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The plot shifts
Kerry’s chain of victories has become old news. Now he’s got to define himself before the Republicans — and the media — do it for him.

BY NOW THE story has played out. It was a great one-month drama, but it’s over. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s stunning fall. Massachusetts senator John Kerry’s astounding rise. For aficionados of political theater, it doesn’t get any better. But on Tuesday night, it was obvious that, for the media, it had all gotten just a little bit stale.

After all, what, really, had changed? Kerry once again had won pretty convincingly, taking five of the seven states that held primaries or caucuses on Mini Super Tuesday, Super Tuesday I, or whatever you want to call it. Dean once again was shut out, only to pop up on the cable news shows to proclaim, as he did to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, that "we’re in this for the long haul," and that he was the superior alternative to "a senator who sits on a committee and doesn’t actually produce." And North Carolina senator John Edwards once again did just well enough to forestall anyone from looking up that do-not-resuscitate order. Edwards won his native South Carolina and came in a close second in Oklahoma, behind Retired General Wesley Clark.

"No candidate in modern times has passed so many early tests and lost the nomination," wrote Todd Purdum of Kerry in Wednesday’s New York Times. The Washington Post’s John Harris added that "by any measure — delegates, poll ratings in key states or fund-raising potential — Kerry remains in command of the race, and he is well-positioned to walk away with it by the end of this month."

So now we move on to the next phase. Yes, the pundits want to cover their asses; they still haven’t forgotten how utterly they had failed to predict Dean’s collapse. But barring some unimaginable catastrophe befalling the Kerry campaign, it now looks like Super Tuesday — March 2, when California, New York, Massachusetts, and a bunch of other states choose a third of the delegates — will be little more than the fulfillment of a foregone conclusion. Edwards, Dean, and Clark will trudge on, at least for a while. So will Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich and the Reverend Al Sharpton, the candidates who are running for something other than victory. Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman got off the bus Tuesday night, but does anyone care?

"Every election year has one great story. This one’s got two so far: the rise and fall of Howard Dean and the fall and rise of John Kerry," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. "We’ll be studying this for a long time."

Though Sabato believes Dean is largely responsible for his fate, thanks to his unfortunate remarks about Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and his expressed desire to reach out to Southern Confederate-flag-wavers, he doesn’t discount the notion — passionately argued by the Deaniacs — that the media had plenty to do with it, too.

"I talk with a lot of reporters, and they don’t like Dean," Sabato says. "I can’t tell you, over the last six months, how many of them said to me, ‘I can’t stand him, he’s really an asshole, he’s nasty to me, he growled at my cameraman.’" And as we’ve seen with the media over and over again (just ask Al Gore), they always hurt the one they really hate.

Now it’s Kerry’s turn. Again. During his brief period of front-runnerdom before Dean’s rise, he was hammered over such idiotic stories as his expensive haircuts and his taste in cheese-steaks (see "Media," This Just In, page 7). Though much of the coverage since his comeback has been respectful, the Great Botox Scandal (did he or didn’t he?) suggests what’s likely to come next. The press can’t seem to stop itself: the superficial trumps the substantive every time.

Even a generally sympathetic reporter such as the New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch seems compelled to observe (as he does in the current issue) that Kerry’s "long, angular face has something of the abstraction of a tribal mask," with no moving parts except for his mouth; that his features are "stark and exaggerated"; that his eyes are "astonishingly small"; and that he is "the stiffest candidate in a generally humorless Democratic-primary field."

For Kerry, it is going to be — hell, it already has been — a very long campaign.

IF PAST is prologue — and it generally is — then the manner in which the campaign has been covered so far does not bode well. Earlier this week, Mediachannel.org released a study showing that, in January, the three major broadcast networks "devoted less than 5 percent of their coverage of the Democratic campaigns to reporting the candidates’ positions on the five election issues that Americans say matter the most" — the economy, terrorism, health care, education, and taxes. The study, conducted by a New York City–based organization called Media Tenor, also showed that the networks virtually ignored the candidacies of Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich.

Now, I’ve got some quibbles with the premises underlying the study. For one thing, the major Democratic candidates were all generally supportive of, say, extending health care to the 43 million Americans who are uninsured, and opposed (except for Lieberman and Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt) to George W. Bush’s unilateral war-mongering in Iraq. Should we really expect to be shown reams of fine print when we opt to spend a half-hour with Peter, Dan, or Tom? Also, in a large field (nine until recently), the media can be forgiven for focusing on those candidates who might have some actual chance of winning. Still, the overall point of the study — that the broadcast media’s coverage of the Democratic campaign has been superficial and uninformative — is beyond dispute.

