New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney’s front-page obituary for President George H.W. Bush, who passed away Friday night at his Houston home at age 94, was in the main, a respectful effort. But it was marred by the inclusion of a liberal media legend that won’t die: The myth of Bush touring the floor of a grocery store trade show in February 1992 during his re-election campaign, and supposedly staring in baffled wonderment at a conventional supermarket price scanner. It was a phony anecdote forwarded by reporter Andrew Rosenthal (who wasn’t even there) to paint the first Bush as an out-of-touch patrician.
Nagourney recounted the fake incident under the subhead “A Measured Aristocrat.”
His critics saw him as out of touch with ordinary Americans, pointing to what they portrayed as his amazed reaction during a demonstration of a supermarket scanner when he visited a grocers’ convention while president. (He later insisted that he had not been surprised.)
The story came with a file photo of Bush looking at the scanner, and the caption underlined the fake news: “Critics saw Mr. Bush as out of touch with ordinary Americans during a demonstration of a supermarket scanner at a grocers’ convention in Orlando, Fla., in February 1992.”
In 1992, Rosenthal, who wasn’t even present, relied on a brief pool report to conjure up the anecdote. He would later serve nine years as the paper’s editorial page editor and prove himself among the most shamelessly partisan and often hysterically anti-Republican journalists at the New York Times (and that’s some pretty stiff competition).
Rosenthal wrote at the time:
Today, for instance, [Bush] emerged from 11 years in Washington’s choicest executive mansions to confront the modern supermarket. Visiting the exhibition hall of the National Grocers Association convention here, Mr. Bush lingered at the mock-up of a checkout lane. He signed his name on an electronic pad used to detect check forgeries.
“If some guy came in and spelled George Bush differently, could you catch it?” the President asked. “Yes,” he was told, and he shook his head in wonder.
Then he grabbed a quart of milk, a light bulb and a bag of candy and ran them over an electronic scanner. The look of wonder flickered across his face again as he saw the item and price registered on the cash register screen.
Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, assured reporters that he had seen the President in a grocery store. A year or so ago. In Kennebunkport.
Some grocery stores began using electronic scanners as early as 1976, and the devices have been in general use in American supermarkets for a decade.
Even the left-leaning fact-checkers at Snopes didn’t bite on the Times’ anti-Bush interpretation or the paper’s subsequent defense of its coverage.
Jonah Goldberg, looking back in 2008 at the 1992 incident, noted the political impact of the paper’s fakery:
...The New York Times -- which had no reporter at the scene -- took it upon itself to offer a politically devastating misinterpretation unsupported by any participants or witnesses and nearly two decades later Democrats are still dishonestly using this story to prove, well, whatever they want.