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Minding Our Business

 

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 other.

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 policy.

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 win reelection.

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.

 
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The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.


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