Press glare vs. bosses in screening candidates

Is the fall of Gary Hart and Joseph Biden as presidential candidates the result of an unfair and overly aggressive press corps? Or is America seeing a new presidential-candidate screening process - a process once accomplished by powerful party bosses but now left to the media? When former Sen. Gary Hart in May pulled out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, many of his supporters and others cried foul. They believed that the press corps had played unfairly. Similarly, in the wake of damaging press accounts of Senator Biden's plagiarism and exaggeration of his academic achievements, critics of the press again are saying that something is wrong with the process.

Political consultant John Sears has a different perspective.

``You know, 20 or 25 years ago, when the nomination system was different, ... the press probably didn't have to play as active a role as it does today because a lot of people who might think of running for president were really screened out by the party leaders.

``Today there really are no party leaders,'' Mr. Sears continued yesterday at a breakfast with reporters. ``There are no guys who can take you in a back room and get real answers out of you. If there are weaknesses in your candidacy or personal things about you that might be difficult if you were to run for president, there is no group of people who can sit you down and say `Well, unless that is solved ... we can't support you.'''

Senator Biden got into trouble, according to Sears, because there wasn't enough happening in his candidacy to counterbalance the negative press.

``If Biden had been out here painting a picture of what ought to happen with this country that we all felt comfortable about, we wouldn't care very much whether he plagiarized something in law school.''

``That is in part true,'' says political consultant Matt Reese, chairman of Reese Communications, ``but I don't agree that we would have ignored it. ... It becomes an overwhelming part of the total picture of the man. ... I don't blame the press for reporting it.''

Sears says that despite the problems associated with the old ``smoke-filled room'' style of politics, it had its advantages. The old party leaders really knew the candidates ``without their media consultants around'' and made up their minds based on personal knowledge of the candidates and where they were likely to lead the country.

Sears thinks that the press is taking over the old obligation of the party bosses.

Frank Lavin, director of the White House political affairs office, agrees that the parties do not filter candidates like they used to. ``They still select, but it is really ideologically'' and in the ``professionalism of the campaign. The character screen doesn't necessarily come out during the primary process.''

According to Mr. Lavin, ``There is no question that the media has led that part of the discovery process.''

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