On CNN Newsroom this morning, Capitol Hill correspondent Jennifer Yellin did a piece on how Barack Obama is attempting to exploit John McCain's uncertainty over the houses he and wife Cindy own. From Yellin's report:
YELLIN: And top surrogates are hitting 16 states to mock John McCain for, in the campaign's words, losing track of his houses. Obama supporter and VP short lister Virginia Governor Tim Kaine made the case on CNN.
GOV. TIM KAINE (D), VIRGINIA: He couldn't count high enough apparently to even know how many houses he owned.
YELLIN: The Obama campaign believes this line of attack will persuade voters that McCain is out of touch with regular folks and can't fix what he doesn't know is broken. It could also diffuse charges that Obama is elitist. It's as if they're saying, who's the snob now?
OBAMA: And if you're like me and you got one house, or you are like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so they don't lose their home, you might have a different perspective.
YELLIN (on camera): Remember when George H.W. Bush went to the supermarket and was astonished to see the cashier using a scanner? That moment devastated his campaign because it allowed his opponent to argue that Bush was out of touch with middle America. Well, now the Obama campaign is saying John McCain's house gap is another scanner moment.
The myth involving the first President Bush and his supposed amazement is one that, if the mainstream media have their way, just won't go away.
The tale began when the New York Times ran a front-page account under the headline, "Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed." Writers and cartoonists widely lampooned the president for being out of touch.
Shortly after, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz titled his column "The story that just won't die." It began:
The story of George Bush and the incredible supermarket scanner has become the media yarn that wouldn't die.
First the New York Times gave front-page prominence to Bush's alleged amazement at seeing a quart of milk, a light bulb and a bag of candy rung up at an ordinary checkout stand, spawning a tidal wave of satiric columns and late-night comedy routines about an out-of-touch president.
Then came a round of debunking stories, disclosing that Times reporter Andrew Rosenthal never saw the incident but wrote the story from two paragraphs in a pool report. The author of the pool report, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle, didn't even mention the incident in his own story.
The Times returned fire Thursday, saying it had reviewed a network videotape of the Great Scanner Scandal and that Bush "was clearly impressed" by the garden-variety gadget.
Not so, says Newsweek, which screened the tape and declared that "Bush acts curious and polite, but hardly amazed."
It was a fresh demonstration of how a single, hazy anecdote -- Jimmy Carter's "killer rabbit" comes to mind -- can suddenly become larger than life when it seems to match the public perception of a prominent figure.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the story "totally media-manufactured," saying Bush had actually been impressed by more advanced scanner technology. "In hindsight, I probably should've done a better job of saying how new some of this stuff was," McDonald says.
Time magazine's Michael Duffy, another pool member, called the incident "completely insignificant as a news event. It was prosaic, polite talk, and Bush is expert at that. If anything, he was bored."
Some newspapers admitted that the Bush and the scanner anecdote was bogus. On February 21, in the Tampa Tribune, the story was "Scanner caper an amazing exaggeration:"
It turns out the supermarket scanner that drew President Bush's attention at a grocers' convention recently really did have some unusual features.
It can read labels - the so-called universal product codes - that are ripped up and jumbled.
That is apparently what prompted Bush to tell the National Grocers Association in Orlando Feb. 4 he was "amazed'' by the technology.
It was widely reported that Bush was surprised to see an ordinary supermarket scanner. Columnists and cartoonists seized upon the report as evidence that Bush was out of touch with everyday life after 11 years ensconced in government mansions.
"The whole thing is ludicrous,'" Bob Graham, an NCR Corp. systems analyst who showed Bush the scanner, said in a telephone interview from Pleasanton, Calif. "What he was amazed about was the ability of the scanner to take that torn label and reassemble it."
The Tampa Tribune went on to report that "Charles Osgood, the CBS radio correspondent, offered a mea culpa in his daily broadcast Tuesday. 'Fair is fair, and especially since I joined the herd last week and took the occasion to pontificate about how unfortunate it is that we isolate our presidents so much,' said Osgood. The scanner Bush saw 'is amazing, and what it does is really something.'"
In the Greensboro News & Record, the story was "Ease Up - Bush Was Right." The Chicago Tribune wrote: Media learn an amazing fact: Reality." At the St. Petersburg Times, the conclusion was "President isn't that out of touch after all."
Still, all these years later CNN's Yellin keeps the fable in circulation. Maybe she believes it herself. After all, it sounds like a mistake one of those elitist Republicans would make.