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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Kerry's Troubled Campaign

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2004; 8:56 AM

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."

_____More Media Notes_____
Whither John Kerry? (washingtonpost.com, Nov 12, 2004)
What Did Bush Win? (The Washington Post, Nov 11, 2004)
The Specter of GOP Warfare (washingtonpost.com, Nov 10, 2004)
Clinical Depression (washingtonpost.com, Nov 9, 2004)
Democratic Burial Rites (washingtonpost.com, Nov 8, 2004)
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"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."

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."

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."

Ryan Lizza does some good digging into the Kerry campaign for this New Republic post-mortem:

"The largest caucus of recriminators, one that spans ideological boundaries and includes critics from every corner of the party, argues that Kerry failed to offer a compelling message. As Kerry seemed to realize in his speech Saturday night, the no-message critique is congealing into conventional wisdom. I heard it in every conceivable permutation from almost everyone I interviewed. 'I don't know that we ever knew what it was we were saying about George W. Bush,' says one senior member of the team, whose job it was to come up with a message about Bush.

"It was a problem that plagued the campaign as soon as they stumbled, penniless, from the primaries into the general election. 'When we got into the general, nobody knew how to go against Bush,' says a senior campaign official. '[Senior adviser Bob] Shrum and [pollster Mark] Mellman built this strategy against Bush, 'Stronger at home, respected in the world.' What does that mean? We never even had strategy memos.' By the fall, things were no better. 'If there was a clear message in September about why you elect Kerry and defeat Bush, most of the people in the campaign were unaware of it,' says one senior strategist hired late in the campaign.

"The lack of message clarity hurt morale and sapped support for Kerry among his own people. 'One thing I would always tell people is that I don't know [manure] about John Kerry,' says a campaign official. 'I had an opportunity to work on his campaign last December and I said, "Well, I don't really know that guy." I still don't. I don't know what he stood for, other than an alternative to George Bush.' That Kerry lacked a clear message isn't just a convenient postelection critique. It was a mantra during the campaign. Says a junior staffer, 'I remember one day [Joe] Lockhart saying, after watching the evening news, 'We have no message.'' It didn't help that the Bush team was extremely effective in pushing its own message. 'I don't think we ever came up with a frame to define Bush in the way they did with Kerry,' says a senior official. 'They woke up every day and said, "We're going to call John Kerry a flip-flopper." We did not wake up every day and call Bush X.

"

We never gave voters a positive reason to vote for Kerry.'"

The Boston Globe begins its big what-went-wrong extravaganza this way:

"On the afternoon of Aug. 9, John F. Kerry stood on the lip of the Grand Canyon, about to make one of the biggest mistakes of his three-year quest for the presidency. A stiff wind was blowing across the canyon, and Kerry, whose hearing was damaged by gun blasts in Vietnam, had trouble understanding some of the questions being thrown his way. But he pressed on, coughing from the pollen blowing on the breeze.

"Would Kerry have voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, one reporter asked, even if he knew then that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction? 'Yes, I would have voted for the authority; I believe it's the right authority for a president to have,' Kerry replied, as aides stood by, dumbfounded. . . .

"Back in Washington, the Bush campaign pounced: Kerry now agrees with the president! Bush media strategist Mark McKinnon crowed about Kerry's 'forced error,' while the president repeated Kerry's answer over and over on the campaign trail and the GOP later advertised the Democrat's varied Iraq statements. 'How can John Kerry protect us,' the narrator in those ads intoned, 'when he doesn't even know where he stands?'

"Now, as Kerry campaign strategists try to fathom his Nov. 2 loss, one word emerges out of the rubble: war. History suggested the difficulties of beating a wartime president, even one with a job approval rating under 50 percent. But Kerry's own tortured relationship to war, dating to his youth, enabled the GOP to portray him as weak and inconsistent."

Time's Joe Klein sees broader problems for the Dems:

"Having written my first 'Whither The Democrats?' piece more than 20 years ago and followed it with too many other withering rants about the donkeys, I have little appetite this time to do it again. After all, the Democrats took flagrantly responsible stands on the two most important issues of the election: in favor of muscular multilateralism abroad and fiscal responsibility at home.

