Straining at Bits, Punditocracy Yelling At Kerry From Corner

Boxing is the easiest sport in the world. If you doubt it, just watch a six-round club fighter in trouble. Or rather, watch all the people around him. As he sags on the ropes, friends, relations and total strangers will remind him of how simple his job is, by all hollering instructions at once: Work the body! Jab! Throw the right! Get your hands up! Move! Move! Knock his ass out!

Presidential politics is easy, too. As John Kerry heads into his first debate this week, he’ll have months of coaching to draw on. Forget his reputation as being unapproachable; people can’t stop fantasizing about what they’d do if they were he.

The pundit class, in particular, can’t stop seeing Mr. Kerry as its champion. Opinion writers may mock him as haughty and feckless, but in their hearts, as they contemplate the foreign- and domestic-policy wreckage of the Bush administration, they believe in him. They believe in him the way (to change sports) that late-night baseball-talk callers believe in the general manager—as a figure of limitless capacity, handcuffed only by his lack of vision: Now that the Yanks have Olerud, what Cashman’s gotta do is trade Tony Clark to the Diamondbacks, for Randy Johnson.

Mr. Kerry’s perceived weakness makes him the perfect vessel. Clearly, the candidate needs something. So every policy hobbyhorse, every campaigning scheme, can be recast as the thing that would finally send the electorate stampeding Mr. Kerry’s way, if he were only to try it.

The result is an interactive candidacy, with writers from Jack Kemp to Howard Zinn standing up to holler advice. Two Sundays ago, the Cleveland Plain Dealer presented Mr. Kerry’s options as a maze, inviting readers to “get the Democratic nominee through the election labyrinth, avoiding the traps he couldn’t.” The next day, in The New York Times, William Safire—attracted by the tactical challenge, not the ideological one—offered the Democrat a 10-point plan to win the election, couched in the first-person singular: “I am John Kerry …. ” Mr. Safire began.

We are all John Kerry. So in the interest of getting our act together, Off the Record presents a partial—repeat, partial —compendium of advice the candidate has been offered in the past half-month. This includes published editorials and opinion and analysis pieces only—not blog entries, letters to the editor, or the myriad news and feature pieces surveying either experts or the general public for recommendations as to what Mr. Kerry should do with his Iraq policy or his hair.

On campaigning:

“He should be huddling with senior aides doing mock debates, watching videotape of his performance and taking a break.” Al Swanson, U.P.I., Sept. 27.

“To win this race, Kerry needs to stop focusing on Election Day and start thinking about his would-be presidency’s last day.” Kenneth S. Baer, Washington Post, Sept. 26.

“Kerry could take a page from the Paul Martin war manual …. Martin so effectively demonized the conservatives that Canadians took to the polls an image of an abortion-revoking, gay-bashing, Bible-clubbing army of the undead.” Mark Lepage, Montreal Gazette, Sept. 22.

“Stop wasting time magnifying the fury of the Bush haters.” William Safire, New York Times, Sept. 20

“[I]t’s the Democratic base that has to be whipped up and turned out.” William Safire, ibid.

On going to war in Iraq:

“I wish Kerry would say that he and Bush were both wrong in assessing the initial situation in Iraq leading up to the US invasion.” Joan Vennochi, Boston Globe, Sept. 23.

“Recognize that the war is the switcher issue and take a stand that I can stick with for at least six weeks. Blazing away at his past mistakes falls flat.” William Safire, New York Times, Sept. 20.

“Sometime between now and Election Day he has to roll the dice and take an unambiguous position on the war in Iraq.” Pankaj Prakash, the University of Connecticut Daily Campus, Sept. 21.

On future Iraq strategy:

“Tell me you will double the size of the American force in Iraq and I’ll believe you at least have a plan that might work.” William Wineke, Wisconsin State Journal, Sept. 25.

“Kerry needs to disabuse himself of the urge to lay out his own Iraq plan.” Trudy Rubin, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 21.

“Kerry needs to do a better job of explaining what he would do—beyond what Bush is already trying to do—to rescue Iraq and America from the calamity Bush has been creating.” Editorial, Boston Globe, Sept. 22.

“He should not be saying that he will wage the Iraq war better, that he will replace U.S. troops with soldiers from other countries …. To those who say we must not ‘cut and run,’ Kerry can say, with some authority, we did cut and run in Vietnam and it was the right thing to do.” Howard Zinn, Detroit Free Press, Sept. 19.

On policy priorities:

“He should make it clear that the war against al-Qa’ida comes first, and that it was wrong to go after other targets.” Mohammad Yaghi, al-Ayyam, Sept. 24.

“Kerry has an opportunity to regain lost ground if he can make a coherent case for a return to a more traditional foreign policy and expanded health insurance coverage.” Lee Walczak and Richard S. Dunham, Business Week, Sept. 20.

