Strange Bedfellow

Dole vs. the Times

Why is he wasting his final days in a feud with a single newspaper?

For several weeks now, pundits have debated how Bob Dole would exit the stage. Would he depart on a negative note about his opponent or a positive one about himself? Would he leave with anger or with humor? In the past several days, the issue has been settled. Dole, it appears, will end his political career raging against the New York Times.

Dole’s spat with the gray lady went public on Thursday, Oct. 24. In New Orleans, Dole charged the paper with ignoring a story about a Miami drug dealer who got invited to the White House. “This is a disgrace,” Dole insisted. “I doubt if you even read it in the New York Times. They probably put it in the want ads. They don’t put any anti-Clinton stories in the New York Times. Only anti-Dole stories in the New York Times.” Dole repeated his attack for the next five days. “We are not going to let the media steal this election,” he told a crowd in Dallas on Friday. “This country belongs to the people, not the New York Times.” On Saturday, in Visalia, Calif., he added, “I know that with a crowd this size, the New York Times will write not many people showed up, but the other papers will get it right.”

On Sunday (the day the Times endorsed Clinton), Dole called the paper “the apologist for President Clinton for the last four years and an arm of the Democratic National Committee.” In a CNN interview broadcast Monday, Dole said the Times “might as well be part of the Democratic Party. … They hammer us on a daily basis. We make a major speech, they bury it back on section D. They put a front-page story that, well, Bob Dole and Jack Kemp didn’t get along together 12 years ago.” On Tuesday, Dole was still at it, referring to the 28 words of the 10th Amendment, and quipping, “That’s about what I got in the New York Times today.”

The Times has reacted to this assault by highhandedly quoting everything and explaining none of it, leaving its readers baffled as to why the Republican nominee is so upset at the paper. In fact, Dole’s fury at the Times is hardly news to those who work at the paper. According to Katharine Seelye, who has covered Dole since the beginning of his campaign, the complaints date from December 1995, when Dole staff members first protested that she had misunderstood the candidate’s position on abortion. The real bitterness, however, began in May, when the paper played what Dole aides billed as a major address about welfare on Page 19 of the business section. Since then, campaign honchos have peppered the paper’s reporters and editors with constant phone calls and letters complaining about unfair treatment.

Reporters traveling with Dole caught a glimpse of the enmity Oct. 9, when Nelson Warfield, Dole’s press secretary, staged a public confrontation with Seelye. The candidate, Warfield told reporters waiting to board the campaign plane, had just come from an appearance on G. Gordon Liddy’s radio show. Why, Seelye asked, weren’t reporters told about the appearance in advance? According to reporters present, Warfield snapped that it wouldn’t make any difference because the Times would get the story wrong anyway. Then, on the plane, Warfield walked back to the press section and grandly served Seelye with a copy of a letter from Communications Director John Buckley to her boss, Times Washington Editor Andrew Rosenthal.

That letter, which has fallen into the hands of Slate, protests Seelye’s coverage of a speech the previous day. Dole, in New Jersey, had talked about Clinton being AWOL in the drug war. “Where has he been for four years? How many hundreds of thousands of young people started drugs?” Dole said. “Three million have started smoking while he was playing around with smoking and all this stuff finally in an election year.” Seelye’s front-page story reported that “Mr. Dole accused the President of ‘playing around’ while the drug war raged out of control.” Buckley complains that the story “could lead the reader to believe that Dole was talking about a very different kind of ‘playing around’–something he did not say, and something he would not say.” The letter continues: “Since May, I have been pointing out to you a problem we see with the accuracy and understanding of context revealed in Kit’s reporting,” going on to assert that “Seelye has misquoted Dole on numerous occasions and done so in a manner that distorted the accuracy of her assertions and your coverage.”

N o Dole staff would be quoted by name for this story, but speaking on background, a senior campaign official elaborated upon the complaint. “They’ve just done a miserable job throughout this campaign,” the official said. “The coverage of Dole has been excessively bitchy from day one, in addition to having a number of extraordinary factual problems.” With Seelye, the official says, the problem is “not being able to transcribe a tape accurately.” With Adam Nagourney, the Times’ other reporter covering Dole full time since the summer, “the problem is an incredible focus on the little picture as opposed to the big picture.” As an example, the official cites a September story in which Nagourney lumped together Dole’s fall from a platform in Chico, Calif., and his mistaken reference to the “Brooklyn” Dodgers as “a rough stretch of politicking.” Other than those two episodes, the official says, Dole actually had a great week. The campaign’s complaint extends to unequal treatment–a nine-part series on Clinton’s record, which the official describes as “the softest portrait since they invented black velvet”–and the Times perpetually underestimating the size of Dole crowds. “Clinton even gets better photographs,” the official contends.

