Miss Campbell was a sweet old lady. She was among the last of a large cohort of American women.
The Miss Campbells of the mid-20th century had three things in common. They never married. They unapologetically retained the title ‘Miss’. And they taught school.
These women once constituted a sizable plurality of American school teachers. By the late 1960s, they were nearing the end of their careers and were being replaced by younger, married, fertile women and by a growing percentage of men.
So when I arrived in Miss Campbell’s Texas History class in the eighth grade, she was getting old. Her hearing was a bit impaired and her eyes were beginning to dim. She was slightly addled and she no longer had the energy she once had for dealing with high-voltage adolescence.
And thus, in a classroom filled with testosterone-laden boys, she was fair game.
Oh, how we tortured that poor woman. While no real harm was done, we played every sort of prank on her. We did things to her that we would never have attempted in our other classes because the teachers in those classes had the mustard to stand up to us. But poor Miss Campbell was nearly out of gas and we took advantage.
By the time I met Miss Campbell she was teaching school for one of two reasons. Either she did it as an answer to a calling, for which we should have been grateful. Or she did it because she needed the work, for which we should have been respectful.
I like to tell myself that my participation in the petty unkindnesses to Miss Campbell was more the product of immaturity than a lack of character. But by the time I acquired the maturity, the opportunity to apologize to Miss Campbell had long passed.
The analogy that I am about to draw is not exact. The person who has been treated badly is not an addled, diminished old spinster but is instead a capable, intelligent and highly principled man. And the maltreatment that this man suffered does not consist of inconsequential pranks. This man suffered from a dedicated effort to bring about his failure.
What I’m about to ask draws from my late recognition that Miss Campbell deserved better than she got from me. So I use her as a setup for this question:
Will the mainstream media ever be ashamed of the way they have treated George W. Bush?
I ask this question in light of the coverage Barack Obama is receiving as he prepares to take office. You read and hear things like, ‘Obama faces the very real problem of a nuclearizing Iran,’ or; ‘al-Qaeda continues to plot against the U.S.,’ or; ‘Obama must deal with a resurgent threat from Russia.’
But aren’t these the same problems that President Bush has been dealing with for the past eight years? You wouldn’t think so to read a clipping archive. To read the coverage Bush has received you would think the threats were along the lines of, ‘Bush infringing civil liberties,’ or; ‘Bush helping cronies at Halliburton,’ or; ‘Bush policies accelerating global warming.’
Sometime between 2001 and 2008, many in the elite media gave up all prior pretense of objectivity and began practicing advocacy journalism. And some, such as the New York Times, pursued the deliberate undermining of the Bush administration as a matter of editorial policy.
Blaming the press for a bad outcome in politics is like blaming the referees in football. It generally rings hollow.
But Dallas Cowboys fans remember Super Bowl XIII in 1979. They remember that a blown pass interference call in the fourth quarter against Benny Barnes set up a Pittsburgh Steelers touchdown in a game that Pittsburgh won by only four points. Sometimes the referees can be the decisive factor.
With respect to the mistakes that Bush made — failing to use the veto pen in his first term, allowing spending to explode, failing to provide adult supervision of the Republican Congress — he boils in his own pudding. So I don’t think that you can say that an openly hostile media constituted the decisive difference between George Bush leaving office on a high note or leaving office on this decidedly low note.
But you can say for sure that if the elite media don’t bear sole responsibility for the president’s low standing, they certainly bear a large percentage of it. The business of journalism in America is the only enterprise specifically singled out for constitutional protection. That protection was given by the founding fathers because of their belief that a free press (now called “media”) serves a vital and irreplaceable role in a free society. But with freedom comes responsibility.
The treatment given George W. Bush by the mainstream media has been shameful. But unlike my adolescent treatment of poor old Miss Campbell, the potential consequence of that shame is anything but harmless. Our enemies took heart from every ill-considered hit piece written on George W. Bush.
So I wonder if someone from the elite media, late in his or her career with the benefit of age, wisdom and maturity, will ever have a “Miss Campbell” coming of age with its attendant regret.
I’d like to think so.
But I’m not holding my breath.