“Kerry needs to … free himself of men and women of little vision, reaching out instead to economic advisers who share John F. Kennedy’s insight that temporary deficits are sometimes necessary to finance policy overhauls.” Jack Kemp, Copley News Service, Sept. 20.

“Mr. Bush is most vulnerable on two issues—Iraq and the economy. Mr. Kerry needs to confront the president on both.” Leon E. Panetta, New York Times, Sept. 19.

“For Kerry to win, he will have to beat Bush on Bush’s own terms,” David Corn, L.A. Weekly, Sept. 24.

“Get back on track by focusing on three subjects: jobs, jobs and jobs, especially in Ohio.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sept. 19.

“Unemployment keeps drifting down and the stock market is going up, so the economy doesn’t help me.” William Safire, New York Times, Sept. 20.

“To make a comeback, Kerry needs to get the public focused on health care and the economy—and to explain himself clearly on Iraq.” Morton Kondrake, Newspaper Enterprise Association, Sept. 23.

“Senator John Kerry has drawn up a much more impressive plan for promoting national service …. Senator Kerry needs to speak louder on this important topic. In some respects he also needs to think bigger.” Michael Purzycki, the George Washington University Hatchet, Sept. 21.

On his message:

“Get a slogan that fits on a bumper sticker …. Come back with FDR’s blast at Herbert Hoover after the crash: ‘Change Horses or Drown!’” William Safire, New York Times, Sept. 20.

“Mr. Kerry must develop a single, simple, succinct message: ‘We need a safer and stronger America’ might work.” Leon E. Panetta, New York Times, Sept. 19.

“In short, Mr. Kerry’s message should be ‘It’s America, stupid.’” Cody Harris, the Baltimore Sun, Sept. 22.

This past Sunday, in The New York Times Book Review, Charles McGrath welcomed the publication of the latest A.J. Liebling collection, Just Enough Liebling: Classic Work by the Legendary New Yorker Writer. Mr. McGrath, the former Book Review editor and former fiction editor of The New Yorker, praised the late Liebling’s “characteristic voice, both sharp and digressive, and exceptionally well suited to transferring pleasure directly from author to reader.”

But Mr. Liebling’s fluent prose did not, in fact, go straight to the reader. Along its way, it first passed through the hands of Gardner Botsford. Botsford—a longtime editor at The New Yorker, husband of New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm and stepson of its former publisher, Raoul Fleischmann—died Sunday after an illness.

“He believed that writing should be effortless-seeming,” said Mr. McGrath. And Botsford spent decades working to make it so—with Liebling, John Hersey, Mollie Painter-Downes, Janet Flanner, Roger Angell and on and on. The writers who made The New Yorker The New Yorker were to a great extent Mr. Botsford’s writers.

And the young editors, Mr. McGrath said, were Mr. Botsford’s as well. “He was probably the best I ever saw,” Mr. McGrath said. At a magazine with a “hazing system built into the DNA,” Mr. McGrath recalled, Botsford was known for his kindness to the younger generation—extending unto lending a young and penniless Mr. McGrath the use of his summer homes.

Botsford’s colleagues referred to him as a “gentleman,” again and again. “He was sort of blessed, in a way,” Mr. McGrath said. “He was witty, he was charming, he was well-dressed, he was athletic, he had perfect manners.”

He was also a war hero, landing in the first wave at Normandy. “He never bragged about it,” Mr. McGrath said.

Botsford, in short, was unassuming in the way that comes with being indispensable. His knack for cutting pieces won him the nickname “The Slasher”—a name, Mr. McGrath added, that shortchanged Botsford’s delicacy. When Botsford trimmed a piece, Mr. McGrath said, “the writer barely even knew that it was happening.”

Detail was everything. Running the “Goings On About Town” department, Botsford amused himself by running bits of Ulysses in the listings for an especially long-running theater production. He cultivated the linotype operators as assiduously as the writers.

Last year, at last, he wrote a book: A Life of Privilege, Mostly. The memoir won warm reviews, but allowed Botsford to keep evading fame.

“Who even knew who he was?” Mr. McGrath said. The public knew William Shawn and Harold Ross; the public knew the writers.

“And that was just fine with him,” Mr. McGrath said, “because he knew who he was.”

New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, now entering the second half of his 18-month term, has already secured his legacy. On Sunday, Mr. Okrent wrote that the paper’s corrections section needed to stop burying major revisions of stories amid notices of typos.

“Let Editors’ Notes remain Editors’ Notes, let Corrections remain Corrections—but give substantive (if innocent) errors their own place on the page, under their own heading,” Mr. Okrent wrote. “I haven’t any idea what to call this new format I’m recommending, so let’s kick off Public Editor Readership Contest No. 1. Send entries to public@nytimes.com, and I’ll paste the winner on Al Siegal’s door.”

