Chasing the Edwards Story
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2004; 8:22 AM
Andrea Mitchell had a Democratic source telling her late Monday night that John Kerry would pick John Edwards as his running mate, but after a conference call with top NBC executives, she decided to hold off.
"The downside of being wrong was just too huge," Mitchell said.
After getting a confirmation, the veteran correspondent broke the story at 7:30 a.m. yesterday on "Today" and MSNBC -- and, unlike the New York Post, she had the virtue of being right. The New York tabloid, in a "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment, splashed on yesterday's front page a dramatic, unsourced, unbylined story declaring that Kerry "has chosen" Dick Gephardt.
Mitchell said she stayed up all night -- "I went home to change and bathe, in the interest of being collegial" -- and started bugging her sources again at 5 a.m. After getting a second confirmation, Mitchell reported at 7 a.m. that Kerry's running mate was "very likely" to be Edwards. By 7:30, following a conversation with a third source, she was reporting it as fact.
"This was pulling teeth," she said. "This was one of the hardest I've ever had to get. Some people I've known for decades wouldn't talk to me."
Fox News Channel's Carl Cameron, who has good relations with Democrats, reported the story 3 1/2 minutes later, and ABC's Linda Douglass about three minutes after that.
The story was especially hard to get, Cameron said, because "a number of Kerry staffers who were given the option of being involved opted out to protect themselves from screw-ups, to avoid a slip of the tongue with people they were living with in the bubble."
He said a Democratic source called him at 7:20 to say Kerry was about to call his choice -- the traditional way that word about such decisions leaks out -- and again minutes later to say it was the North Carolina senator. Kerry made the announcement at a Pittsburgh rally at 9 a.m.
ABC analyst George Stephanopoulos, who worked for Bill Clinton during his 1992 selection of Al Gore, said reporting was difficult this time because "Kerry was so determined to keep it secret that none of the usual suspects would say much."
While he believed that Edwards would get the nod, Stephanopoulos said, "you don't want to be wrong. You don't want to be the New York Post. Until the guy has made up his mind and is making the call, anything can happen."
How could the New York Post have rolled the dice, without even citing an anonymous source, on a story that had such great potential to backfire? Editor-in-Chief Col Allan, who made the decision, wasn't taking calls yesterday, saying in a statement through his publicist, Howard Rubenstein: "We unreservedly apologize to our readers for the mistake."
At the rival Daily News, executives sent the Post a case of cold duck champagne in mocking congratulations, and a bottle of Australian bubbly, inspired by Aussie editor Allan. In an editorial for today's editions, addressing Post owner Rupert Murdoch, the News says of Allan: "We beg you on bended knee to keep him in place. He's just too good, or bad, to be true. ... So what if Allan has again made the Post a national laughingstock. Don't let any of that disturb you, Mr. Murdoch. Allan's prodigious pratfalls and capacity for flouting journalistic conventions are wonders to behold."
The Post's cover was selling for as much as $15 on eBay.
Does anyone outside the media business care who got the jump on a decision that Kerry was about to announce anyway? Probably not. But the networks compete intensely for bragging rights. "We're in the business of breaking news," said a sleepy Mitchell, who broke the news of Dan Quayle's selection by George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Coverage of the Edwards selection was generally upbeat yesterday, which is hardly surprising since some of the pundits had been openly rooting for Edwards and dismissing Gephardt as yesterday's news.
Edwards has "no shortage of charisma," said CBS anchor Harry Smith. CNN's Bill Schneider reminded viewers that Edwards is the "son of a millworker" who "clearly had a common touch," perhaps the party's best communicator since Bill Clinton.
The love affair has been brewing for some time. Back in the spring of 2001, Time anointed Edwards as "The Democrats' New Golden Boy," after People had pronounced him the nation's sexiest politician. The Chicago Sun-Times had said he "may well be the Democratic Party's best hope for 2004."
