a wimp not to protest using the word on the cover, which I sensed, even at the time, went a beat too far.

   Bush was furious because the story appeared on the day he announced in October 1987, and he saw his young daughter, Doro, crying over the cover. He ordered that the Bush campaign not cooperate with Newsweek's Election Project. [This was Newsweek’s standard election year campaign book that required separate and detailed reporting from the campaigns and appeared just after the election.]

   So Sorry: Tom DeFrank [Newsweek’s long time chief White House correspondent] did his usual amazing job of working behind the scenes, getting James A. Baker [Bush campaign chief, later secretary of state] to arrange a peace parlay. On a Saturday morning in October 1988, Mrs. Katharine Graham [chairperson of Newsweek], Rick Smith [editor in chief] and I went to the vice-president's mansion. Baker was there with Bush. The Veep asked me how many times "that ugly" word was in the story. I didn't remember but Baker did--"only three or four." Bush glared at me. Then Rick spun out a sort-of apology. Bush looked momentarily mollified. I noticed on the way out he was flirting with Mrs. G on a fellow-royalty basis. We were "back in business," as DeFrank liked to say. But Bush stayed mad over the years and I can't blame him.

 

Evan Thomas became Washington bureau chief in 1986, was named  assistant managing editor in 1991, editor at large in 2006 and resigned in 2010.  Rich Thomas joined Newsweek as business writer in New York in 1962, became chief economics correspondent in 1970 in Washington and was contributing editor until 2007.  They are  not related.