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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Making of a Non-President

Behind the Scenes With The Kerry Campaign

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2004; Page C01

Teresa Heinz Kerry hardly suffered from a lack of media attention during the presidential campaign.

But if a lengthy, behind-the-scenes Newsweek piece is on the mark, press accounts failed to reflect the degree to which she was a disruptive force in her husband's campaign who often looked "sullen," was deemed a "hypochondriac" by the staff and had a knack for "silencing a cheering crowd."

On an August Grand Canyon hike with daughter Vanessa, center, and wife Teresa, John Kerry tried to show a happy family. But Teresa was "sullen" and "complaining of migraines," according to Newsweek. (Jack Kurtz -- Arizona Republic Via AP)

_____More Media Notes_____
Let the Explaining Begin! (The Washington Post, Nov 8, 2004)
They Don't Declare: The Vote-Callers Who Lost Their Voice (The Washington Post, Nov 4, 2004)
TV News Plays It Safe, Up to a Point (The Washington Post, Nov 3, 2004)
Campaign '04, Bar Trivia '05 (The Washington Post, Nov 1, 2004)
As the Debates Went, So Went Coverage of the President (The Washington Post, Oct 27, 2004)
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More Discussions

"On the campaign bus," Newsweek reports, "there had been constant talk of marital spats between the candidate and his wife. . . . Though they kept Teresa's sometimes erratic behavior out of their copy, when they were speaking among themselves . . . the reporters were increasingly vocal in mocking the candidate's wife."

It is difficult for daily journalists covering a candidate to report on the personal travails and staff infighting that envelop most campaigns. Some reporters who traveled with John Kerry said these stories are hard to pin down because campaign officials refused to discuss such details on the record. Others said it was risky to write stories that would alienate not just the candidate but the staffers on whom reporters depend for news.

"There were hints in the daily coverage that Kerry had problems with being decisive and Teresa was not completely helpful," says Evan Thomas, who wrote the Newsweek article. "But I don't think anybody tried to step back and look at the pattern of it. The press has gotten so consumed with the day-to-day that they've forgotten about or become uninterested in the whole Teddy White approach to reconstruction."

But Chicago Tribune correspondent Jill Zuckman says: "A lot of these things just don't happen in plain view of reporters. And few people within the campaign were willing or able to discuss the state of the candidate's marriage. The only thing that was apparent was that Senator Kerry's wife tended to put crowds to sleep while speaking, and I think that was captured in the profiles written about her."

Newsweek (which is owned by The Washington Post Co.) got special access for seven reporters segregated from its regular coverage by promising not to publish the article -- part of a forthcoming book -- until after Election Day. President Bush's campaign granted less access and periodically booted Newsweek staffers from its Arlington headquarters, once for reporting on an off-the-record campaign party.

Among the magazine's findings:

• Kerry was both "cranky" and more indecisive than he was portrayed by the media. "I couldn't get the man to make decisions," said former campaign manager Jim Jordan. As late as days before the Democratic convention, Kerry was still "dithering" and presiding over endless discussions on whether to abandon public financing for the fall campaign before deciding against private fundraising. Top aides grew so tired of Kerry continuing to seek advice on issues they considered settled that they took away his cell phone.

• Kerry "never did learn how to deliver a speech" and was privately counseled by Washington speech coach Michael Sheehan on shifting to "a more conversational style." Ted Kennedy told Kerry he used "too much Senatese," and the candidate's daughter, Alexandra, tried to get Steven Spielberg to intervene. Kerry would cross out his speechwriters' most pithy lines as too "slogany."

• Teresa Kerry was a major "distraction" who "demanded everyone's attention, including her husband's." During the primaries she told Jordan: "I want you to issue a challenge for me to debate Howard Dean." On a Grand Canyon hike meant to provide footage of a happy family vacation, "Teresa was soon complaining of migraines" as the candidate kept pulling along "his sullen wife and children." Later, Kerry confidant John Sasso told her that she was being too critical of her husband and depressing his spirits. Reporters said last week that the billionaire heiress was banished to travel on her own before they could write about her impact.

• By the fall, Kerry was "unhappy" with senior advisers Robert Shrum and Tad Devine and "annoyed" with communications director Stephanie Cutter, described as too slow-moving and the target of frequent complaints by the traveling press corps. Several Kerry aides call the depiction of Cutter unfair, with senior adviser Joe Lockhart saying: "She had a Herculean task and overall did a very good job."

In early September, CNN commentator James Carville said in a meeting with campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and the newly hired Lockhart that if Cahill didn't give Lockhart effective control of the operation, the ragin' Cajun would go on "Meet the Press" the next day "and tell the truth about how bad it is." And when Lockhart, the former Clinton White House spokesman, began controlling the campaign's message, longtime Kerry loyalists complained that he and other Clinton veterans were "burnishing their reputations" by taking credit in the press for the campaign's positive moves. Such criticism about leaks nearly prompted Lockhart to quit within days.

Both campaigns are disputing some details. Kerry aides say Cutter never grabbed a shotgun and dramatically aimed it at the sky during a Kerry skeet-shooting event in Iowa. Steve Schmidt, the Bush camp's rapid-response chief, has told Newsweek he never dubbed himself Patton, as the magazine reported, or marched through the halls yelling "Kill! Kill! Kill!"

Kerry press secretary David Wade says he doesn't recognize the portrait of his boss: "Having been written off twice, during the primaries and after the Republican convention, we battled back and came within 60,000 votes of winning the presidency." Had Kerry prevailed, Wade says, the piece would have chronicled "how we did everything brilliantly."

Or would it? Thomas recalls chatting with Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker as exit polls pointed to a Kerry victory. "We just laughed and said, 'Oh my God, we have this piece that says the Kerry campaign was pretty badly run. What if he wins?' We just sort of shrugged."

High-Speed Rescue

It was shortly before 11 p.m. Wednesday -- while Ted Koppel was home in Potomac -- that the world learned of Yasser Arafat's death.

"Nightline" began at 11:35 with an introduction using footage from the battle for Fallujah -- but then Koppel's voice was heard, from what was clearly a phone call, saying: "Yasser Arafat has died. . . . Here's a background report on the Palestinian leader's life and times." The anchor, meanwhile, had raced in to ABC's downtown Washington bureau, undoubtedly testing the speed limit, and was in the chair a few minutes after the show began to introduce previously taped pieces about Arafat's passing. Fallujah was history.

"You don't want to put a show in the can saying 'he's dead' and just run it," says executive producer Leroy Sievers. "To turn something around that fast, we felt pretty good about it."

Friendly Fire

Miami Herald columnist and novelist Carl Hiaasen gives his paper, and parent company Knight Ridder, a dose of reality therapy:

"Anyone who can look you in the eye and tell you the Miami Herald of 2004 is as good as it was in 1984 is out of their skull. It's palpable, the difference is palpable," he tells Miami New Times.

"I don't blame the Herald. I blame Knight Ridder. There's plenty of good talent there, plenty of good editors, all the ingredients. But when you're not in charge of the money, when you're getting memos that say 'cut here, cut there,' you're screwed. Short of quitting, what do you do? It's amazing what they still do given how the budget has shrunk, the staff has shrunk, the news hole has shrunk. But it's really silly pretending it's the same paper it used to be."

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