Kerry Catches On, Waiting for Press To Declare Comeback

John Kerry hadn’t held a formal press conference in nearly six weeks.

Good.

Reporters traveling with the candidate had expressed their unhappiness by posting a sign that kept track of the days since the last “availability.” Mr. Kerry ignored it.

Even better.

Mary Beth Cahill—still in charge of the campaign, despite months of stories predicting her imminent removal—declined to make any promises about when (or even if) Mr. Kerry would meet the media en bloc again.

Best news of all.

But then he did. Oh well.

That aside, there were other glad tidings this week in the Kerry camp, reports of whose defenestration appear premature. The C.I.A.’s National Intelligence Estimate predicted three outcomes for Iraq: awful, terrible, catastrophic. Republican Senators John McCain, Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar blasted Mr. Bush’s handling of the war for “incompetence” (Mr. Lugar), “serious mistakes” (Mr. McCain) and getting our boys “in deep trouble” (Mr. Hagel). Better late than never, Mr. Kerry himself put Iraq at the top of his campaign agenda and stopped playing patty-cake. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Bush’s poll lead narrowed.

Shifting the press hadn’t topped reasons for cheer, which also included Joe Lockhart telling Tony (“What we need is a Karl Rove”) Coelho to stuff it; and the enlistment of another grown-up, in the person of Mike McCurry. But while it lasted, it helped.

Why such delight in the travails of traveling colleagues? (They’ve at least got a seat on Mr. Kerry’s plane, unlike the correspondent of the nation’s newspaper of record, for whom there’s “no room” on Dick Cheney’s aircraft.)

Bunch of reasons, starting with Mr. Kerry’s previous press conference, which, you may recall, took place appropriately on the rim of the Grand Canyon back on Aug. 9. During that session, Mr. Kerry was asked whether he would have voted to authorize Mr. Bush’s taking the nation to war against Iraq, had he been aware that W.M.D.’s and fairy dust were not dissimilar. His response: “Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a President to have.”

Nowhere, you’ll notice, did Mr. Kerry endorse Dubya’s actually going to war, much less say he would have done likewise, absent exhausting every option. Quite the contrary—as succeeding sentences made clear: “Why did we rush to war without a plan to win the peace? Why did you rush to war on faulty intelligence and not do the hard work necessary to give America the truth? Why did he mislead America about how he would go to war? Why has he not brought other countries to the table in order to support American troops in the way they deserve it and relieve the pressure on the American people?”

As usual, Mr. Kerry used a hundred words to convey what a savvier politician would in half a dozen. But his meaning was crystal: The authority backed was for use worst-case. Which at the time of the invasion was nowhere in sight.

That’s not how the press played it.

Virtually without exception, Mr. Kerry’s “Yes, I would have voted for the authority” was headlined as a belated endorsement of Dubya’s barging into Baghdad—and has been hung around his neck as Flip-Flop-in-Chief ever since. And the sentences that followed? What sentences?

The moral was clear: You don’t wanna be misconstrued, don’t answer questions.

So, John Kerry wasn’t—except from a handful of national reporters of high-odds reliability, and local clucks inquiring how he felt about being in Chillicotthe.

Who could blame him?

Television sandwiches 90 seconds of political coverage between footage of bent-over palm trees, ravaged beach houses and rowboats traversing main streets; Dan Rather’s boo-boos; and the latest Iraqi car bombing and/or hostage-beheading. Just where news of “the most important election in our lifetime” appears depends on the day’s accusation. But as a rule of thumb: the more outrageous, the higher up.

Without pictures that move (or nearly the number of people to address), print operates differently. At least from a distance. Iraq, health care and the economy get more space from the usual suspects ( The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times et al.), but by and large, both print and TV cover the election like the seventh race at Santa Anita: Who’s ahead going into the clubhouse turn? Ink-stained wretches also share their better-dressed network counterparts’ fascination with National Guard and naval records (cable, of course, outdoes them both); and with acres of column inches to fill, the scribblers are in a position to accord them greater—though not necessarily more searching—examination, complete with diagrams of problem spots and suspicious connections.

But in two respects, print stands unchallenged. No. 1: focus on nuts and bolts (who sits where on the plane; why so-and-so’s producing a commercial, not such-and-such), a phenomenon whose genesis lies in the sales of Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President, 1960. No. 2: composition of thumb-suckers listing moves Mr. Kerry should make, were he as smart as the composer—a pastime indulged in this weekend by no less a figure than William Safire, formerly of the Nixon White House.

To the obvious question—”Are we learning much that counts?”—the answer’s equally so: Puhleeze.

The more intriguing query—”Why’s John Kerry getting such lousy press?”—takes some sorting out.

