Measuring the candidates
Published by The
State, December 26, 2006.
Lee Bandy’s retirement as The State’s venerable
and irascible political correspondent gives Lee a well deserved
respite from the political trails ahead. But with all respect,
Lee, you’re leaving your readers in the lurch. Those weekly
columns you’ve promised to keep writing will have to fill
some big gaps.
This is less a paean to a campaign colleague—Lee’s
path and mine have crossed here and there over the years—than
a plea to pay attention to the political reporters as we turn
the corner into Campaign 2008. At this juncture, we need each
Too soon, you think? You’re just putting away the Christmas
decorations and thumbing through the spring garden catalogues.
The 2007 Super Bowl is still a month away and you could hardly
get excited about the 2008 Presidential Elections. Get out that
calendar you got for Christmas.
South Carolina’s Democratic Party is planning a candidates’ debate
this coming year around April 27th. The state’s Republican
Party has announced its pre-primary debate for May 15th. And
the state’s two primaries will be held as early in 2008
as permitted so South Carolina can have a significant voice in
selecting the presidential nominees.
The calendar, while not everything, is critical. Timing sometimes
outweighs talent in the political field. Remember 1992? George
H. W. Bush, not to be confused with son ‘W’, had
forged an international coalition to rout Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Communism had crumbled. Bush looked unbeatable.
Democrats wavered. Governor Mario Cuomo of New York debated
Hamlet-like whether to be a candidate or not. A less well known,
but less timid Arkansas governor Bill Clinton filled the void.
Bush campaigned not just on his international successes, but
on a turning economy. Unfortunately for Bush, the economy was
turning with battleship speed, too slowly. Timing.
Now, consider 2008, again no time for timidity. It’s a
wide open race in both parties. No incumbent. No heir apparent.
Why not a Barack Obama? Too young and too inexperienced, perhaps.
But Illinois’ junior senator has to think, if not now,
when? Eight years, if another Clinton—Hilary—should
win it all in 2008.
And the Republicans? John McCain was brutally rebuffed in South
Carolina in 2000, yet he’s coming back. For what—a
satisfying denouement? Another dose of Southern inhospitality?
You could, of course, sort this all out yourself. After all,
you’ve got the Internet. And Time, the magazine, named “You,
yes, you”—denizen of the digital democracy—as
Person of the Year for 2006.
You can go to the putative candidates’ web sites right
now. I seem to already be on their e-mail lists, aren’t
you? Ready for the deluge of digital democracy? How good’s
your spam filter?
So here’s the pitch for the political reporter—a
Lee Bandy, NBC’s Tim Russert or CNN’s Candy Crowley.
(Those three are really good but what makes them great is that
though I know their history, I don’t know their personal
politics. As a political reporter, I used to say I’d voted
for Republicans and Democrats and regretted both.)
The political reporter, not the partisan advocates you see on
TV’s verbal food fights, is the one who logs tens of thousands
of miles each campaign getting close to candidates to understand
their policies, personalities and passions. That reporter is
in the kitchens of New Hampshire and the coffee shops of Iowa
in the hard winter days before the primaries and the caucuses.
(You’re slipping away for a warm weekend at the beach.)
He’s in the plane seat next to Bill Clinton at 2am on
a flight to Miami listening to the candidate’s education
Or alone with the president on the back platform of a train
whistlestopping through the Carolinas as George Bush—senior—explains
why “no one he trusts” has told him he can’t
Or planeside in San Diego when Ronald Reagan debarks to make
his final campaign speech. “Who wants to give it?” Reagan
asks, knowing that the corps of political reporters had been
with him through the weeks and miles and had a pretty good grasp
of what his campaign was about.
Too often campaign reporting is usurped by horse race accounts
of who’s ahead at any snapshot moment. That’s a relatively
easy and deceptive part of the picture.
Which candidates have solid policies and which are waving their
fingers in the wind. I’ll want to get the reporters’ gut
instincts about a candidate’s reliability if he or she
makes it to the Oval Office. I won’t find that on the Internet.