Bunning's relations with media don't improve

It took Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) 20 years to make the baseball Hall of Fame.

For that, his fans blamed the media.

During his 36 combined years in public life — 18 as a Major League Baseball pitcher and another 18 as an elected official, Bunning has had an antagonistic relationship with the press. Now that he is locked in a tight reelection campaign with state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo (D), his supporters are once again pointing fingers at the press.
file photo
Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.)

>Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told The Hill yesterday that the media, specifically the Louisville Courier-Journal, are trying to pay Bunning back for years of combative behavior.

“He’s had an adversarial relationship with reporters since his playing days,” McConnell said. “I think the important thing is how he relates to his colleagues.”

The three largest newspapers in Kentucky have endorsed Mongiardo and extensively covered Bunning’s controversial actions and statements that triggered his drop in the polls.

Several Kentucky reporters who cover Bunning said his abrasive personality has made him difficult to cover, especially as the campaign has gotten closer.

“When he got into office, he adopted this testy persona,” said Al Cross, a Kentucky political reporter who has covered Bunning during his 18 years in elected office.

That “testy persona” has gotten much worse during his years in office, according to Cross. In a Sunday column in the Courier-Journal, Cross wrote that Bunning is “a cranky politician getting older and crankier.”

Bunning’s staff said his combativeness is part of his personality.

“He’s forthright at the point of being brusque,” said Jon Deuser, the senator’s chief of staff. “He’s always had a candid and honest relationship with the media. They’re used to spin. That’s not Bunning’s style.”

During his reelection campaign, Bunning has gone to great lengths to avoid the press, according to reporters in Kentucky, who said his campaign office is slow to return phone calls — if the campaign returns them at all.

Mark Hebert, a reporter with the ABC affiliate in Louisville, said Bunning’s campaign has not returned any of the “two dozen” phone calls he has placed to it during the campaign. As a result, he now calls the senator’s Washington office if he needs a comment about the race.

Bunning is “incredibly gaffe-prone,” Cross said, which makes him a draw for
reporters and their cameras.

In the past eight months, Bunning has joked to supporters that Mongiardo resembled one of Saddam Hussein’s sons and told reporters that “there may be strangers among us” when he was questioned about his repeated use of police escorts. Then he caused a major stir when he admitted to using a teleprompter during his debate his only televised debate against the challenger.

These lapses have made him a good story within the state.

“You feel like at any moment he might crack, so you want to keep the camera rolling,” one Kentucky television reporter who covers the senator said on background. That reporter, who said Bunning has run from her camera on at least two occasions, told The Hill that many Kentucky media members are curious to know what Bunning will do next.

Bunning’s difficulties with the press go back to his major-league career in the 1950s and ’60s.

“He was as arrogant as they come, a nasty, difficult interview,” wrote Sandy Padwe, a sportswriter who covered Bunning’s perfect game in 1964, in response to an e-mail about the senator. “He thought he was smarter than any writer and treated many writers that way.”

The major downside of Bunning’s wariness, Hebert said, was that it prevented Kentucky voters from seeing Bunning’s softer, more thoughtful side.

In August, Hebert was at a rally in Carrolton, Ky., near Bunning’s boyhood home when he watched the senator tear up while talking about his parents. And right after Sept. 11, 2001, Hebert and a cameraman made a mad dash to Washington, where Bunning and his wife were more than happy to grant them a long interview about the attacks.

Whether challenging Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan or helping to create the Major League Baseball Players Association, Bunning has always been willing to make a stand, but his battle with the media has left hard feelings on both sides.

The political ramifications are less certain. Mongiardo was down six points in one recent poll and even in another, but Bunning’s internal numbers, as of last week, suggested the senator had an 11-point lead. Smelling a potential upset, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) dumped $815,000 into the race last week.

“It’s not clear how this plays,” the television reporter said of Bunning’s relationship with the media. “Maybe some people like to see the senator take on the press.”