Edwards, of course, won only one state primary -- South Carolina -- but the final weeks of his campaign were marked by reporters pressing him at every stop on whether he'd agree to be Kerry's running mate. He routinely said he wasn't interested in the vice presidency, or that Kerry would make a good number two for him.
Not all the instant commentary yesterday was laudatory. There was talk about Edwards's trial-lawyer background and lack of foreign policy experience. ABC played a clip of Kerry saying that when he returned from Vietnam in 1969, "I'm not sure John Edwards was out of diapers then yet or not."
"The big question for John Edwards," the Wall Street Journal's John Harwood said on MSNBC, "is going to be answering the question, 'Is he ready to be president?'."
Fox commentator Dick Morris, a former Clinton strategist who has turned on his former boss, said Kerry's choice "is a real threat to Hillary" -- because after two terms Edwards would be well-positioned for an Oval Office run in 2012.
After all the pregame speculation, the choice was hardly a shocker. But by unveiling a relatively fresh face three weeks before the Democratic convention in Boston, Kerry and his strategists hope for a sustained period of high-energy coverage -- including the first pictures of the two men stumping together today.
"They stretched this out," Stephanopoulos said. "They built up the suspense. They want to own July. The vice presidential pick is filling a lot of the political space that used to be filled by the conventions, especially this year, when it looks like they will get less coverage."
Lost in the hullabaloo, but unearthed by the political newsletter Hotline, was a relatively obscure blog that got the scoop at 9:44 Monday night. A poster to USAviation.com noted that on Kerry's 757 in an airplane hangar, "John Edwards vp decals were being put on engine cowlings and upper fuselage."
Now for what the rest of the media world thinks of Edwards. One thing to watch, in the gusher of coverage over the next week, is whether news organizations reprise the same criticisms and attacks they covered during the primaries, since (presumably) more people will now be paying attention than when Edwards was just one of the Democratic nine-pack.
Adam Nagourney of the New York Times says the new running mate "who embodies the very attributes that some Democrats worry that Mr. Kerry lacks: a vigorous campaign presence, an engaging personal manner and a crisp message that stirred Democrats from Iowa to New Hampshire.
"Mr. Kerry even took a risk or two in compensating for his own shortcomings, embracing a trial lawyer who has less governmental experience than any other major vice-presidential candidate in at least 20 years. . . .
It was the move of a candidate who is proving to be methodical, discreet, coolly pragmatic and exceedingly self-assured; one who is so intensely focused on victory as to be presumably unruffled by the unflattering stylistic contrasts that will surely be drawn whenever he and Mr. Edwards share a stage."
Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times sees "a running mate who combines obvious strengths with subtle risks. In many key respects, Kerry's choice of Edwards -- his most effective rival for the Democratic presidential nomination last winter -- was the safe pick. It drew broad support among Democrats and was unlikely to expose Kerry to any significant second-guessing within the party.
"It also minimizes the risk that the presumed vice presidential nominee will make mistakes that hurt the ticket: During his presidential run, Edwards proved himself to be a skilled and at times charismatic performer capable of handling the pressures of the national stage. . . .
"But in other ways, the choice represents a gamble. Kerry has selected a running mate who has made his mark mostly on domestic issues in a year when voters appear to be weighing national security and foreign policy more heavily than in any election since 1980."
Peter Canellos of the Boston Globe reads Kerry's mind:
"The choice of John Edwards as the presumptive vice presidential nominee says more about John F. Kerry than about Edwards.
"It says Kerry is comfortable enough with his own national security experience to select a running mate with little background in foreign policy or defense.
"It says Kerry is sufficiently satisfied with the job that surrogates such as Edward M. Kennedy, Al Gore, Howard Dean, and Moveon.org have done in building a case against President Bush that he can choose a running mate who is not an attack dog.
"It says Kerry believes that working-class voters are a swing constituency across the country and that he needs more help with them than with upscale professionals."