Let’s start with the nose on your face: Mr. Kerry lacks, shall we say, je ne sais quoi in certain interpersonal relationships. He appears ill at ease with inquiring strangers (except David Letterman, an old pal after two minutes’ acquaintance Monday night); dislikes divulging private matters (eccentric Dave asked about war-and-peace stuff); conveys, overall, being programmed and stuck-up. In short, the entire package hated by reporters, who long to be stroked (not for nothing did Timothy Crouse call the Boys on the Bus “shy egomaniacs”) and make their living getting sources to say things they shouldn’t. Michael Dukakis and Al Gore possessed many of Mr. Kerry’s quirks, and, you’ll note, aren’t burdened maintaining Presidential libraries. But, maybe because of all those years far from home at Swiss boarding school, John Kerry’s remoteness makes fellow Bay Stater John Adams a sport by comparison. Mr. Kerry pays for it, according to a normal person who emerged from the aluminum cocoon that transports the wandering circus, stupefied at the loathing of those in back for the guy in front. And the loathers are Democrats.

Strikes two and three against Mr. Kerry are his press operation, a.k.a. the reason the services of Messrs. Lockhart and McCurry were required. Reporters work on deadlines. Those who help meet them are adored; those who don’t, despised. The functioning of Mr. Kerry’s prior to the Clintonian duo’s employment? In his profile of beleaguered Bob Shrum in last week’s New Yorker, Ken Auletta quoted reporters describing it thus: “Like calling the DMV.”

Before further enumeration of reportorial sins (a subject on which your correspondent is expert, having committed all of them covering campaigns too many decades), credit must be awarded Mr. Bush, whom even Mr. Kerry says is a “perfectly nice guy,” and who employs press-handlers of positively Teutonic efficiency. Should that fail to warm hearts, Mr. Bush can call on supporters rather more direct in approach. Ask Judith Miller of The New York Times: She’s looking at jail for contesting a subpoena secured by a Bush-appointed U.S. attorney in connection with who blew Valerie Plame’s C.I.A. cover. The thing is, Ms. Miller never wrote about Ms. Plame. Meanwhile, the fella who did, Bush-backing Bob Novak, won’t say whether he’s blabbed to the grand jury. Before Dan Rather’s televised seppuku Monday evening, he was too busy demanding the CBS News anchor cough up his sources.

Add John Ashcroft’s regard for the First Amendment, and the radical curtailment of the Freedom of Information Act (undertaken in the name of national security, needless to say), and if you think that doesn’t send a message—well, you probably also think that House Speaker Denny Hastert had tongue in cheek when he told a Republican fund-raiser Saturday night that Al Qaeda would be happier with John Kerry in the White House.

But Dubya and friends can’t be blamed for every sparrow that tumbles—or even most. As the Swift boat swallowing demonstrated (and before that, the hoo-hah over S.U.V.’s owned, the intern not bedded, and innumerable, usually illusory molehills in between), the press is perfectly capable of cravenness sans prompting. Everybody has reasons: laziness, getting ahead, competitive pressure from the likes of Matt Drudge, what Eugene McCarthy called “blackbirds on a wire” coverage (“One flies off, they all fly off,” observed Gene, who wasn’t a scribe favorite, either), and, not least, fear of seeming biased—a dread apparently confined to journalists of Democratic persuasion. (For proof, tune in Brit Hume, then call up Mickey Kaus’ column.)

To that roster, yours truly nominates a few others. Like the generation gap.

As with war, covering campaigns is a game for the youngish, which proved a boon to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose sun-rises-in-the-west charges seemed utterly plausible to reporters who spent Vietnam as a gleam in daddy’s eye. Only rarely does a codger come along like Joe Galloway, who was up close and personal with that war at its deadliest. Which gave Joe a best-selling book ( We Were Soldiers Once and Young); the kick of watching an actor play himself opposite Mel Gibson in the movie; and a good memory of “body-count” days. In his Knight-Ridder column, he recently exposed the absurdity of Mr. Bush’s Iraq bounciness with simple arithmetic: Subtract Pentagon claims of insurgents killed last month (2,500) from Central Command chief General John Abizaid’s estimate of total bad-guy strength (5,000), and what do you get? Answered Mr. Galloway: “Just one more month and the enemy will all be dead and we can go home.”

Similar figuring elsewhere in the press? None.

