Why Perot Sidesteps The Reporters
NOW that I no longer go charging all over the country as a political correspondent covering presidential candidates, I am particularly grateful that Ross Perot is spending so much time on television. And as I sit there watching this fascinating Texan, who has come out of nowhere to, in some polls, lead the field, I feel I'm getting a fix on the real Perot - as much so as if I were a newsman trailing his every step.
Perot has this ability to come into your living room and in a very homey, friendly way have a little chat with you. His spokesman, James Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, assures us it's Ross Perot just being Ross Perot - "live, if possible, and undistorted." And if I'm really seeing a distorted Perot image, contrived for TV to help get him elected - well, he's got me fooled.
We have here a presidential candidate who is going over the heads of the print journalists and moving into our living rooms via TV. By so doing he's relegating print journalists to a subordinate role. And to a degree we have earned this treatment.
Too often over the years reporters on the campaign trail become partisans. I vividly recall the newsmen dogging the steps of John Kennedy in 1960. Many loved Kennedy, detested Richard Nixon. There were their stories, told on the campaign plane, of Nixon's failings and embarrassments. And there were their anti-Nixon songs.
No doubt about it: Kennedy was very likable, always one of the fellows, while Nixon simply didn't have a warm personality. But I never understood this openly expressed partisanship. Did this attitude creep into the reporters' articles about the candidates? I'm sure that the Nixon people thought so.
During the 1968 campaign, I detected some bias against George Romney, too, in the way many reporters wrote of his admission that his faulty assessment of how the Vietnam War was going stemmed from false information the US brass had given him when he visited the war zone.
He said he had been "brainwashed." The stories that followed made him out to be a gullible fool - and ended his hopes of winning the GOP presidential nomination.
Those stories could well have taken another line: that a presidential candidate had been lied to by our military. But they didn't. Romney also was the object of a lot of ridicule among members of the press who, it seemed, felt he was a prude and a lightweight. Only a few reporters wrote that Romney had simply told the truth.
Jimmy Carter, too, received his share of taunting from the press corps. Carter's deep and often expressed religious beliefs evoked sarcastic comments. His teaching Sunday school, his talk of being "reborn," his advocacy of marriage, and the like often sparked hoots among those on the press plane.
Did this attitude affect their stories? I thought so, at times, although reporters generally rather liked Carter.
Jerry Ford's image was certainly distorted by reporters. Remember how they played up his slight stumble as he debarked from his plane in Brussels, and, later, when he fell on the ski slopes at Vail? The story line could have been that a well-coordinated athlete and former all-Big Ten football player had, because of a bad knee resulting from those football days, taken a near-fall and some spills.
Instead, some members of the press, who had obviously made up their minds that Mr. Ford was lacking in intelligence (despite his finishing in the upper one-third of his Yale Law School class) gleefully used these incidents to reinforce the "Jerry-the-bumbler" image that got its start when Congressman (and later Speaker) Tip O'Neill said of the new president, quite unfairly, "He can't walk and chew gum at the same time."
Now, most of the press coverage of presidential candidates that I have witnessed over the years has been superb, produced by hard-working, conscientious professionals who for the most part are objective - or try to be objective.
But their reporting sometimes gets skewed by their feelings about the candidates. And the public senses this distortion. That's part of the anti-press feeling that shows up in the polls. That's why the voters welcome a real Ross Perot - not a Ross Perot who has been shaped and misshaped by the print journalists - spending so much time with them in their living rooms.