This theme, about Kerry's confidence, also appears in Michael Tackett's Chicago Tribune piece:
"When Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, announced Tuesday that Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina would be his running mate, someone was notably absent: Edwards.
"Kerry had the stage to himself--rare for such an occasion--on a sunny morning in Pittsburgh, and while he talked about the great team that he and Edwards would make, he also underscored, at least in a symbolic sense, that the focus would ultimately be on him and not his No. 2."
The Washington Post's Dan Balz says Kerry "left himself open to criticism that he had passed up candidates with far more experience for someone who lacks a significant legislative or executive record. . . .
"The choice of Edwards suggests that Kerry is secure enough to have picked a running mate widely judged to be the more effective campaigner and confident enough not to fear comparisons.
"The decision also points to the Massachusetts senator's belief that his own foreign policy and national security credentials -- Vietnam War veteran and longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- will be enough to reassure voters of the Democrats' capacity to protect the country in a era of terrorism. With Edwards, he adds an eloquent voice for an entirely different set of issues that Democrats want to push into the forefront of the campaign, including anxiety over the economy and worries about the rising cost of health care."
A long post today, but this is a big deal. Every blogger worth his modem has a view, so let's start with Dan Kennedy, who likes John E. but hasn't exactly drunk the Kool-Aid:
"So it's John Edwards, probably the best of some not-great choices. Edwards proved himself to be by far the most engaging public personality in the Democratic presidential primaries. His biggest problem, of course, was that he couldn't get anybody actually to vote for him."
Oh yeah, that.
"Also, is he going to be willing to rough up his vaunted Mr. Nice Guy image by playing the attack-dog role normally filled by running mates?
"More questions: I know people fell into a catatonic state whenever Dick Gephardt's name came up, but Gephardt might have at least brought Missouri into the Blue Zone. Can Edwards help Kerry win his home state of North Carolina? Probably not.
"Does anyone think the Bush campaign was really worried about running against a trial lawyer last winter? Get ready for a barrage of accusations about how Edwards made his fortune. . . .
"The most telling criticism that Kerry had supposedly murmured about Edwards was that the guy simply isn't experienced or knowledgeable enough to be president. Now, Edwards is no Dan Quayle, but he's no Al Gore, either. How is this going to play in a post-9/11 world?"
Andrew Sullivan gets with the program:
"Well, this is just what I had hoped for - and it's easily the best choice available to Kerry, who now passes his first presidential judgment test. Edwards is uplifting, while Kerry is a downer; he can touch the Democrats' heart, not just their minds and their wallets; he's fresh and youthful in a way that will only contrast sharply with Cheney; he can speak - and we need more in politics who have his kind of rhetorical skill; he's positive, which is important in a rancid political atmosphere.
"Substantively, I don't like his background among the trial lawyers, nor his protectionism. But I've come to think of him as a decent man, who shied from the easy snarl in the primaries, and who believes in this country's promise in ways that some on the left have lost touch with. He's the anti-bitterness candidate. And his presence will change the dynamic."
The New Republic's Noam Scheiber plays defense:
"Maybe the first thing to say about the Edwards selection is that two of the likely criticisms of it are contradictory. On the one hand, critics will complain that Edwards lacks the attack-dog instinct a vice presidential nominee needs, pointing to his softball performance in the primaries once the field winnowed to him and Kerry.
"On the other hand, critics will say Edwards lacks one of the qualities Kerry was ostensibly looking for in a running mate: a lack of political ambition, or at least an ability to suppress one's ambition, something Edwards has appeared incapable of at times.