Rosenthal, who has direct responsibility for campaign coverage at the Times, professes bewilderment at these complaints. “We don’t make editorial judgments based on disposition to be tough on Bob Dole or nice to Bob Dole,” he says. On the specifics, Rosenthal says that the Times ran an editor’s note acknowledging that it shouldn’t have truncated the “playing around” quote. He points out that the Times ran its story on the Miami drug dealer who visited the White House the same day Dole accused the paper of not covering it. As for the nine-part series on Clinton, Rosenthal says it is the long-standing practice of the paper to do a lengthy series on the incumbent’s record. “If Dole wins and runs again in 2000, he will get nine-part series too,” he says.

Ithink we have been tough on him,” Seelye says. This stems, however, not from any bias, she says, but from the campaign’s own internal problems. Dole’s campaign has been especially “porous,” with aides emulating the proverbial seafaring rats. This is true enough–in recent days ex-strategist Don Sipple has trashed the campaign on the record. But there’s another point, too. Contrary to Buckley’s charge that she misquotes Dole, Seelye routinely makes Dole look ridiculous by quoting him all too accurately, depicting him in what one colleague calls a “cinema verité” style. Famous for going over and over her tape recordings on the campaign plane, Seelye manages to get every Dole mumble, repetition, and verbal miscue down. For instance, in her Oct. 26 story reporting Dole’s attack on the Times, Seelye writes:

“In Phoenix on Friday night, he had a delightful time drawing out his vowels as he described financial contributions to the Clinton campaign. “From Indoneeesia,” he said. “Yeah. From INdiaaaaah. Some fellow named Gandhi out there. He owes $10,000 in back taxes, but he found $300,000 to give to the Clinton campaign. And now Gandhi is gaaaawn. Gaaaaandhi, gone gone gone. They can’t find him.”

Two days later, she quoted Dole in another story: “They’ve turned the White House into something else, I don’t know what it is. It’s the animal house! It’s the animal house!” Most reporters would write, Bob Dole yesterday compared the White House to an “animal house,” sparing the exclamation points, and making him sound at least compos mentis.

But though unflattering, Seelye’s Mametizing of Bob Dole can hardly be called unfair. It is not as if the Times cleans up Clinton’s quotes; the president simply observes the rules of syntax most of the time. Something similar may be happening with the pictures. After four years, Clinton has learned how to avoid looking unpresidential. He no longer allows himself to be photographed wearing too-short running shorts, and he avoids pulling faces in public. Dole, who is simply less photogenic, is an easier victim for picture editors–who, like their editorial counterparts, have a strong bias against dullness. Take, for instance, the two pictures shown above. The front-page picture the Times ran the day after the second presidential debate does make Dole look like a decomposing monster. But unlike the picture in the Washington Post the same day, it captures the spirit of the event, with Dole grimly taking the offensive and Clinton watching warily but standing aside from the attacks.

Dole sounds absurd when he alleges that the paper that broke Whitewater and the story of the first lady’s commodities trades has not been aggressive in pursuing Clinton scandals. All sorts of potential Dole scandals have been soft-pedaled by the media, including the Times, because he is so far behind. It’s true that coverage of Clinton on the campaign trail has been somewhat softer than the coverage of Dole, as even other Times reporters acknowledge. But the explanation is institutional, not ideological. The press, as many have complained, overemphasizes the “horse race” aspect of politics. As a side effect of that disease, reporters have excessive respect for a well-run campaign. (In 1988, Republican George Bush benefited from this phenomenon.) A cruder reality is that reporters need to have a relationship with Clinton after Tuesday.

None of these factors, though, is unique to the Times. So why is Dole singling it out? Dole’s attacks on the Times have the appearance of being an exercise in populist demagogy. In one of his great cue-card reading remarks, Dole tried to explain his recent attacks on CNN the other night by saying, “I like the media. They don’t like them in the South.” But this pat explanation doesn’t entirely make sense. Red meat for right-wing crowds doesn’t help Dole with the centrist voters he would need to turn around in order to make the miraculous happen. And in fact, according to a senior Dole aide, the attacks are heartfelt on the candidate’s part. Dole has been going after the Times over the objections of advisers who have been telling him there’s no percentage in picking fights with the press.

But if Dole is attacking the Times because he is truly furious and not because he thinks it will help him get elected, what is he so angry about? The answer, I think, is that there has always been a Nixonian streak in Bob Dole, by which I mean a part of him which feels shut out of the closed circle of the Eastern establishment. At the Republican convention, Dole blasted the Clinton administration as a “corps of the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered, and never learned.” That phrase recalled an attack he made on the press long ago, in the days of Watergate, when he accused the Washington Post of being in bed with George McGovern. “There is a cultural and social affinity between the McGovernites and the Post executives and editors,” Dole said then. “They belong to the same elite: They can be found living cheek-by-jowl in the same exclusive chic neighborhoods, and hob-nobbing at the same Georgetown parties.” The deeper story here isn’t whether Dole was wrongly shunted onto D19 when he ought to have been on A1. It’s his feelings, as he says goodbye to politics, about the people who get to decide.