"John Kerry ran an honorable, if not entirely competent campaign, while the Republicans skimmed the outskirts of the acceptable with their nonstop negativity. And why give ammunition to oleaginous telecharlatans, like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who have been puffing all over the airwaves since Nov. 2 demanding their pound of policy flesh?

"And yet . . . The Democrats do have a problem. It was partly illuminated by the exit polling, in which 22% of respondents said they voted, primarily, on 'moral values,' and was reinforced by a subsequent Pew Research poll, in which the number rose to 27%...

"Nuance surfing and windsurfing and Kerry's diffidence about his faith were as damaging to Democrats as homosexuality and abortion. But blaming Kerry avoids the real dilemma. The Democrats have lost a good slice of less educated, less wealthy white Protestant and Catholic voters. Their economic issues are not nearly as compelling as the Republicans' religious appeal."

David Broder rarely takes on a fellow pundit, but here the Washington Post columnist does exactly that:

"Some of my colleagues in the pundit business have become unhinged by the election results. The always diverting Maureen Dowd of the New York Times suggested the other day that 'the forces of darkness' are taking over the country. The voters' confirmation of Republican-led government brings with it 'a scary, paranoid, regressive reality,' Dowd said, with 'strains of isolationism, nativism, chauvinism, puritanism and religious fanaticism.' After a campaign of 'blatant distortions and character assassination,' Republicans have returned to Washington bent on 'messing with our psyches' and punishing 'society's most vulnerable: the poor, the sick, the sexually different.'

"I know that many agree with that view. But before throwing yourself over a cliff or emigrating to Sweden, consider a couple of things.

"George W. Bush was reelected by 51 percent of the people. His first significant action following Election Day was to retain Andrew Card, a Massachusetts-based business moderate, as his chief of staff. His second was to accept the resignation of John Ashcroft, the hero of the religious right and the favorite bogeyman of civil libertarians, as attorney general."

Will anyone out there say something nice about Kerry? The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last gives it a shot:

"So it's come to his: I'm John Kerry's last defender.

"Did John Kerry run a poor campaign? Yes. Kerry never articulated where he stood on Iraq or, more importantly, how--exactly--he would be tougher than Bush in the war on terror. Every other issue--from taxes to gay marriage--is frosting. Had Kerry emulated John McCain's handling of his Vietnam record, taken a single position on Iraq, and come up with a single, detailed plan for combating terrorism, he might have won.

"Was Kerry a bad candidate? No. I have to assume that many of these critics never actually followed the candidate around, because close-up, Kerry was a pretty good candidate. I saw Kerry blow away crowds in New Hampshire. He gave a very good convention speech. He was excellent in the first presidential debate (but for the 'global test' line, which haunted him afterwards). His day-to-day performance on the stump was also very fine--I saw him handle tough questions from voters with aplomb; and when he was interacting with a crowd, his rich and haughty caricature disappeared completely.

"And let's not forget his résumé: Volunteered for service in Vietnam, saw combat, served as a prosecutor and then for two decades as a United States senator. In many ways, Kerry was a better candidate than Bush.

"Was there a better Democrat in the field? Maybe. Dick Gephardt would have been a formidable opponent for President Bush--and perhaps a better candidate than Kerry. But he's about it. Joe Lieberman had a better chance of winning the Republican nomination. Howard Dean would have been an unmitigated disaster. Ditto the not-ready-for-prime-time Wesley Clark, and the oddball Sharpton/Kucinich show.

"And how about that John Edwards? If his performance as a vice presidential candidate is any indication, he might have been as bad for the Democrats as Dean. Edwards's only electoral victory came in his 1998 Senate race against a 70-year-old first-term senator. Then he lost every presidential primary save South Carolina, delivered a disappointing convention speech, was beaten in the vice presidential debate, and was an ineffective campaigner for Kerry down the stretch. His supposed strength was that he could connect with Southerners, but forget carrying his home state: Edwards couldn't even carry his home precinct. Never has so large a reputation been created by so little actual success."

Faint praise, perhaps, but better than what Kerry has been getting from the liberals.


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