"What this analysis overlooks is the fact that ambition was the reason Edwards didn't beat Kerry up late in the primaries--that is, Edwards didn't want to hurt his chances of becoming Kerry's running mate. But ambition cuts both ways. And now that Edwards has actually become Kerry's running mate, the best way to serve his ambition--which is either to become vice president, or to become a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008--is to land some blows against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
"I guess you could argue that Edwards might continue pulling his punches during the general election campaign so as not to hurt his chances in 2008. But that wouldn't make any sense. Democratic voters and Democratic power brokers are likely to be forgiving, even welcoming, of a Democratic candidate who doesn't attack other Democrats. They're not likely to be very keen on a Democrat who refuses to attack Republicans. Witness the abuse heaped on Joe Lieberman after his milquetoast debate performance in 2000."
Edwards, it turns out, has visited the New Republic--twice.
Is Edwards a good choice because Kerry is a lousy campaigner? That's the argument being made by Slate's William Saletan:
"Think about this for a minute: He left college, and he volunteered three different ways. First he volunteered for military service. Then he volunteered to serve in Vietnam. And then he volunteered for some of the most dangerous, hazardous duty you could possibly have in Vietnam. As a result, he was wounded multiple times. He won a whole series of medals while he was there. And now -- this is an amazing thing -- a vice president of the United States who avoided service four, five, six times -- I've lost count -- [and] a president of the United States who can't account for a year of his national guard service are attacking John Kerry for the medals he won in Vietnam? You have got to be kidding me.
"That's John Edwards talking about John Kerry at a Florida Democratic Party fund-raiser three weeks ago. This is why Kerry had to pick Edwards: Kerry sounds so much more attractive when Edwards is doing the talking.
"Five months ago, after watching Kerry strut his stuff in New Hampshire -- such as it was -- I warned that Democrats were on the verge of nominating a guy who had plenty of selling points but couldn't make the sale himself. How was this mediocre campaigner attracting voters? The answer, it turned out, was that he wasn't attracting them. It was Kerry's sales force -- Ted Kennedy, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, Iowa's first lady Christie Vilsack, and others -- that was doing this job so well. The problem with this arrangement, I thought, was that the candidate would eventually have to stand and fight alone . . .
"Who was the better candidate? Edwards. That's how I saw it, and plenty of exit polls backed me up. Liberals were voting for Kerry because they thought he was electable."
The Nation's John Nichols may have a bit of news, though he doesn't attribute it:
"Kerry wasn't ready, or willing, to embrace Edwards any sooner than he did. It was no secret that Kerry thought of Edwards as something of a hot dog, a first-term senator who entered politics as a mid-life career change and still seemed to be a bit better at delivering a stump speech than at sorting through the details of public policy. Kerry, a four-term senator, was more comfortable with another Washington insider, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. But Gephardt inspired less enthusiasm than Kerry. Eventually, even Gephardt acknowledged as much; in a conversation several days ago, the Missourian quietly released Kerry to select Edwards."
National Review's Byron York sees the wrong man for these times:
"For several months during the Democratic-primary season, the political chattering class swooned over Sen. John Edwards's 'Two Americas' speech. But the speech -- which may have been the single most important factor in earning Edwards a spot on the Democratic ticket -- was carefully crafted to win the support of the Democratic core voters who dominate state primaries. Now, in a general election, the speech -- and the man who delivered it -- may come to be seen more as a good performance, and the work of an able politician, but an unsatisfactory answer to the problems facing America at this moment.
"Perhaps the most notable thing about 'Two Americas,' at least as it delivered from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina and beyond, was that it said nothing -- literally nothing -- about the issue of terrorism. Nor did the speech cover the war in Iraq, which Edwards voted to authorize. Nor, for that matter, did it discuss foreign affairs in general. In fact, the only mention of foreign issues in 'Two Americas' was Edwards's promise to restore America's image in the world to 'the image we used to have, America as the shining light on top of the hill, beacon of freedom, democracy, human rights.'"
By the way, how did the New York Post deal with yesterday's front-page, Gephardt-is-the-man blooper? With a clause in the sixth paragraph of today's story:
"Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) -- whom The Post incorrectly reported yesterday would be tapped as Kerry's running mate -- and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack were among others known to be under consideration."
Nothing like setting the record straight.
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