Indeed, Mediachannel.org executive director Timothy Karr is right on target when he lambastes the way the media stereotype candidates, with Dean cast as the "unwinnable, crazed outsider," Kerry as "aloof," and Edwards as the "simple populist." And surely, he suggests, the networks could have played the Dean scream just a few less times in order to squeeze in some coverage of the issues.

As for Kucinich and Sharpton — well, they’ve been running national campaigns, and until Iowa and New Hampshire, no one had actually voted on whether they should be considered serious candidates or not. "I think that in the early running of the presidential campaign, they should be given more equal coverage," Karr argues. "You let the voters decide."

I’ve got my doubts, but Karr’s got a point. After all, Dean was covered obsessively for months. Today he seems only slightly more likely to be elected president than Kucinich, who, despite being virtually ignored by the media, has a coherent message, devoted followers, and a plan to bring as many delegates as he can to the Democratic National Convention. Kucinich’s story, like Sharpton’s, is about influencing the party rather than winning or losing. The media should have done — and still should do — a better job of telling that story.

Another critic of campaign coverage is Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School, who has been studying the relationship between how the media cover politics and declining voter participation for the past several years; he is the author of The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty (Knopf, 2002). "To be honest with you," Patterson says, "I think the coverage has been pretty lousy. Predictable but lousy." Yet he doesn’t blame the media entirely, explaining, "These multi-candidate races pose a challenge for everybody, I think. Not only for the journalists but for the voters. How do you try to make sense of a field of nine, even with four or five who deserve more attention than others?"

Like Tim Karr, though, Patterson is concerned, as the race moves forward, that the Democratic candidate will be tagged by a sort of stereotyped shorthand, as happened in 2000, when George W. Bush was cast as too dumb to be president and Al Gore as too slippery. Invariably, the media look for an incident that confirms their suspicions about a candidate and then blow it out of all proportion — as Patterson contends was the case with Dean’s Iowa outburst, which fed into preconceptions, or misconceptions, about his temperament.

"There’s always the worry for any candidate that they will get tightly defined around their limitations. Presidents don’t have to worry so much about that. They’ve already been through this thing," Patterson says. "Those stereotypes, once they get embedded, take on a life of their own." He adds: "The story never quite gets straightened out."

BEFORE SPEAKING to his supporters on Tuesday night, John Kerry did the cable trifecta — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Exaggerations of his haggardness notwithstanding (a new weblog, Wonkette, goes so far as to refer to his "cadaverous hollow visage"), Kerry looked exhausted, and he admitted as much to Chris Matthews.

Kerry was speaking from Seattle, the largest city in Washington, which, along with Michigan, is holding caucuses on Saturday. The Maine caucuses take place on Sunday. Dean is thought to have a chance in Washington. No doubt the Kerry camp believes that if its man can win there, it can drive a wooden stake through the Dean campaign’s heart.

This has been a weird primary season so far. Boston College political-science professor Marc Landy argues that if Kerry hadn’t blown his early lead and then come back in such dramatic fashion, his win in New Hampshire would have been discounted as nothing more than what should be expected of a senator from a neighboring state. (That, after all, is precisely what John Edwards accomplished in South Carolina on Tuesday.) "The New Hampshire primary acquired drama because of his decline," Landy says. "We were putting nails in his coffin. It shows how smart we are. As long as we’re humble about all this."

Kerry’s aura of inevitability comes at a moment of political weakness for Bush. His State of the Union speech was a dud, job creation continues to sputter, his budget proposal was greeted with hoots of derision, and former weapons inspector David Kay has shamed him into calling for an inquiry over intelligence failures. A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll actually shows Kerry beating Bush by a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent. (Edwards leads Bush by a point as well.)

At this stage, it’s all crap, of course — political candy doled out at a moment when it doesn’t mean anything. Still, it’s a measure of how quickly and completely Kerry’s fortunes have turned around. A month ago he faced career-wrecking humiliation. Today he can talk about what he wants to do during his first 100 days as president and count on a respectful hearing.

In all likelihood, the campaign for the Democratic nomination is just about over. The next phase will consist of efforts by the Republicans and the media to define Kerry for the fall campaign. It’s a perilous time for Kerry, with portentous-sounding but meaningless phrases such as "Massachusetts liberal" being thrown about, Botox rumors to be denied, and special-interest campaign contributions to be explained.

How well Kerry handles all this will go a long way toward determining whether he’ll have any chance of winning the White House this fall.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

Issue Date: February 6 - 12, 2004
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