Local reporters, national buzz

Dubya's drunk-driving arrest and a pop quiz on foreign affairs were homegrown TV stories that made big news

No less an authority on national politics than former President George H. W. Bush can pinpoint the time the image of his son changed in the eyes of many from that of the well-funded and amiable, capable Texas governor and presidential candidate to a well-financed dunce.

"He was blindsided by some idiot reporter, if you'll excuse me," the former president said. "But some guy got him and said, 'Give me the name of the prime minister of this, or the newly appointed general in Pakistan?' And I'm saying to myself, ' I
don't know the answer to these things.'

"And so people played off of that and a few other things and said this makes this man less than intelligent. It's a bum rap. And do you think if a guy was dumb, he would have been re-elected governor of the second biggest state in the nation by 70% of the vote? I mean, it speaks for itself."

The reporter in question, Andy Hiller of WHDH-TV Boston, respects the sentiment. "If it were my son," he says, "I'd say the same thing." More than a year after his so-called "pop quiz" of Bush's foreign policy acumen, Hiller says, "I'm amazed at its life."

For all the national and network reporters that traveled with the candidates and covered the campaign, the work of a few local television reporters may have had the most impact on the election; whether positive or negative for their subjects.

The exposure of George Bush's knowledge gaps, first by Boston political reporter Andy Hiller, may have hurt the candidate when it changed his image, but may have helped by lowering the bar for the debates. The revelation by Erin Fehlau of WPXT(TV) Portland, Maine, of Bush's arrest in the 1970s for drunk driving raised questions of responsibility and truthfulness, but it also raised questions of another ambush set up by Democrats and rallied the troops.

It is difficult though, to see how the charge that Al Gore offered substandard housing on his family property did anything to help his campaign, and may have hurt Gore's efforts-ultimately unsuccessful-to win his home state.

And if the stories generated publicity for the candidates, as well as for the reporters, they also generated Saturday Night Live
skits, Leno jokes and Letterman Top 10 lists.

"If the George [W.] Bush you saw in the quiz had never been seen anywhere else, [the quiz] would have been a cheap shot," says Hiller, who for years has contributed to New England's political discussions with his regular feature "The Hiller Instinct." "But because we saw [Bush's communication gaffes] again and again, we realized that what that quiz was, was a window into a room many people [in the Bush campaign] never wanted us to see."

The quiz came from concerns and suspicions regarding Bush's foreign policy expertise, Hiller says, and were not used as a means to embarrass the candidate. "It was a legitimate issue," Hiller says. "He had money, momentum, charisma, and a name. Was there a weakness in foreign policy? But there were a lot of jokes after that, and the quiz generated those jokes. And by the time Saturday Night Live
got finished, [Bush's whole persona] became a joke."

Hiller is a top-10-market reporter who was covering the campaign along with network and other major-market reporters. But sometimes the story was strictly a local one, albeit with national impact. When Tracy Mayberry, who paid $400 a month to rent a house in Carthage, Tenn. called WTVF-TV , Nashville, to complain about her landlord, it was the name of the landlord that stood out more than the bad plumbing or the bubbling floor.

And when the story of Gore's absentee landlordism dragged on for days without resolution-even after Gore's promises charmed Mayberry into pledging Gore her vote-the vice president's opponents were only too happy to use it for their political gain.

"It raised not only character issues, but competence," says Jennifer Kraus of WTVF-TV Nashville. "As president you have to delegate responsibilities. You are who you surround yourself with. [Gore] should have made sure these things were taken care of. When this became an issue, he should have made sure these things were taken care of. It was pretty close in Tennessee," Kraus recalls, "but even in the back of my mind, I couldn't imagine those stories would have changed someone's vote; that someone would vote for Bush because Gore's a bad landlord. But the story turned out to be a big embarrassment for Gore.

Did the revelations during the final days of the campaign about George W.'s drunk driving arrest turn the popular vote away from Bush to Gore? "I've heard that it hurt Bush," says Fehlau, "that it hurt Gore [in generating sympathy for Bush] and that it happened so long ago it didn't matter. It was so tight to begin with, maybe [that the story prompted a popular vote swing] is not so far-fetched."

Fehlau was at the courthouse that morning to cover a trial of a local college resident assistant accused of setting fires in her dormitory. "That would have been the lead story that night," she recalls. But when Fehlau heard the first inklings of the Bush story, "there was no way I was staying with the arson story."

The whirlwind of exposure, she recalls, "was surreal. I watch Nightline. Suddenly I'm on it. I thought the story would get national attention, but I didn't think so much attention would fall to me." By Election Day, "it had tapered off. It was old news. Then the election blew it off the map."

Fehlau took some time off following the election, and now anchors weekends as well as reports, but that had been on the table before the Bush story. "Things have pretty much returned to normal," she says.