But Mr. Siegal, The Times ’ standards editor, did the pasting himself. On Monday, Mr. Siegal sent out a memo to the staff announcing that Mr. Okrent’s proposal would become policy at the end of this week: “Starting in the paper of Friday, October 1, the substantive corrections will appear under our usual heading, CORRECTIONS, and the narrower ones will appear below them, headed FOR THE RECORD. Narrow corrections will ordinarily deal with name misspellings, geography gaffes, errors in historic dates and the like.”

“I’m delighted, certainly,” Mr. Okrent said. Given the timing of the two events, he added, it seemed likely some version of the plan had been in the works. “I wouldn’t want to attribute it strictly to me,” he said.

This past Friday, New York Times deputy editorial-page editor Andrew Rosenthal decided to share an e-mail he’d gotten with his wife. The message, attributed to Wall Street Journal writer Farnaz Fassihi, described the deteriorating conditions in and around Baghdad: “A friend drove through the Shiite slum of Sadr City yesterday. He said young men were openly placing improvised explosive devices into the ground …. Behind the walls sits an angry Iraqi ready to detonate them as soon as an American convoy gets near. This is in Shiite land, the population that was supposed to love America for liberating Iraq.”

Off the Record was not able to confirm the authenticity of the original message with its purported author or The Wall Street Journal by press time. Mr. Rosenthal said that he hadn’t confirmed it either—it arrived, he said, with “about 40 e-mail addresses on it.” But after his wife forwarded it along to a group of friends, the provenance became moot: The off-channel reportage now had the stamp of The Times and The Journal on it.

So the version Off the Record received had been sent to nearly three dozen more addresses, including one “graydon_carter.” Mr. Rosenthal, when asked about the phenomenon, sounded a little put out and inquired whether Off the Record would care to publicize the contents of its own most recent family e-mail. (Sure! “Subject: Fight On … ‘At Manning fella got him 320 yards and 5 touchdowns … ’n’ a first half, hon.”)

Despite his initial written endorsement of the message as “incredibly powerful,” Mr. Rosenthal was nonplused by the message’s appeal. He did not mean it, he said, to be taken as some sort of samizdat, telling truths that the big newspapers don’t dare to tell directly. “That’s a false color that has been put on this thing—that there was some significance in my forwarding of it,” he said.

Mr. Rosenthal added that the word that things are bad in Iraq has not exactly been suppressed by The Times. To anyone who’s read the editorial page, he said, the missive is “hardly the cri de coeur of some captive of the journalistic establishment.”

From Off the Record correspondent Ben Smith:

Forget purportedly self-inflicted combat wounds. Muslims Weekly, a Queens broadsheet that calls itself the “Voice of Muslim America,” offers readers an old-fashioned reason to hate John Kerry: He’s a Jew.

In a Sept. 24 front-page piece titled “‘President’ Kerry and Axis of Occupiers,” columnist Jafar Syed argues that “the father of all flip-flopping is not flip-flopping on the destruction of the Muslim World.” But before he gets to policy, he focuses on the candidate’s ethnicity: “He is Jewish-rooted ‘Kohan’ Kerry, crying baby.”

Mr. Kerry’s paternal grandfather was born Jewish with the name Fritz Kohn. Mr. Syed restores the old name, invarious spellings, and appends it to Mr. Kerry’s name for effect: “[T]hisKohnKerry, democratic nominee for president, does not care what is in the best interests of US. What he cares is the Jewish leadership. What he care is Israel First and not America First,” Mr. Syed writes.

Muslims Weekly ’s editor in chief, Jawed Anwar, didn’t respond to a telephone message and an e-mail seeking comment on the article, nor did Mr. Syed, whose own Web site, http://www.muslimmediany.org, leads with an essay titled “Jewish Leadership and the Destruction of the Muslim World.”

MuslimsWeekly doesn’t publish circulation figures, but its 16 pages are packed with advertising for lawyers, travel agents, Islamic events and a “Lady Doctor.” The paper won six awards last year from the Independent Press Association of New York, though much of its content seems to come from the Internet. The Sept. 24 lead analysis of Iraq, for instance, appears to be borrowed from the World Socialist Web site.

Mr. Syed’s “Kohn Kerry” phrase, however, seems to have its roots on the right rather than the left. Most English-language instances of the name online are either typos by someone trying to write “John Kerry” or the product of white-supremacist sites.

Nabil Yousef, a Georgetown University senior and founder of Muslims for Kerry, said he hasn’t heard from any Muslims objecting to Mr. Kerry’s ethnicity. “Of all the hate e-mails we’ve gotten to our site—and there have been a lot of them—there’s only one that even mentioned Kerry’s Jewish ancestry,” Mr. Yousef said. “It was from an evangelical Christian.”