Then there’s the not-invented-here syndrome, exemplified by the reception that met Kitty Kelley’s The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty. Exceeding small were the number of reviews whose first paragraph didn’t note Ms. Kelley’s “sensationalist” oeuvre or the “controversial” reporting methods of the “colonoscopist to the stars,” as Slate called her (before serving up a five-page guide to the dish). Roundabout paragraph three or four, following expression of dismay over what the culture’s become (see Michiko Kakutani for the template), came news that the hottest item in the 736-pager—Dubya’s allegedly snorting blow whilst at Dad’s Camp David—has been denied in a sworn affidavit by Ms. Kelley’s rumor-confirming source, ex–Presidential sister-in-law Sharon Bush. At which point, you’re prepared for dismay-expressing of your own. Unless you know the part most left out. Namely, that Ms. Kelley harvested Ms. Bush’s recollections during a four-hour interview/lunch, nondigestible contents of which are attested to by contemporaneous notes and another reporter who was present in the capacity of Ms. Bush’s publicist. Further, that Ms. Kelley crossed her t’s and dotted her i’s the next day in a 90-minute phone follow-up with Ms. Bush, witnessed by Ms. Kelley’s editor, Random House vice president Peter Gethers, the author’s lawyer and the publisher’s lawyer. Funny how a few facts change things.

Next up: Linear thinking.

Campaign reporters are terrific tracking events point to point: Today, the candidate said this, the day before, that—a skill that has snared the ever-nuancing Mr. Kerry on more than one occasion. Trouble arises connecting more disparate dots, such as those revolving around the mysterious Internet poster “Buckhead,” whose startlingly learned exegesis of the Killian documents 3:59 after Dan Rather aired them was the ensuing landslide’s first rock. Took some doing, but Peter Wallsten of the L.A. Times hunted him down. And wouldn’t you know who Buckhead (real name: Harry W. MacDougald) turns out to be? An Atlanta lawyer (“Buckhead” is the city’s most exclusive neighborhood) and Republican player whose c.v. includes membership in the arch-conservative Federalist Society, and helping draft a petition to the Arkansas Supreme Court urging the disbarment of William Jefferson Clinton. (The Court obliged for a term of five years.) Buckhead wouldn’t answer questions, least of all how he picked up his instant document-debunking hobby or found his way to the favorite Web site of the co-author of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry. “I’m just going to stick to doing no interviews,” he said.

The day after the L.A. Times broke that, The Washington Post was publishing a lengthy tick-tock of where Dan went wrong. All was lost, it develops, when CBS sought comment from White House communications director Dan Bartlett, who offered the usual: “dirty politics,” the President was honorably discharged, etc. Mr. Bartlett had been given copies of the documents (indeed, had shown them to Mr. Bush prior to talking to CBS), and referred to them during the interview. Challenge their authenticity, however, he did not. CBS took that as oblique confirmation, abandoned further efforts at verification and went with the story eight hours later. Then the roof fell in.

In its autopsy querying of Mr. Bartlett, The Post asked why he hadn’t pooh-poohed the documents. Elicting this: “How am I supposed to verify something that came from a dead man in three hours?”

The well-connected Buckhead did the opposite in 59 minutes more. Any coincidence? You’ll never know from reading the papers.

Finally, the pitfall Mencken warned about: becoming august.

None are more so than the universally proclaimed “dean” of the political press, David S. Broder of The Washington Post. Mr. Broder—a decent soul if ever there were one—attained that position by dint of smarts and shoe leather, many pairs’ worth of which were worn out going door-to-door, town-to-town to discover what actual voters think. No one had ever heard of such a thing, and it made Dave Broder famous.

The first sign of possible attendant downside was Mr. Broder’s co-authoring with Bob Woodward of a Post series (later turned into a book) about Dan Quayle. In the midst of a boatload of encomiums, it reported that the then Vice President was “skillful [and] underestimated repeatedly “—a scoop not only about the I.Q. of Mr. Potato-with-an-”e”, but the judgment of Mr. Broder. And today? Well, this Sunday Mr. Broder summed up his marvel at the recent swirl of happenings by writing: “This is one of those too-frequent moments of mental overload, when the best thing you can do is put some distance between yourself and the TV screen and not try to absorb it all at once.”

Jim Lehrer couldn’t have said it better. Why else do you think Never-Offend Jim was selected to moderate the first Presidential debate?

Your correspondent could go on, but you get the idea. If you’re despairing, take heart from another press habit. Call it “A.C. Wave” reporting, so named after alternating current’s up-and-down behavior on an oscilloscope.

If there’s one thing that terrorizes political journalists almost as much as missing the plane, it’s being stuck with a loser campaign. That taints them as losers by association (how many Gore reporters you see on prime beats?), and, worse, kills suspense about the outcome, making an already tedious chore really numbing.

Here’s where A.C. Wave comes to the rescue.

Having earlier built up the candidate they’re condemned to (otherwise, he wouldn’t have the nomination), then torn him down (you gotta do something when you run out of superlatives), as day succeeds night, reporters will commence rebuilding when ballot-casting looms. Flaws formerly fatal magically vanish. Virtues not previously noted come to the fore. Phrases like “last-minute surge” and “astonishing comeback” are increasingly typed/uttered.

With 40 or so days till Nov. 2, John Kerry’s about to become the latest beneficiary. The worst is over; from here on, it’s upward.

Sound cynical? You don’t know the half of it.